Redesigning for an Anti-Racist Classroom Series: #2 Discipline Policy
The systems that teachers and leaders design and implement in schools are all impacted by the biases of their designers. We have to design explicitly for our marginalized students and to do this, we need to first understand the way our own power and privilege impact what we believe is best for kids. As my colleagues wrote in Capture the Opportunity: Steps to Redesign School-Level Systems for Equity:
“Our country was founded on the oppression of Black people, women, and Indigenous people, among others. This created social norms and beliefs that are ingrained into the fabric of our society and subconsciously affect how we all think. There are many systems of power that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color while reinforcing advantages for white people. School systems are complex ecosystems designed within this context of structural racism.”
One of the most detrimental systems of power that exists in schools is student discipline policy and practice. Overregulation and “zero-tolerance” discipline practices disproportionately affect students of color. According to a 2018 GAO report, Black students are overrepresented in every discipline category, particularly in suspensions, corporal punishments, and school-related arrests. Although Black students represent only 15.5% of all public school students they accounted for 39% of suspensions. These suspensions continue to add up, resulting in lost instructional time for our students. Losen and Whitaker’s report, 11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Public Schools, found that black students lost 5 times as many instructional days as white students and 17 times more instructional days than Asian-American students. Black and Hispanic students were also more likely to be punished for “minor infractions” than their white counterparts.
If you are wondering where to start changing the culture of discipline, here are a few policies you can examine in your school. We recommend thinking about the ways these might impact your classrooms and students.
Inequitable Dress Code Policies
Black students have been sent out of class, suspended, prohibited from attending graduation, and participating in sporting events because they are wearing dreadlocks, head wraps, or braids. Right now there is no federal law that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture – only California, New York, and New Jersey have passed laws to make this illegal.
Dress code policies commonly ban shorts above the finger line, tank tops, the showing of bra straps, yoga pants/leggings, and any shirts that show midriffs. These regulations disproportionately affect young women and girls, and are often justified by district leadership by calling clothing a “distraction to others, specifically boys.” These policies and rationale can cause girls to be sexualized at an early age, making them hyper-aware of the consequences of their bodies. Schools also enforce policies that ban hoodies which feed into harmful misconceptions about hoodie sweaters being associated with criminal activity.
Where to Start
Inequitable Language Policies
Over the last 16 years there has been a slow-moving change of thought around English-only policy in schools, with respect to the programming English Learners receive. There is increased support for bilingual education and biliteracy in schools. Arizona was the last state to retain its ties to English-only education policy, and legislators formally revised their stance in 2020. We cannot expect these policy changes to lead to a complete change in school leader and teacher attitudes around language diversity in classrooms and schools overnight. In 2017 I worked on the Joint Committee on Education in Massachusetts, where we drafted and eventually passed the Language Opportunity for Our Kids Act. This revised the state policy on English Language Learner education, providing more flexibility in programming, including dual language and bilingual education programs as an option. Throughout the process we were exposed to pushback from certain groups and people around this change, including ProEnglish, which is a group that believes “public schools have the clear responsibility to help students who don’t know English to learn that language as quickly as possible” and that this is done through English-only education. These attitudes reflect the experiences many students still encounter in their communities and schools. Students have been punished and disciplined for speaking their native language in classes and in hallways, even though these rules are not commonly written in the school code. English Learners are also experiencing higher levels of discrimination due to the national rhetoric around immigration. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Anti-immigrant hate groups are the most extreme of the hundreds of nativist and vigilante groups that have proliferated since the late 1990s, when anti-immigration xenophobia began to rise to levels not seen in the United States since the 1920s.”
Where to Start
Determine if your school has a formal stance on language in schools, if not, push leaders to make it clear students are allowed to speak in their native language without fear of punishment. Celebrate language diversity in your own school and classroom.
School Resource Officers
What policies are in place is equally important as who is carrying out or enforcing them. School resource officers were originally placed in schools with the goal of creating a safer environment for both students and staff, as a part of community policing initiatives. There is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety, but there is evidence that police in schools leads to the criminalization of normal student behavior and misbehavior. There has been a slew of high-profile cases involving students being mistreated by student resource officers, the majority of these students being students of color. Data shows that students of color are arrested at higher rates than white peers. In New York City, Black and Hispanic students represented about 90% of arrests and summonses in schools, even though they make up only about 60% of the student population. According to the ACLU, schools that invest in nurses, counselors, and psychologists, instead of school resource officers, see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents.
Where to Start
If your school or district employs school resource officers, check to see if their responsibilities are outlined by the district and what their official role is. Use this guide from Mashable to learn more and organize next steps in your community. You can also start practicing restorative practices in your classroom instead of punitive discipline practices. You can find additional resources on restorative justice for educators in this toolkit.
It is important to remember that discipline isn’t disconnected from student learning and wellbeing. A new Stanford-led study found that a decrease in the discipline gap leads to a decrease in the achievement gap. Similarly, as one gap widens, so does the other. Problematic school discipline practices also affect students later in life. Andrew Bacher Hicks, who conducted a study at Harvard on student discipline practice, shared that, “For all students, there are large negative impacts on later-life outcomes, related to attending a school with a high suspension rate. There are not overwhelmingly positive benefits of removing disruptive peers from the classroom.”
One way to use your power and privilege is to shed light and push back on the problematic discipline policies and enforcement strategies that exist at your school. If you’re unsure what that looks like, check out this guide from the ACLU on advocating for policy change in schools. Also download our guide below to explore more steps to redesigning your school to create an equitable learning environment for students and teachers.
About Katie Camp
Katie Camp is a Senior Design Principal on the Design and Implementation Team. She began her career in education as a 5th grade math and science teacher at Bodine Elementary School in Oklahoma City. While in Oklahoma, she also worked as a Content Specialist for Teach for America where she designed and delivered professional development for teachers and spent summers coaching new teachers. After 3 years in OKC, she moved to Boston where she worked as a Research Analyst on the Massachusetts Education Committee. Her legislative portfolio included school climate and safety, personalized learning, curriculum, assessments, at-risk students, English Learners, and student health. She worked as the lead analyst on 2 conference committees, where she led the revision of English Learner policy and civics curriculum in MA. Katie holds a B.A in History and Political Science from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was born and raised in New Jersey and currently lives in Washington, D.C.