Expert: Race still a factor in school discipline

Oct 26, 2015 by

A packed room was completely silent Thursday evening as photos of Michael Brown’s dead body lying in a street in Ferguson, Mo., flashed across the screen.

The subsequent photos of protesters and police introduced a lecture on the abandonment of race-neutral discipline policies in schools.

More than 100 local students, teachers, administrators and educational advocates packed into a lecture hall at the University Club on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus for a visit from Russell Skiba, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University Bloomington in Bloomington, Ind.

“We’ve been disabused of the notion that somehow we’d gotten past the issue of race in America and that we could be race-neutral in dealing with these issues in America,” he said.

Mr. Skiba was among the authors of a study “The Color of Discipline,” which examined causes of racial and gender disparities in disciplinary practices. While external influences including poverty and family structure may play a contributing factor, they do not account for the overwhelming disproportionalities in discipline between black students from middle- and upper-class families and their white peers, he said Thursday.

Instead, he said, researchers consistently noted different treatment for black students within the classroom and subsequent referrals for many infractions that can be deemed subjective in interpretation, including disrespect, excessive noise, threatening behavior and loitering.

“There are deeper issues at play here about race that those things just do not address,” he said.

Mr. Skiba cited the history of race relations within the U.S., including centuries of slavery and landmark cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson that have a lasting psychological effect and help create implicit biases.

“All of this hangover of history sticks with us,” he said. “It’s what we believed and have been taught for centuries and we can’t stop believing it overnight.”

“These things are very deep in our consciousness and remain there today.”

Linda Lane, the Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent, said the historical context Mr. Skiba provided was the “biggest take-away” from Thursday’s lecture.

“It’s all a matter of having those conversations about race and not pretending that race doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Lane said. “We all know color blindness doesn’t work, and we as educators need to recognize our own implicit biases so we can address them.”

A follow-up “action plan meeting” to the lecture will be held in the Woodland Hills High School library at 4:30 p.m. today.

Woodland Hills School District made headlines earlier this year when the Center for Civil Rights Remedies ranked the district among the top 10 nationwide for having the highest percentage of out-of-school suspensions of elementary students for the 2011-12 school year.

A study conducted by district administrators found that the average suspension length for a black male student was 3.3 days, while the average for a white male was 0.3 days.

The district was also among more than 40 districts nationally that were recognized at a White House summit in July for efforts in discipline overhaul.

Woodland Hills implemented a revamped code of conduct over the summer, and will release a report with the gender, ethnicity and disability status of students subjected to any measurable disciplinary practice for September and October to community members in mid-November, district curriculum coordinator Licia Lentz said after Thursday’s lecture.

“This conversation was real, informative, accurate and needs to be talked about,” she said. “I think it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people, but it can’t stop at the door. Now we have to take action.”

Source: Expert: Race still a factor in school discipline | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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