Rethinking school discipline in the context of implicit bias

Issue November/December 2017 December 2017 By Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas
Juvenile & Child Welfare Law Section Review

The drive to create ever-safer learning environments in the wake of isolated incidents of school violence has in the past three decades created a misplaced reliance on zero tolerance policies and the increased involvement of law enforcement in school discipline. This approach has resulted in more severe and more frequent school discipline, including out-of-school suspensions and expulsions as well as referrals to the juvenile justice system. Yet, research has now overwhelmingly shown that this approach is not only ineffective in reducing violence or behavior that distracts from learning, it has long-lasting and disproportionately negative social, economic and academic outcomes for children, particularly those of color and those with disabilities. These negative effects of unequal academic experiences thereafter change students’ trajectory towards lifelong disparate employment, increased incarceration, and unstable housing. These unequal and harsh school discipline practices push our children out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system, thereby fueling the “school to prison pipeline.”

Nearly 3.5 million public school students nationally are suspended at least once during the school year; that’s more than one student suspended for every public school teacher in America. Since each suspension averages about 3.5 days, students lost almost 13 million days of instruction in one year alone because of exclusionary discipline. That loss in instruction translated into decreased academic achievement, increased substance abuse, and diminished positive engagement with teachers and peers. Research has shown that each suspension decreases a student’s odds of graduating high school by an additional 20 percent. Suspended students are also more likely to have subsequent interactions with the juvenile justice system. More concerning, however, is that the burden of this excessive discipline most dramatically fell upon children of color and those with disabilities, widening an already large disciplinary and academic achievement gap that has persisted for decades. Indeed, at the middle school and high school level, black children are suspended at almost three times the rate of white children. Despite representing only 15 percent of students, black students comprised 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of students suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled. More than 50 percent of students arrested in school or referred to law enforcement as a result of school-involved incidents were black or hispanic.

Disabled students fare little better, being disciplined nearly twice as often as those without disabilities. Indeed, although students receiving services under IDEA represent only 12 percent of students nationwide, disabled students make up more than 20 percent of students suspended once, 25 percent of students suspended more than once, 19 percent of students expelled, and 23 percent of students arrested in school or referred to law enforcement. Perhaps even more startling, although students receiving services under IDEA or Section 504 represent only 14 percent of students nationwide, they represent more than 75 percent of students physically restrained in schools by adults.

Not only are disabled students and those of color excluded from school more frequently, they are excluded for longer periods of time, even for the same offense. Indeed, decades of research now confirms that that the racial and disability status disparities in school discipline demonstrated by the data are not the result of more frequent or more serious misbehavior. While many have attempted to explain these disproportionalities in school discipline in terms of socioeconomic status, cultural differences and structural inequality, a considerable number of studies have challenged all of these hypotheses, finding that none of these factors fully explains the disproportionality reflected in the data. Rather, these alarming disciplinary disparities are becoming increasingly understood in the context of implicit bias. Generally defined, implicit bias refers to the involuntary and unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that influence and determine our actions and decisions. Since they are without intentional control, we act on them without awareness and even when it undermines or directly conflicts with our conscious intentions or explicit beliefs. Implicit bias is the byproduct of mental associations that have been formed through messaging that we are exposed to daily. Through increased understanding, awareness, and acknowledgment of how implicit bias drives disproportionate school discipline, school systems can craft the tools necessary to reprogram implicit associations, redraft clear and objective school discipline policies/practices that target decision points that are vulnerable to bias, and implement larger structural change to combat biased responses.

The U.S. Department of Education has encouraged schools to rely less on exclusionary forms of discipline, implement preventative approaches and to be more vigilant against discipline disparities. By keeping students learning in the classroom rather than removing them for misconduct, educators can dismantle the “school to prison pipeline” and avoid the negative trajectory that begins when a student is suspended, loses classroom time, falls behind in his/her classwork and eventually drops out. Evidence-based strategies that prevent discipline referrals include strengthening student engagement and motivation, improving teacher-student relationships through restorative practices, and promoting regular attendance. Teacher coaching, tailoring the learning environment to each student’s needs, structural interventions in the disciplinary system that focus on positive behavioral support, and connecting families to community resources have also proven effective in preventing disciplinary exclusion and successfully reshaping student discipline. Legislative responses are also possible. For example, several bills currently in the Massachusetts House and Senate propose eliminating the ability to prosecute students for disturbing a school assembly, decriminalizing minor offenses, instituting memoranda of understanding between schools and police and raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to prevent the prosecution of very young children; all issues which are correlated with the overrepresentation of racial minorities and those with disabilities in the juvenile justice system through school referrals.

Research has consistently shown the most efficient and effective process for addressing an outcome within a complex system is to define, measure, and report progress toward achieving that outcome on a regular basis. Therefore, to effectively eradicate implicit bias in our clients’ educational experiences, it's critical for juvenile delinquency and child welfare practitioners to advocate for regularly collected and published disaggregated student discipline data by race and disability. Further, we must participate in parsing the data with local school districts to identify school-specific decision points that are vulnerable to disproportionality, increase uniformity and objectivity in defining offensive conduct leading to disproportionate discipline, and demand accountability from system players to effectuate change. Indeed, in the aftermath of zero tolerance policies and increased involvement of law enforcement in school discipline, preventing adverse educational experiences for our child clients begins not in the courtroom, but in the classroom. As advocates for the system’s most vulnerable youth, it’s imperative that we work to ensure that the educational system is a pathway for opportunity and advancement, not a doorway to the criminal justice system.