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New Study Shows Significant Gaps In Discipline Of Black, White Students

Interior of Richmond's Chimborazo school.
A recent VCU study found area black students were suspended at about four times the rate of white students in 2016. (Photo: Catherine Komp/VPM)

Story by WCVE intern Brianna Scott.

new study released by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC) highlights the racial disparities in school discipline across metropolitan Richmond.

MERC is a research alliance between VCU’s school of education and seven surrounding school divisions. These divisions include Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, Petersburg, Powhatan and Richmond.

The report found that black students in Richmond-area school divisions were suspended at about four times the rate of white students. In most cases, black students were suspended because of infractions known as “D-codes” such as disrespect or defiance.

Because each school division has its own code of conduct, researcher Genevieve Siegel-Hawley says the codes are up to the interpretation of the teacher.

“When you have such high rates of discipline disproportionately that are related to those subjective infractions, it calls into question the presence of bias, implicit or explicit,” Siegel-Hawley said. “The clearer the codes of conduct are, the less leeway there is for those subjective interpretations.”

Richmond Public Schools lists several D-codes in their 2018-2019 code of conduct.

In 2016, one in ten black Richmond students received an out-of-school suspension for a D-code infraction.

Established in 1991, MERC conducts research on topics identified by the schools they collectively work with. MERC says one of their goals is to bring together the different organizational worlds of higher education, policymaking and educational practice within school divisions.

“We try to think about how can we come together and work collectively to have a better insight on the nature of the problem and we’ll be able to come up with better actionable solutions to the problem,” MERC Director Jesse Senechal said.

The topic of racial inequities in school discipline was identified in 2015.

“I think the school divisions were saying that, you know, we see this is a problem,” Senechal said. “We want to address this problem. We need to know more about it in order to take some action.”

The study showed that discipline inequity rates were higher in high poverty schools. Schools that were more highly segregated with large proportions of black students were also more likely to suspend or expel those black students.

The report cites factors such as racial segregation and implicit bias as reasons for racial inequities in discipline. Adai Tefera, who also worked on the study, says schools need to adopt more race-conscious policies.

“We have to look at, you know, the historical legacies of race and racism,” Tefera said. “We need to have a greater ability and willingness to talk about what is very often difficult especially in the Richmond context.”

Siegel-Hawley said school divisions should start looking at reworking their codes of conduct as a way to start moving the needle on this issue. She also said out-of-school suspension isn’t always the answer.

“They’re losing instructional time. Fundamentally, that is what being suspended out of school means, you lose time that you could be in class learning,” Siegel-Hawley said. “And that’s damaging to kids. And it does nothing to address the root cause of the behavior.”

When it comes to how this inequity in discipline can impact a black student’s future, Senechal, Tefera and Siegel-Hawley all agreed that the stakes for black students are steep.

“It [suspension] disrupts a student’s relationship with school which is a key institution in early life. It cultivates mistrust of the teachers and the administration, it cultivates a mistrust of public institutions in general,” Siegel-Hawley said. “It is connected to drop-outs, it is connected to the school-to-prison pipeline. If we continue to disproportionately exclude black students from school, that’s not a winning hand, economically or morally.”

Siegel-Hawley said this inequity is a problem rooted in racial discrimination, and that intervention practices such as Restorative practices or positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) will not work if they do not address race.

Restorative practices put less emphasis on punishment by allowing those who have been affected by an action to have a conversation about how to make things right.

PBIS is a tiered model of behavioral support that focuses on the organization and culture of a school, and the behavior of students.

The team of researchers released a number of recommendations at the end of their report, including that districts provide training on implicit bias and culturally responsive practices. They also suggested hiring more faculty and school leaders of color.

Senechal says MERC is currently working on a collaborative grant with Richmond Public Schools around restorative justice.