Confronting racial bias in school discipline


Erik Ketcherside

In 2014, the leadership of every school district in America received a letter sent jointly by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. More than 10,000 words long and available in seven languages, it was titled “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline.” It was sent to offer “... guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.”

The letter was prompted by a review of the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which found students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. Some examples:

  • African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
  • Although African-American students represent 15 percent of students in the database, they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of students expelled.
  • More than 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

The leadership of the Phoenix Union High School District saw that their in-house data essentially mirrored the national findings, and decided to move aggressively to change that.

Working with schools to improve outcomes

About that time, Carl Hermanns was meeting with one of those leaders from PUHSD. A clinical associate professor in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Hermanns directs the master’s degree programs in leadership in the division of educational leadership and innovation. The meeting began as a discussion of the college’s master’s degree program in school leadership, iLeadAZ, and evolved into something more.

Hermanns recounts, “He told me, ‘We have great principals here, but our professional development is not what I want it to be. I would really like to do something that allows for the kind of deep discussion and intellectual engagement we want them to have.’ I asked him, ‘What do you need? What would best support your principals?’”

The administrator told Hermanns of the district’s effort to confront the findings of the DOE study, including the hiring of Elma Dzanic (MEd ’12), an expert in restorative justice. In a video interview with PUHSD Superintendent Chad Gestson, Dzanic explained restorative justice for the district community.

“It’s an approach and a mindset that values relationships at the center of community life,” Dzanic said. “It’s an approach to thinking about how we rebuild communities and sustain healthy relationships, because we know that’s what drives success in career, college and life, for us and for our kids.”

Hermanns says when restorative practices are used within a school community, “... individuals are held accountable for their actions while collectively repairing the harm and restoring relationships.” The principles underlying restorative practices are broader than simply managing student behavior, Hermanns says. “They encompass the central importance of developing and nurturing authentic relationships within a collaborative and caring school community — a community committed to excellent and equitable educational opportunities for every student.” Those principles are also key components of the iLeadAZ principal preparation program Hermanns directs for MLFTC.

“When restorative practices are put in place and done well,” Hermanns says, “they're based around creating a sense of community in the school in which the entire school community, students and adults, take real responsibility when there is harm within that community; to address the harm through authentic, restorative agreements and consequences so we can strengthen, maintain and sustain community. When you do that, discipline becomes just one small part of addressing a whole school culture in a way that creates a rigorous and caring learning environment.

Carl Hermanns talks about how restorative justice can transform schools.

A restorative partnership

Last year, Hermanns and Dzanic worked together planning and facilitating an all-day introductory session for 70 PUHSD administrators and leaders, hosted on ASU’s West campus. Similar sessions followed until representative faculty and staff from the district’s 18 schools had participated.

Hermanns says, “We wanted to present a broad overview that showed the district that they’re struggling with the same challenges around school discipline that districts throughout the nation are struggling with, and that set the context to think together about how we can address these challenges to create the kind of schools we all want.”

It was particularly important to the success of the effort to enlist the support of rank-and-file teachers, Hermanns says. He notes that in response to the DOJ/DOE 2014 report, the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, issued statements supporting restorative justice practices for schools. “Teachers are already juggling a zillion things and we ask them to do one more thing?” he says. “We have to take the time to help teachers understand why and how a shift to more supportive school discipline can align directly with their aspirations, beliefs and values about education and schools and kids.”

What does restorative discipline look like?

In their video conversation, Dzanic and Superintendent Gestson share two instances of how schools in their district utilized restorative practices to address student behavior that would otherwise have resulted in out-of-school suspension. Dzanic tells of a male student who was sent to the dean’s office after answering his phone during class (not allowed under the school’s guidelines), then leaving the room to take the call with no explanation.

Dzanic happened to be at that school at the time, and assisted in the process in the dean’s office. “Once I started unpacking what was going on I learned he had a girlfriend at home with a baby; they just had had a baby,” she says. “He’s 16 and they’re living in an apartment by themselves. They’re waiting for food stamps to roll in because there’s no money for food. She was calling him to talk about how they were going to plan for dinner. He was trying to coordinate the logistics and had to take the call. The teacher didn’t know any of this was happening.”

Dzanic asked the student if they could have a conversation with the teacher to discuss how they could repair the harm. “So we knocked on the teacher’s door and asked, ‘Do you have a few minutes? May we please have a conversation with you?’ He explained the situation and before I know it it’s one of those movie moments. She burst into tears and he bursts into tears and there’s an apology and it was all beautiful.”

But Dzanic says it was important that the restorative process didn’t end there. “I said, ‘Moving forward, what do we want to help us not get into these situations again?’ We were able to agree on some steps that let her feel supported and him feel supported in the aftermath of this moment that seemed so simple but was actually complex.”

In the second instance they shared, Gestson tells of a girls volleyball team from a PUHSD school that became verbally abusive after an away game, ultimately cursing at the home team’s principal. That principal called the visiting team’s principal and insisted the team members be suspended for three days. Instead, the principal had them serve detention, work together to create a statement of values for their team, write an apology letter and hand-deliver it to the principal. The team also performed a community service project at the school where they had committed the offense. After the restorative discipline, Gestson says, “The team that previously had not won much began to play better and has been more respectful on campus and at away games.”

How to scale restorative discipline for school districts

Hermanns says Phoenix Union is not alone in their pursuit of restorative discipline practices. “Over the last couple years, I’ve been asked to make presentations to a number of districts throughout the Valley, most of which said they wanted to move toward more restorative practices,” he says. “Sometimes it was board-instigated, sometimes it was district leadership. But they all wanted to look at their data and think together about how to stop out-of-school suspending so many kids. Following the presentations and discussions, district leadership would typically say, ‘OK, what next? How do we do this?’”

Often, Hermanns says, districts will turn to outside, usually out-of-state consultants if local support is not available; “... what I call drop-in, drop-out,” he says. “The consultants will come in, do some trainings and then say, ‘We're available for phone calls and we’ll drop by in a few months to do some follow-up training.’ With something as complex as restorative justice, in terms of really changing school culture, that generally doesn’t work well,” he says.

Hermanns is currently collaborating with Dean Carole Basile, other MLFTC researchers and Dzanic to design a three-year process to support schools and districts that want to shift to restorative school discipline. “We're planning to invite superintendents and district representatives to come in and participate in the design process, to look at what we're proposing and ensure that it meets their districts’ needs,” he says. “Our initial thinking is that the support system will include a sequence of large-scale professional development sessions, with systematic coaching and support at the school level in between sessions, so we're a constant presence for the principals and teachers. We’re planning to start marketing it in June, and hope to be working with a number of districts next fall.”

Hermanns says the name of the program, ReConnect, was chosen with teachers in mind. “In the kind of school environments we've had for so long,” he says, “teachers feel they can hardly breathe. Through this process of moving toward more supportive school discipline, we hope to help our teachers and school leaders reconnect to why we became educators in the first place; to our aspirations for our students and to the joy of teaching and learning. Reconnecting to our true beliefs and values about schools and children, and providing the support to create positive change around those beliefs and values, will help create the kind of schools we all want.”

Learn more about the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Master of Education degree in Educational Leadership.