What Can Happen When a School Takes a Race-Conscious Approach to Discipline?
That is exactly what staff at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco, California decided to find out. Heidi Hess is Focused Effort Coordinator at James Lick. She says that teachers at her school were concerned that African American students, who make up less than a third of the student body, receive almost half the referrals for discipline.
"The first thing we had to do," to address this disparity, says Hess, "was to really become rigorous about collecting the data. We developed forms for teachers to use which documented when a student was sent out of class (for a disciplinary referral), who sent them out, and why." Collecting this data yielded some surprising results. "We found that over 75% of the referrals given out last school year were for defiance of authority or disruption of class." Furthermore, most cases involved conflicts between students and teachers, rather than between students. More serious offenses, such as possession of a weapon, were rare.
Collecting the data was just the first step. "We developed a system to feed the data collected directly back to the teaching staff," Hess says, "so they can better understand what is going on" and gauge their progress. "We looked at how teachers set the rules in their classrooms, and whether and how teachers involved students in defining classroom rules." They found that when students participate in forming the rules, they are less likely to perceive them as unfairly applied.
James Lick staff began holding monthly professional development meetings to work out alternative strategies for de-escalating conflict. They sought to emphasize teachers' roles in these interactions, rather than focusing solely on methods of changing students' behavior.
Although most of the power resides with the teachers, "it was a paradigm shift for the teaching staff to buy into the idea that it is their responsibility to minimize defiance situations," Hess continues. "We had to ask, 'What might be going on in the students minds? What's going on for the teacher? And what would be alternative practices?'"
"One of the best exercises we did was to role-play the beginning of a defiance scene. For example, a student walks into class and puts a soda on the table, even though no drinks are allowed in the classroom. The teacher asks the student to remove the drink. Just acting out different possible responses to this scene, with the staff taking not only the teacher's role, but also trying on the student's role-it was profound."
James Lick's revamped approach to discipline is still too new to determine whether these interventions will reduce the racial disparities in suspension referrals. But already teachers are experiencing some success. Hess offers an example: "One teacher reported that she was just about to yell, from across the room, at two African American girls who appeared to be talking and carrying on excessively. But she gave herself a few seconds to think of an alternative strategy for dealing with them. Instead, she walked over to them, and much to her surprise, found that they were talking about their work assignment. Far from yelling at them, she realized she didn't need to say anything at all."
(Interview by Applied Research Center, from Facing the Consequences: An Examination of Racial Discrimination in U.S. Public Schools.)