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Anti-Racist Approaches and Recommendations for Educational Leaders

The current policies, interventions, strategies, and other trends that attempt to veer educators away from using exclusionary discipline may have successfully lowered suspension and expulsion rates, but unfortunately these solutions do so by catering to whiteness. These alternatives to exclusionary discipline make educators feel like they are doing something to address the problem while still protecting them from admitting the role they play in perpetuating racial inequities in discipline in the first place, and prevent them from changing the racist structure itself. Thus, interventions and strategies like RTI, PBIS, SEL are raceneutral in their design and implementation and permit educators to pretend to be addressing racial inequality without appearing racist. In conclusion, we provide recommendations for how educational leaders can help their districts and school communities name the root cause of racial disparities in school discipline—school-sponsored racism. Until we as educators acknowledge how we are a part of the problem of racism and discipline, any racial disparities that exist will continue to go unresolved.

Promote Youth Voice in Educational Policy and Practice

Young people are often more willing to speak out against racial injustices than adults, especially if school personnel feel their hands are tied by district bureaucracy or if they fear the backlash of publicly redressing racism in schools (Welton, Harris, Altamirano, & Williams, 2017). Young people also have a long history of igniting racial justice movements in education, whether it is through conducting youth participatory action research (YPAR) on school and societal problems that matter most to them and then finding their solutions, or using youth community organizing and activist tactics to achieve policy changes that lead to racial justice for young people (Welton & Bertrand, 2019; Welton et al., 2017). For example, for three years Welton and colleagues (2017) collaborated with a high school teacher and students in a social justice elective class where students used YPAR to uncover institutional racism in their school. One subtopic the students explored was race, school discipline, and the school-to-prison pipeline. At the time the high school administration did not disaggregate their discipline data by race. For several months the students in the social justice class conducted ethnographic observations of the inschool suspension (ISS) room and found that Black students made up the majority of students repeatedly in ISS and as a result were losing significant instructional time. The students presented their research findings to the school administration and the school decided to change their school procedures by mandating that school discipline data be disaggregated by race.

Illinois is one of few states in the nation with a statewide law, S.B. 100, that prohibits zero tolerance policies and requires districts and schools to implement alternatives to exclusionary discipline. VOYCE (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education) led the efforts to write and both pass S.B. 100. VOYCE is a youth grassroots community organizing group in Chicago primarily made up of high school students. The youth community organizing group originally crafted the bill in 2012 to address the impact of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions on students of color in Illinois. Members of VOYCE spent two years doing the groundwork and regularly traveling to the state capital in Springfield, Illinois, to educate their legislators on racial disproportionality in school discipline in the state, and the school-to-prison pipeline (Sanchez, 2015). Since S.B. 100 became law, and now that all districts and schools in Illinois are required to implement alternatives to exclusionary discipline, the number of suspensions and expulsions in the state has significantly decreased. Between 2011-12 and 2015-16 the state of Illinois’ out-of-school suspension rate decreased from 6.1% to 3.4% (The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2017).

Hire More Educators of Color

Educators of color generally have higher expectations of and hold students of color to a higher standard than white educators (Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016). Gershenson, Holt, and Papageorge (2016) found that Black teachers had 30% to 40% higher expectations of Black students than non-Black teachers. Moreover, teachers have more empathy for a misbehaving student if the student and teachers’ race are the same. In this same study, it was found that when there was a mismatch between the teacher and students’ racial identity, the teacher then viewed the students’ behavior to be difficult to address (Gilliam et al., 2016). This data shows that for students of color having a teacher whose identity matches their own racial and cultural experiences does matter to their educational opportunities and success.

In general, Black educators judge Black students’ behavior more favorably than white educators (Rudd, 2014). Based on North Carolina student level data, Lindsay and Hart (2017) found that increased exposure to same-race educators reduced the rate of exclusionary discipline for Black students, and this finding was consistent across elementary, middle, and high school levels. Moreover, continued exposure to same-race teachers lowered Black students’ discipline referrals for willful defiance. This study suggests that educators of color subconsciously value the humanity of students of color more so than white educators, and so hiring and increasing the representation of educators of color deeply matters to the care, educational success, and livelihood of children of color.

Address Not Just Implicit Racial Bias But Also Anti-Blackness

In our experience as professors who prepare K-l 2 teachers and educational leaders, we have yet to encounter an educator who is entering the profession for the wrong reasons, as they all profoundly care about making a difference in young people’s lives. Nevertheless, even if an educator cares about their students, this level of care does not absolve them from playing out any unconscious racial biases they have towards students of color. We are all socialized by societal racial stereotypes that portray young Black people as more defiant, deviant, unruly, irresponsible, dishonest, and even dangerous (Rudd, 2014). Black educators can even internalize racial stereotypes about their own race, and these internalized stereotypes can have a negative effect on their treatment of Black children. Yet, Black educators are more likely to see Black students as worthy of receiving the benefit of the doubt (see Rudd, 2014). However, it is white cultural norms that dominate U.S. schooling, and so under the rubric of whiteness white children are allowed to make mistakes, but Black children are not (see Quereshi & Okonofua, 2017; Rudd, 2014).

Since we are all socialized by societal racial stereotypes, we all to some degree have implicit racial biases that can negatively affect how we perceive and interact with young people of color. Implicit racial bias is the “mental process that causes us to have negative feelings and attitudes about people” based on their racial identity (Quereshi & Okonofua, 2017, p. 3) Relying on our subconscious racial biases takes little effort, and we rely on racial stereotypes to make judgments and decisions when we encounter a racial or ethnic group we are unfamiliar with (Quereshi & Okonofua, 2017).

Instead of simply delivering interventions and strategies that improve or repair students’ behaviors, educators should also do the mental work to critically examine how their own racial biases and practices contribute to racial disparities in school discipline. Thus, any interventions and strategies that serve as an alternative to exclusionary discipline must prioritize that educators’ work on their own racial biases and examine how their biases negatively affect students of color.

However, perhaps even implicit racial bias is too soft a reason to explain why students of color receive harsher disciplinary consequences than their white peers. The way in which Black students, in particular, are seen as less worthy of redemption for their actions than white students begs the question, “Do we as educators truly value Black students’ lives?”. Ongoing professional development for and evaluation of teachers and principals should extend beyond just implicit racial bias but also include frank discussions about the prevalence of antiBlackness in schools. It is only when we as educators are truthful about and acknowledge the institutional harm we place on Black and Brown students that we can then work to repair and undo this harm. Interventions and strategies that fail to critically examine educators’ implicit racial biases and anti-Blackness that is pervasive in the school community do little to redress but instead reproduce racism in school discipline practices.

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