This story is the second installment of a three-part series examining the so-called discipline gap among student groups who receive out-of-school suspensions in the Austin Independent School District. Read Part One here.
During the 2013 school year, African-American students made up eight percent of the AISD student population, but nearly a quarter of the students given an out-of-school suspension.
The discipline gap is not unique to the district; nationwide, black students are suspended at higher rates than their peers. In March, the U.S. Department of Education reported the trend in black student suspensions starts as young as preschool.
While many, including AISD officials, admit the discipline gap exists, fewer people seem to have a solid answer as to why.
Experts say culture, communication and curriculum all play a role. UT College of Education professor Richard Reddick and Seattle Central Community College professor Daudi Abe recently discussed the reasons African-American students may be suspended at higher rates than their peers. Here are three possible reasons for the discipline gap, based on their interviews:
1. Lack of Cultural Awareness : Several African-American parents and community members feel many teachers and administrators do not understand the culture and socioeconomic background of many of the students.
"So often, schools require students to leave their culture, leave their heritage at the door and convert to what we have, instead of saying, 'We embrace what you have,'" Reddick says. "And that doesn’t happen unless you have a clear understanding of what the community does."
Reddick and Abe agree that many times, student behavior is linked to issues they may be dealing with outside the home: caring for younger siblings, a lack of role models, or the distractions that come with working to provide income for their families.
Reddick says two ways to fix these issues is through cultural competency training and a diverse teaching staff. While you don't always need a minority teacher to teach minority students, dealing with multiracial students at a high school level requires experience. Many times, Abe says, high needs schools are staffed with newer teachers, and many school districts mostly employ white teachers.
"It's not necessarily unrealistic to think their first meaningful interactions with people of color, and African-Americans specifically, could come the first time they enter a classroom and are teaching these multiracial groups of students," Abe says.
Last year, less than seven percent of teachers in AISD were African-American. Two-thirds (66 percent) were white.
While most schools establish criteria for mandatory removal of a student from the classroom – like fighting, physical aggression towards teachers and drug possession – Reddick says at other times, disciplinary actions can be extremely subjective. Everyone – white, black or Hispanic – grows up with preconceived notions about others that, if not addressed, can play a role in people's actions.
"Until you do self-examination and expose your own biases, you'll always look at these kids as being problematic, as endemic of something else," Reddick says. "An upper-middle class student who talks in class is exuberant and eager to learn, whereas a Latino or African-American student is disruptive."
Which Austin Schools Have the Most Suspensions Year to Year?
Data visualization by Roy Varney
2. Lack of Communication: Abe says different communication styles between white teachers and black students can sometimes create misunderstandings. While European-American communication styles are more structured and discourage impulse and emotion, while also putting value on facts and certified authority, African-American communication styles tend to be more participatory and impulsive – "styles like call and response," he says.
"Anyone who has gone to a black church knows what I mean," Abe continues. "Many teachers view these behaviors as rude, inconsiderate, disruptive and they penalize students for them. Those kind of basic issues around diametrically-opposed cultures set the foundation for some of these larger conflicts that escalate into situations where children are removed from the classroom."
Abe says sometimes there's a lack of understanding between students and parents about why students are suspended in the first place. Students could be raised by parents who were also suspended when they were in school – parents who don't have the tools to work with the school to create a more cooperative and positive learning environment for their children. Abe says more parent education is needed on high needs campuses.
3. Curriculum: Reddick says most schools do a great job teaching African-American history every February for Black History Month – but they fail to teach about the accomplishments and cultures of African-Americans throughout the school year.
"If kids are coming to school and they don’t have opportunities to learn about their contributions from their culture or background or role models, it becomes drudgery," Reddick says.
Tomorrow: Part Three looks at what AISD is doing to close the discipline gap among student groups and reduce home suspensions across the district.