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A School Addresses Racially Disparate Discipline Referrals

By Kim Marshall

Article: “The Gentlemen’s Code” by Jerome Bennett, Jake Giessman, and Jane Hubley in Principal Leadership, April 2021 (Vol. 21, #8, p. 40-45); Giessman can be reached at [email protected].

In this article in Principal Leadership, equity consultant Jerome Bennett and educators Jake Giessman and Jane Hubley describe how a school followed up when its leaders realized that there were three times more discipline referrals for African-American male students as for other students. Some key facts about this middle school in Portland, Maine:

  • The staff was mostly white.
  • Half the students were white.
  • A quarter were black, almost entirely first- and second-generation refugees and asylum-seekers from across the African continent.

The school’s leaders convened three focus groups to explore stakeholders’ perceptions. The first group, composed of faculty and staff (all white), concluded that any discipline disparities were explained by cultural misunderstandings between white staff and black students. The other two groups, composed of students of color, bluntly stated that the root cause was racial bias.

Administrators had to decide which interpretation to endorse. Fearing adult backlash if they went with the students’ view, the school’s leaders overruled some dissenting voices (including Bennett and Hubley), embraced the first focus group’s interpretation, and got to work designing an intervention to bridge cultural differences. For three months, Hubley (the school’s social worker) had a series of meetings with an existing affinity/support group of male students of color (called the Gentlemen), and together they crafted a statement of behavioral values that captured students’ culture and aspirations. The hope was that this would be more culturally responsive than the school’s existing expectations. Here’s what the “Gentlemen’s Code” included:

  • I am a gentleman.
  • I fight for what is fair and right.
  • I own up to my mistakes and learn from them.
  • I lead by example and take care of those I lead.
  • I am kind… I am helpful… and I give my best in everything that I do.
  • I always show up for my fellow Gentlemen because we are family.
  • We are Gentlemen.
  • We support each other when we are not feeling the best.
  • We help each together stay focused and put in the extra work to get good grades.
  • We don’t fight with each other.
  • We know how to have fun.
  • Because we are Gentlemen.

Posters and presentations familiarized the school community with the Gentlemen’s Code.

After three months, administrators conducted follow-up interviews and looked at discipline data. The students who had worked on the code were proud of what they had produced and felt good about their group. Teachers were uncertain how to use the code in their interactions with students of color, but had a slightly more-positive and more-nuanced perception of those students. However, there was only a slight decrease in discipline referrals for black male students. “In sum,” conclude Bennett, Giessman, and Hubley, “the impact seemed minimal.” Here’s how each of them described the situation:

Hubley – “I never liked the idea of a Gentlemen’s Code,” she says. “[It] felt scripted to me, not authentic… I felt pressure, though, to define the work of the gentlemen.” She hoped it would help adults in the school understand the group and its purpose. “However,” she continues, “we knew that they would never really get it.” The boys – and their sister group, the Fierce Girls – believed the school was not committed to addressing racial bias. “The culture put these boys and girls at a disadvantage from the beginning,” Hubley says. “They knew it, felt it, and reacted to it. They navigated it, knowing and feeling its harm to their beings.” She felt her obligation to the boys was to give them space to be with each other.

Giessman – As the school’s (white) assistant principal with major responsibility for discipline, Giessman says he felt “caught between a faculty’s – and my own – racialized notion of a safe and orderly school and a moral imperative to disrupt that. Where Hubley has sought to protect the gentlemen from the school, I have sought to raise the gentlemen’s standing in the school through videos, photographs, and presentations about them. I have been marketing the gentlemen to white people in hopes that this would move white people’s consciousnesses… That I would gravitate toward this marketing strategy highlights both the deeply embedded negative social attitudes about students of color and my own fear of engaging in the real work. The real work would have been, as the gentlemen told us, for the adults to investigate and remediate their own biases.”

Shortly after the school’s unsuccessful effort to leverage the Gentlemen’s Code, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other people of color prompted a deeper reckoning. “The decision to avoid directly confronting bias for fear of white backlash,” says Giessman, “was cowardly. I should not have placed the burden of intervention on the gentlemen or their families. If the gentlemen were to do the labor of articulating their values, the staff and faculty should have been taking on even greater and more-urgent labors of reflection and antiracist action. Perhaps more importantly, I should have been risking my standing among the faculty to model and lead that work.”

Bennett – Serving as a part-time equity consultant to the school, Bennett (who is African-American) says that implicit biases against people of color, deeply rooted in the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and a century of opportunity gaps, are “ingrained in our subconscious and manifest in our actions. Despite all the good that schools and the people who work in them do, the fact is that schools perpetuate cycles of racial trauma. To eliminate discipline disparities, a school staff and faculty would need to truly understand the nuances of systemic racism and implicit bias and how they lead to differential treatment. They would then need to rebuild their schools as antiracist institutions.”

Bennett believes there were two missed opportunities in the school’s handling of this situation. First, the Gentlemen’s Code was developed “without an accompanying change process for adults.” The code opened male students of color to more scrutiny by teachers, and some of them used it to chastise students for not adhering to their professed values. But most adults in the school didn’t refer to the code because they were not sure how to use it.

Second, Bennett believes the gentlemen already held the values articulated in the code. “The real action,” he says, “would have been to consider how the school could learn from the code and incorporate those values into schoolwide policy, practice, and norms.” For starters, the value of owning up to mistakes and learning from them could be a starting point for addressing how implicit bias resulted in disparate discipline referrals. “Equity work requires everyone to think and act differently,” Bennett concludes. “If we want to interrupt cycles of trauma, if we want to disrupt inequitable social and racial arrangements, we cannot put that weight on those whom the system disadvantages the most.”

The school got the message, launching required and voluntary equity trainings and reading groups and engaging all stakeholders in rewriting school behavioral expectations to apply to adults as well as students. In addition, a restorative practices coordinator was hired to receive, investigate, and mediate race-related complaints. Further, students can now request a specific adult or peer “ally” to join them in disciplinary meetings with teachers or administrators. Finally, the school’s assistant principal “is trying to raise his consciousness and take responsibility for his central role in either perpetuating or eliminating discipline disparities.”

“None of this is easy or comfortable,” conclude Bennett, Giessman, and Hubley, “but it’s time to honor what the gentlemen were telling us from the start: white adults in the school have serious work to do.”

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