Using PBIS data to dismantle racism

-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Before you continue reading, please take this quiz and see if this article is for you:

  • My school uses PBIS Apps’ School Wide Information System (SWIS) or something like it to track discipline referrals by race. (Yes) (No)
  • I’d rather be antiracist where I can than wait for someone more important than me to act. (Yes) (No)
  • If my school’s discipline data uncovered racial disparities, I’d believe the graph and want to do something about it. (Yes) (No)

Not knowing your discipline data by race is another way of saying “I don’t see color.”

If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, this article is for you. No, you don’t need to answer yes to all three, because this article is about facts—where to find them, and how to use them. All you need to get started is:

  • A way to know whether students are being treated differently in your school discipline framework based on the color of their skin (PBIS Data, usually contained in SWIS).
  • The capacity to choose not to make excuses for challenging data for 30 minutes while you follow a set of questions from start to finish.

Still with me? Great! Let’s talk about how we can use PBIS Data to dismantle racism.

List of 10 questions for school leaders to prompt reflection on equity in school discipline.

Positive Behavior Interventions and Support is a common approach schools use to communicate positive expectations and develop consistent school-wide responses to unexpected classroom behaviors. When PBIS works, students, staff, and families work together to uncover, discover, and when necessary, recover values essential to being a successful learner and a good person. However, PBIS is 50 years old, and when PBIS was a baby, many common systems and practices associated with PBIS reflected a behaviorist approach to supporting students. You’ll see vestiges of this in PBIS systems today:

  • Students earning ‘points’ or ‘tickets’ for good behavior that they can spend at school stores.
  • School-wide behavioral expectations written by small groups of teachers that, despite PBIS assessment tools that explicitly require it, frequently lack meaningful opportunities for families or students to contribute.
  • Triangles. Lots of triangles.

You don’t need a school store, and you don’t need paper or a digital way to track points. And you certainly shouldn’t pay another company to do it. They’re too expensive, and your students don’t need you spending their learning money on digital PBIS stores. What you do need is a way to find out if the systems you’ve built and the practices your staff uses with students represent what is best for all students—without exception.

Recently, I came across an article by Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams. Drawing on her own research and the research of her colleague Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, Sharla developed School Leadership for Social Justice’s 10 Questions for Ensuring Equity in School Discipline. If your school uses SWIS to track unexpected behavior, answering all 10 Questions takes about 30 minutes, and that’s if you actually do the thinking. I’ll show you with an example from a school I know:

1) What is the expectation?

While you could follow this protocol for every expectation at your school, it’s more fun to start with the expectation that causes the most referrals. Take a look at this graph:

This comes from the Drill Down section in SWIS. I just told SWIS to generate a graph of how many referrals there were last year, organized by what they were for. It looks like there were 99 referrals for minor defiance, followed by 74 referrals for disruption. (M=minor and usually means teachers managed the situation. Otherwise, the office managed the referral).Then we have 60 more referrals for minor disruption, and another 60 referrals for defiance that were sent to the office. Basically, that’s 158 times last year that a student was referred for defiance, and 134 times that a student was referred for disruption. That’s a lot. 

So if the ‘problem’ is defiance and disruption, what were students supposed to be doing? According to the school’s PBIS matrix, they were supposed to be:

  • Respectful by listening carefully and taking turns speaking.
  • Responsible by following directions.

Why is this the expectation?

According to the school’s matrix, listening carefully and taking turns speaking are about communicating to others that they are important. Note that almost all referrals regarding talking about of turn were for interrupting the school adult, not for interrupting other students. 

The expectation to follow directions is, at least on paper, about being trusted to make good choices.

Who decided that this expectation was necessary?

Like many schools implementing PBIS, this school recruited a small team of teachers and administrators to develop a school-wide set of values and expectations. When the team first came together, they elected not to recruit a family member until they understood what they were building. And, while this was understandable at the time, the result was that families and students did not participate in uncovering core values or articulating how the school community might live those values out loud.

What do you believe about this expectation?

I’ll answer this question from my perspective as a white man raised in a working class family and community. As recently as three years ago, I would have felt these expectations were completely reasonable. After all, they matched expectations familiar to me growing up, and I had similar expectations as an elementary school teacher. 

However, now, if I’m thinking about respect as being about listening carefully and taking turns speaking, I’d want to see more about how careful listening and speaking without interruption gets modeled by school adults as well. 

Whose values are reflected and reinforced by this expectation?

On a practical level, the values reflected and reinforced by this expectation would be those of the small group that created the school-wide expectations. While the group itself comprised professionals of diverse races, ethnicities, gender identities, and positions within the school, what was not present were members of the larger community or of families or students.

Whose values are erased by this expectation?

When I first saw this question, I wondered: How would I know whose values are erased without knowing the values of everyone in the school? And in that moment, I recognized my privilege. It’s our job as educators to know the values of each segment of our school community. So, if I were leading this school, I might reflect on how I’d find out whose values are erased if I couldn’t answer this question quickly.

For now, though, I can say that if you’re a student who comes from a community who believes that listening is a mutual practice or perhaps believes that not following directions uncritically might be a sign of wisdom, then these expectations might erase your values.

Who would have difficulty meeting this expectation?

If you have access to SWIS, this is another question that you can answer in a minute or less. This graph is called the Referral Risk Ratio, and you can find it in the Drill Down Section of SWIS. Specifically, this graph only includes referrals for disruption and defiance, and communicates whether students in different racial or ethnic groups are more likely than all other students to get in trouble for disruption or defiance.

For this graph, a risk ratio less than one means a group is less likely to be referred, while a risk ratio greater than one means a group is more likely to be referred. In this case, Latino/a/x students are more than three times as likely as any other student to receive a referral for disruption or defiance. If you look at a graph like this, choose equity–believe the graph.

What would happen if this expectation did not exist?

As an educator, imagining a school where there were no expectation that students listen to teachers and where following directions were optional does not match my vision of an effective, safe, nurturing place to learn and grow. However, it is clear that the way in which this expectation is enforced affects Latino/a/x students differently. At the very least, if this expectation didn’t exist, school adults might have an opportunity to rethink what they actually want students to do beyond staying quiet and being compliant.

Now we’re ready to examine the last two questions, and we’ll do these together:

9) How can this expectation be revised to accommodate all cultures / sets of values? Or 10) Should this expectation be removed because it causes cultural or racial erasure and provides real threat to student safety or learning and provides no tangible benefit to students?

As a white male educator, my inclination would be to bring the data we’ve explored to students and families, working with them to find opportunities to provide meaningful input on how to revise expectations without designing a whole new committee for people to get on. With this particular data set, the voices of Latino/a/x students and families must be amplified and centralized. 

My hunch is that we’d discover that what we mean by ‘respect’ is more about treating each other like they were important and recognizing the good in each other. ’Responsible’ is likely more about being trusted to do our part to make our school family work together effectively. But, I certainly won’t know until I listen to others explain how these expectations might be interpreted through the values of their community.

And, especially right now where we are inviting ourselves into our students’ homes and expecting school norms to apply there too, we are likely to encounter expectations that don’t really benefit students and likely cause harm when we enforce them. Let them go, and imagine all the time you’ll save not managing referrals for expectations that don’t matter.

Your PBIS systems are whatever your school makes of them. Implemented uncritically, PBIS risks reinforcing systemic racism. However, schools that are using PBIS data systems have a powerful tool for uncovering and dismantling oppressive discipline practices. By using your PBIS data to answer School Leadership for Social Justice’s 10 Questions, you’ll spend more time helping children and youth learn and grow and less time enforcing expectations that may be causing BIPOC students and families harm.

Finally, you don’t have to get started by yourself. If your team is ready to take action, click here and schedule a time to talk.

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