Schools focus on new equity policies with returning students


Last spring, schools in Winston Salem / Forsyth County in North Carolina decided it was time to revise their disciplinary policies in light of conflicting data that showed black students in the district were five times more likely to be suspended than white students.

Under the leadership of a new superintendent and deputy superintendent, the huge district that serves 53,000 students, 29 percent of whom are black students, has partnered with a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group, Engaging Schools, which helps schools to develop more equitable practices, to manufacture more restorative policies.

“A big part of our strategic plan as we move forward is equity and making sure we look at things from an equity perspective within the district,” said Jesse Pratt, deputy district superintendent. “When we saw the disproportionate suspensions between our students, we knew it had to be fixed. We want to do good for these children.

The district is in a one-year process and a final plan will not be implemented until the next school year, he said. Part of the process is changing a code of student conduct and training teachers on better ways to approach disciplinary issues, he added.

The North Carolina district was part of a wave of institutions that contacted Engaging Schools over the past year to review punishment protocols in light of racial fairness, the organization said.

With children rehabilitating in classrooms in person, discipline issues increase and the policies that govern them come back to the fore, but this time, after the traumas of Covid-19 and a national movement for racial justice, many districts are reassessing disciplinary protocols with fairness in mind.

Districts across the country, including Dallas and Iowa City, are abolishing sanction policies that disproportionately impact students of color who have historically borne the brunt of suspensions, expulsions and other harsh penalties.

Instead of the old practices, many are implementing more restorative, trauma-informed programs and policies aimed at less severe punishments, especially for subjective offenses such as disorderly conduct or insubordination. Under some of these approaches, educators receive more culturally appropriate training, more classroom management skills to deal with bad behavior, and will limit the use of suspensions, especially for younger students.

“From the moment you saw the integration of school systems, you started to see an unfair distribution of school suspensions, particularly around this time, black children and now Latin children,” said Howard Henderson, the founding director of the Texas Southern University Justice Research Center.

A 2020 study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the Learning Policy Institute, which analyzed federal data for the 2015-16 school year, found that black students were losing five times as many days as teaching because of the suspensions that white students.

This excessive use of harsh disciplinary measures created a multitude of negative impacts on these children, he said. “You start to see that these students aren’t doing as well academically, they’re not doing as well when it comes to civic engagement. They are not as engaged in society. From an education standpoint, they just don’t succeed like everyone else who isn’t suspended, ”he said. “They are more likely to end up in juvenile detention, which means they are also more likely to end up later in the adult prison system.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, which channels students – largely of color – to the criminal justice system has been well documented through extensive research. According to a 2019 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, students assigned to schools with high suspension rates are up to 20% more likely to be arrested and incarcerated later and are also less likely to attend a four-year college.

A 2021 study published in the journal American Psychologist found that “among black students, those who were suspended for a minor offense in the first year of the study had significantly lower grades one and two years later than students who had not been suspended ”.

The Obama administration attempted to address racial disparities in school sanctions by issuing federal guidelines on classroom discipline, but the measures were later repealed by then-President Donald Trump, who said the directives were overbearing.

But Henderson believes the combination of Covid and the movement sparked by the George Floyd murder has again sparked awareness and increased momentum around the issue, especially among educators and administrators.

“As you go through a pandemic and having to recognize how you teach school and students in the online format, you recognize how racial disparities exist,” he said. “It’s definitely on their mind.”

Richard Welsh, associate professor of educational leadership and political studies at New York University, partners with districts to help them reduce racial inequalities in academic discipline.

He said behavioral issues and fighting in schools increased with the return to school in person. Many children need to relearn how to behave in the classroom, so school discipline is currently on the radar of district and school administrators, he said.

“What schools are going to realize is that many of the school discipline reforms that have seen positive benefits are very applicable to the school environment we now have in 2021-2022 with the pandemic socialization of returning students. in class, ”he said. “I think you’re going to have a lot more districts that can sell school discipline reforms, not only to reduce suspensions, but to improve the overall school climate and to ensure that we can improve academic performance as well.”

An important thing to note, said Welsh, is that while some interventions like changing codes of conduct have been shown to reduce suspension rates, there is still little evidence that they will reduce racial disparities as well. For this, managing teachers’ classes and strengthening the cultural responsibility of educators are better solutions, he said.

Implementing these programs, gaining buy-in and replacing an established punitive mindset in schools is also a challenge, he said.

“There’s a dissonance because what you’re really uprooting is a punitive mindset where educators have relied on suspensions as the primary means of dealing with behavior. So you still have these two mindsets existing in the same district, this kind of tension where there’s an appreciation and demand for alternatives like restorative justice, but administrators can still think they’re using suspensions in a way. appropriate.

Another more emerging challenge to bridging racial gaps is the ubiquitous movement of anti-critical racial theory, which resists any racial lens in schools, said Kaitlin Anderson, a professor at Lehigh University who focuses on issues of equity and opportunity in educational organizations.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that regardless of what some schools start to do, there are also state legislatures that are actively trying to prevent schools from doing it in some states.” , she said. “Some have made it so difficult to mention race in certain types of contexts that it is very difficult to really address systemic issues, which when it comes to student discipline often focus on race, as well. than on disability status, so the state level will really hamper some of those efforts. “

Despite this, Anderson said he has seen many schools that are or at least are starting to make strides towards equity in the form of audits and plans. She said she had also seen a significant increase in schools’ interest in using more trauma-informed approaches after the deaths of Covid and Floyd.

“There is a growing awareness, not only with conversations about anti-racism, but also simply that we need to reintegrate children into a more supportive environment, and that punishing them for acting in the classroom will not work. productive. “

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