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Interventions and Strategies That Maintain White Behavioral Norms in Schooling

Currently, most states are moving away from exclusionary discipline practices and instead are using alternative approaches to school discipline. Thirty states and the District of Columbia encourage districts to use alternative school discipline strategies, and 22 of these states reference specific interventions (Rafa, 2018). Instead of excluding students from the learning environment as the default consequence for their misbehavior, alternative school discipline strategies encourage educators to find the root cause of a student’s misbehavior and then address it by both repairing and building stronger relationships with the student and improving the student’s overall engagement in learning (Rafa, 2019).

The federal government continues to endorse alternative school discipline strategies through policy and funding for states, districts, and schools. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice collaborated on the Rethinking Discipline campaign to address the overuse of exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions. Rethinking Discipline also provided states with guidance on how to implement alternatives to exclusionary discipline, reduce bias and discriminatory practices, and identify the root causes of racial disproportionality in school discipline (U.S. GAO, 2018).

Also, both the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice sponsor grant programs that promote alternatives to exclusionary discipline. From 2014-16, the U.S Department of Education awarded $130 million to states and school districts through the School Climate Transformation Grant, and 3,000 schools used this grant program to implement behavioral supports. Based on preliminary data from this grant program, participating schools have increased student attendance and now have fewer disciplinary referrals (U.S. GAO, 2018). The second U.S. Department of Education grant, Project Prevent, awarded $68 million to 20 school districts between 2015 and 2019. Project Prevent encourages districts to develop students’ conflict resolution skills, especially students who have been exposed to violence (U.S. GAO, 2018). School districts participating in Project Prevent provide mental health services to over 5,000 students and have 10,000 fewer violent behavioral incidents (U.S. GAO, 2018). Likewise, in 2014 the National Institute of Justice, a segment of the U.S. Department of Justice, launched the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative which provided $84 million to fund research projects that identify the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline and develop interventions as alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices (U.S. GAO, 2018).

The most common alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices are response to intervention, positive behavioral interventions and supports, social emotional learning, restorative discipline, and trauma-informed practices. Response to intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered, early identification and support system for students with learning and behavioral needs (RTI Action Network, n.d.). Instead of a wait to fail model, RTI aims to intervene early on in students’ schooling (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003).

Like RTI, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a multi-tiered framework that addresses positive student behavioral expectations through whole-system change. Evidence-based approaches are implemented at a schoolwide level to improve student behavior by teaching them “appropriate behaviors” (Rafa, 2019, p. 3) or essentially “what to do instead of what not to do” (U.S. GAO, 2018, p. 28). PBIS aims to change the school culture and climate by setting expectations for student behavior, establishing a continuum of behaviors and consequences, and then reinforcing positive student behaviors (Steinberg & Lacoe, 2017). Social emotional learning (SEL) is also a schoolwide model that develops students’ self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills so that they can then cope with everyday challenges. The general theory of action of SEL programs like Second Step or the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework is that if students learn to problem-solve, self-discipline, and develop impulse control they are better primed for classroom learning (Committee for Children, n.d.)

Restorative discipline, also known as restorative justice, is a conflict resolution process borrowed from the criminal justice system. Restorative discipline attempts to build healthier relationships between educators and students, minimize and prevent harmful behavior, repair any harm done because of the behavior, engage in conflict resolution, hold students accountable for their behavior, and then address and discuss the needs of the community (The Advancement Project, 2014). Hence, through conflict resolution an individual student takes responsibility for their behavior and attempts to repair the damage done to the person they have wronged (The Advancement Project, 2014; Milner et al., 2019). Finally, trauma-informed practices create a schooling environment that considers the whole child, especially how a child’s experience of stress and trauma impedes their learning and behaviors (NCTSN, 2017). Trauma-informed schools integrate support services from the school community, mental health agencies, and other community advocacy organizations to support the social, emotional, and academic needs of the child.

Yet, most of these aforementioned alternatives to exclusionary discipline are assimilative and expect students to adjust their behaviors to the school’s cultural norms, but do not require the school to adjust to meet the social, emotional, and cultural needs of students (Welsh & Little, 2018). PBIS teaches students the “right way to behave”, RTI “intervenes” to improve student behavior, and SEL builds student capacity to have better “self-control”, and responsive discipline “repairs” student behaviors. Therefore, these interventions and strategies try to manage student behavior through “conformity” but do not address educators’ racial biases or the cultural mismatch that exist between teachers and students of color (Welsh & Little, 2018, p. 773).

The original impetus for these alternatives was not just to reduce exclusionary discipline practices but to also redress the racial disproportionality of school discipline. While these alternatives have reduced the number of suspensions, they have not mitigated racial disparities in discipline. Instead, these alternatives to exclusionary discipline avoid addressing racism altogether (Mansfield, Rainbolt, & Fowler, 2018; Skiba, 2015; Welsh & Little, 2018). Consequently, the color-evasive manner in which alternatives to exclusionary discipline are designed and implemented unburdens educators from doing the hard work necessary to change their disciplinary practices, especially their racial biases. Instead, the onus is on students of color to remedy their own racial oppression by adapting to and adopting dominant norms for what it means to be a good, well-behaved student.

Since the U.S. educator force is predominately white, under a color-evasive approach to improving school culture, climate, and classroom management, students of color have to conform to white cultural norms to lower their risk of falling victim to exclusionary discipline practices. Educators’ racial biases and differential treatment of students of color largely explain the racial disparities in exclusionary discipline (Owens and McLanahan, 2019) and so any interventions and strategies that serve as an alternative to exclusionary practices are futile if they do not push educators to critically examine how their racial biases and disciplinary practices may contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

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