It is known through the reports from the National Center for Educational Statistics, NCES, students of color are overly referred to the office, suspended, and expelled. Additionally, even when the student is not sent to the office for discipline, many students of color are separated from their peers in “islands” and punished through the loss of recess, assemblies, and other fun activities.
In the book Race by Marc Aronson he states that “fear of others who do not look like us” is part of the human condition and goes back to the days of Moses. But just because it is part of the human condition does not mean we don’t confront or address it.
President Obama began to address the problem while in office; however, the policies that he put in place to address discriminatory discipline are slowly and quietly being dismantled. According to an NPR article, a federal commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, recommends rescinding Obama-era guidance intended to reduce racial discrimination regarding school discipline. The commission says those policies made schools reluctant to address unruly students or violent incidents.
But I am not talking about high school students or even middle school, let’s talk about kindergarten, where 19% of students are black but represent 39% of students suspended. These are not suspensions for concealed weapons or other highly violent incidents. These are students that the teacher considers disruptive or disrespectful, in other words, her unconscious bias is showing.
In the book, The Hidden Brain, author Shankan Vedantam, defines unconscious bias as any situations where people’s actions were at odds with their intentions. This definition fits with what is happening in our classrooms today.
For the most part, teachers don’t realize they are disciplining some students differently than others, that is why it is called unconscious. Nevertheless, we are called as teachers to a profession where we need to become aware of our internal bias, make it conscious, and change it. Teachers are so powerful in a child’s life, second only to the parents. What we do, how we behave, especially in the treatment of others, is observed and taken in daily by our students.
This is not only affects students of color; it affects all students. What is the impact for a student, if during the 13 years of education, the student sees that most of the students disciplined are of color? Would you agree that this is shaping how that student sees his peers? What if this young person decides to go into law enforcement, education, law, or social work? Will he bring those beliefs with him?
So what do we do? Obama was on the right track when he wanted us to look at discriminatory discipline practices, but we cannot just look at the data about which students are being expelled and suspended. While many schools did change the discipline practices, bringing in programs such as Restorative Justice, PBIS, PAX, and more, it is not enough. The programs are a great starting point, but that is similar to making anti-discrimination laws, the law is there but you cannot regulate human behavior.
In addition to an effective school wide management system, and changing the way we discipline students, schools need to begin to have the conversations about our unconscious bias. We need to become aware of our unconscious bias, make them conscious, and commit to changing them.
This will be uncomfortable for many teachers, but better to be uncomfortable than to continue harming students. How we do that may vary from school to school and it could start with the data around student discipline, or do a book study on one of the many books that address unconscious bias. click here for a list of books
However, we need to get uncomfortable and we need to have brave conversations because the damage of continually punishing students of color, through the denial of recess, field trips, class celebrations is not tracked, and is still damaging.
Shankan Vedantam states that, “Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who do not feel fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish, extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases, they are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it. This is the call to teachers, to become extraordinary teachers who do something about their unconscious bias.
Contact me today to start or continue the work at your school. I can help you transform your school in the areas of effective school wide discipline and unconscious bias.