Home Leading How to Get Rid of Discipline Disparities for Students of Color (Opinion)

How to Get Rid of Discipline Disparities for Students of Color (Opinion)

by Staff

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are strategies schools can implement to reduce and eliminate disparities in discipline affecting students of color?

In Part One, Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., and Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., contributed their reflections.

Today, Ann H. Lê, Ed.D., and Paul Forbes share their responses.

‘We Have a Moral Obligation to Guide’

Ann H. Lê, Ed.D., is a published author and speaker in multiple educational journals, textbook chapters, and statewide conferences. She currently serves as a behavioral specialist (PBIS/MTSS) at Tomball ISD in Texasfostering restorative practices and access to wraparound services in order to address the needs of the whole child:

Racial and gender disparities, as well as the damages associated with them, in school disciplinary proceedings have been broadly documented for decades. The issues surrounding the disproportionality in suspension and expulsion rates among racial/ethnic groups are concerning matters at the local, state, and national levels. Why? Because school suspensions result in loss of instructional time, which impacts academic growth and learning opportunities for students who may already be struggling.

As educators, we have a duty to prepare children to be the future leaders of our nation and contributing members of our community. We have a moral obligation to guide and mold students to be human beings capable of understanding right from wrong and weighing choices needed for appropriate decisionmaking. However, when we solely give punitive consequences to the poor choices that they may have made without digging deep to the root cause of these behavioral outcries, we are essentially robbing them of the opportunity to understand their poor judgment and how it affects them, their peers, and their community (e.g., classroom, group of peers, school).

Here are some strategies schools can implement to reduce and eliminate disparities in discipline affecting students of color:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of school programs, student engagement, and discipline data; review current efforts to reduce racial inequities in disciplinary data; and adopt an exclusionary disciplinary rubric aligned to the student code of conduct.
  • Perform a school culture and climate check to understand existing biases or predispositions toward specific racial/ethnic groups. When students and educators are both conscious of negative stereotypes that classify students of color as “problem students,” little incidents compound and can be viewed as more severe due to the mistrust it breeds.
  • Begin incorporating fundamental strategies of restorative practices into the classroom. The focus shifts to learning how to resolve conflict, repair harm, and heal relationships, which builds skills for students to work through issues with others. It is a nondiscriminatory and positive approach to strengthening relationships and connections between individuals (both students and staff) in a school community.
  • Restorative circles, one of the most well-known restorative strategies, can be intimidating to educators whether they are new to the field of education or a seasoned veteran. The best, and most practical, way is to start small with some fundamental strategies that you can use in the classroom and even in life. These simple, low-effort strategies include listening, affective communication, and curiosity questioning. After these abilities have been practiced, lived, and embraced, educators can go on to the more intensive RP practices.

Restorative disciplinary approaches are intersected and aligned to trauma-sensitivity, social-emotional learning (SEL), and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). They share these similar core principles:

  • Ensuring emotional and physical safety.
  • Supporting choice, control, and empowerment.
  • Ensuring cultural awareness.
  • Using a collaborative, strengths-based approach.
  • Viewing relationships as central to health and healing.
  • Acknowledges that relationships are central to building community.
  • Builds systems that address misbehavior and harm in a way that strengthens relationships.
  • Focuses on the harm done rather than only on rule-breaking.
  • Gives voice to the person harmed.
  • Engages in collaborative problem-solving.
  • Empowers change and growth.
  • Enhances responsibility.

Final note: All children have a right to a free public education. The goal of education is to grow and become a more capable individual, where learning is the means to accomplishing that goal. Are we, as educators, promoting or demoting the school to prison pipeline?

‘We Each Need To Examine and Address Our Implicit Biases’

Paul Forbes is a New Yorker and the founder of Leading with Hearts and Minds:

Reducing and eliminating disparities in discipline for students of color has been an ongoing focus for schools and districts across the country. Working in N.Y.C., the largest school system in the country, I have participated in several strategy meetings and task forces to discuss and create plans that would address this issue.

While I have seen incremental progress and changes, what has become clear to me is that unless and until we examine and address the bias-based beliefs that we bring to the table every day, we might actually deepen and widen the gaps that we have been charged to close. Most, if not all, educators and administrators are well-meaning, “people of goodwill” who have good intentions. The research, however, tells us that good intentions are not good enough.

Even though we have egalitarian values, we are influenced subconsciously by these bias-based beliefs. These bias-based beliefs are also known as implicit biases. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. As I read, studied, and learned more about implicit bias and how it manifests, doing so changed my paradigm when having conversations about reducing and eliminating disparities in discipline for students of color.

Yes, we need to look at and disaggregate the data.

Yes, we need to eliminate “zero tolerance” policies.

Yes, we need to form equity teams that will be laser-focused on having conversations about these disparities.

Yes, we need to revamp the code of conduct for students.

Yes, we need to implement SEL and PBIS and RJ.

These are some of the strategies and interventions that have come out of the various meetings and task forces that I have participated in, but in my opinion, we will continue to “spin our wheels” and “clutch our pearls” as we wonder why we are not seeing the substantive movement and systemic changes.

If we are not doing the introspective and reflective work, as I like to call it, “the work behind the work,” our ability to reduce and eliminate these disparities will continue to be incremental as we tinker around the edges. And to be clear, I do not believe that awareness of the bias-based beliefs is sufficient, but I do believe that before, and as we are engaging in discussions about disparities in discipline, we each need to examine and address our implicit biases and better understand how they manifest.


Thanks to Ann and Paul for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected] When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

You may also like