Dismantle racism with data.

Logos for School Leadership for Social Justice and TGS Educational Consulting.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Earlier this year, I came across Dr. Sharla Horton-William’s article “How school leaders reinforce supremacy through discipline and behavior expectations.” In it, Dr. Horton-Williams put words to a rumbling that had been going on in my mind and in my heart for a while. As an education consultant who supports schools with systemic approaches to social, emotional, and academic achievement, one of my primary tools has been Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). At the heart of PBIS is the idea that if school can articulate 3-5 positively stated behavioral expectations and teach students how these expectations look, feel, and sound in every setting area in the school, then students are more likely to demonstrate positive behavior.

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And, for the most part, this has been true. Schools that move from having no formal system of school-wide expectations to developing a commonly understood language for student discipline tend to suspend fewer students, and students of color are more likely to be suspended than are white students. However, as I was reading Dr. Horton-Williams article, I was struck by this powerful quote:

We both engage with and discipline students under a value system to which they do not subscribe.

-Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice

If, by helping my partner schools approach student discipline through a PBIS framework, I was creating a system where a small group of people established behavioral expectations without involving the entire school community and without centralizing the voices of students and families of color, then there was no way that I could say with integrity that the values I was helping schools teach and enforce school-wide at all represented the value system to which every student subscribed.

This was hard to accept–Not because I didn’t believe what Dr. Horton-Williams was explaining, but because I couldn’t see an obvious way to transform what has typically been process where a small group makes decisions about what counts as ‘good behavior’ for an entire community. Thankfully, though, I read on and discovered that Dr. Williams wrote a list of 10 Questions to Ensure Equity in School Discipline.

The questions are below. As you read each question, I’d like you to consider whether or not data might already exist at your school that would allow you and your team to answer with facts.

  • What is the expectation?
    • Possible data source: PBIS Matrix, school handbook, board-adopted discipline policy.
  • Why is this the expectation?
    • Possible data source: Staff, student, and family survey seeking their answer to this question. Note that “I’m not sure,” and “I can’t really think of a reason” sometimes come up at this stage.
  • Who decided this expectation was necessary?
    • Possible data source: Meeting minutes, personal knowledge, asking district leadership.
  • What do you believe about this expectation?
    • Data source: You. It is essential that you are clear about what you believe about what you expect of your students and those your organization serves.
  • Whose values are reflected and reinforced by this expectation?
    • Possible data source: Your students and families. Ask them what they believe is necessary to be a successful learner and a good human being. Consider to what extent their answers conform to your own, and to what extent they vary.
  • Whose values are erased by this expectation?
    • Possible data source: Your students and families. Again, as you ask different parts of your school community what they believe is necessary to be a successful learner and a good human being. Many school leaders are often surprised to discover how often school expectations limit, exclude, and erase values of different parts of their school community. Uncomfortable as it may feel to discover that your school or organization has made parts of your school community invisible, the gift in uncovering this data is that you’ve found a powerful place to begin.
  • Who would have difficulty meeting this expectation?
    • Possible data source (also the quickest and easiest is your school uses SWIS or something like it): Look at your discipline referrals for the last few years.
      • Run a report pulling all referrals for at least a year.
      • Then, disaggregate the referrals by race and ethnicity.
      • Do you have a big ‘clump’ of referrals all from students of color? If so, sort the referrals by ‘problem behavior’ or whatever synonym your system uses.
      • Go back to the expectation you are examining. Do students from a particular race / ethnicity generate a significant number of referrals for not meeting the expectation? (Example: The expectation is “Students are respectful by having a quiet voice and body,” and you have a ‘clump’ of referrals for ‘disruption’ from Latino/a/x students.)
  • What would happen if this expectation did not exist?
    • Sincerely and genuinely imagine what might happen if the expectation you are examining no longer exists for your students. What if students didn’t have to have a quiet voice and body? Would students suddenly choose to have loud voices and bodies? All the time? The more vivid an image you can create, the better! And, whatever image comes to mind, an almost certain outcome is that a racially / ethnically identifiable group of students would interact with your school’s discipline system far less frequently.
  • How can this expectation be revised to accommodate all cultures / sets of values?
    • If different parts of your school community approach a school-wide expectation differently, even the most ‘equal’ enforcement of these expectations will yield inequitable disciplinary outcomes. Often, schools can accommodate all cultures / sets of values be revising how students meet the expectation while maintaining the expectation’s original purpose.
  • 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?
    • Imagine a world where no one cared about any student’s hairstyle, whether they work a hat or not, or how they express themself with their attire. Just think of the time no longer spent managing dress code or drawing national media attention over racist graduation policies. Often, we overestimate the price of letting go, not seeing how caring less about expectations that don’t matter creates space to care more about the values that are truly at the heart of our work. If permanently eliminating a ‘no hats’ policy seems like too much for now, just try it out for a month or two and see what happens. (My hunch is that a more equitable school climate happens, but that’s a conversation best had with you and your school community.)

To see and hear the 10 Questions in practice, click here.

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