Rich Discussion on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in School Discipline

I had the great pleasure of presenting with the amazing Carllistus Obeng, a school psychologist in Washington, DC, at the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's 2021 Racial and Ethnic Disparities conference this week. The conference virtually gathered over 400 people from 41 states to discuss how to mitigate this pervasive issue, which changes the trajectory of our youth's lives. We had a dynamic group attend our session with roles ranging from mental health and court, parole, policy and statistical analysts, and child advocates.

Carllistus walked us through a real life case study of two students in the same class, one African-American and one Caucasian, beginning with the teacher's descriptions of each student. She described the African-American student as being, "always off-task; calling out 10-20 times a day; he kicks, hits and pushes; and she 'can't get him to complete anything.'" She described the Caucasian student as, "sometimes calls out; roughhouses a little too much; gets frustrated during writing time; and he only seems to work for candy or sweets."

We discussed the difference in descriptions, the superlative verses moderation; the presence or lack thereof emotionality and contextually-related behavior; and the softer tone of physical behavior in describing the Caucasian student. These descriptions are critical in how teachers will respond to the students, and either offer understanding and assistance or seek consequences and separation. Then Carllistus shared his observational data of each student, which revealed that in fact the Caucasian student engaged in significantly more calling out behavior than the African-American student. This data became the root of a powerful conversation with the boys' teacher.

Then I walked the participants through the history of Applied Behavior Analysis and why Functional Behavior Assessments were included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. There is a science of understanding and changing human behavior, and when followed, the data reveals whose behavior needs to change and how. The science allows us to see trends in a person's behavior in relationship to the environment in which it functions. This analysis creates an objective picture and sequence of events, void of biased descriptions.

I shared about a young lady for whom I was asked to conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Upon meeting her and talking with her educational team, I discovered that there was little recognition of her learning needs; no recognition of her efforts and positive participation; an over-emphasis on what she was doing wrong; and a disproportionate recognition of when her peers (white students) were engaging in some of the same non-compatible behavior staff were complaining that Makayla did. Through completing an FBA, I was able to illustrate through the data the disproportionality of addressing students; the inconsistencies of discipline practices; and holding the system accountable in addition to holding the student accountable.

Thanks to all who attended and shared their thoughts, perspectives and ideas of how these data-based processes could protect our youth in other contexts. Special thanks to Carllistus for sharing his energy and expertise with all of us!