School Practices for Equitable Discipline of African
American Students. ERIC Digest.
by Schwartz, Wendy
Providing African Americans, males especially, with an effective public
school education has proven to be a nearly intractable problem. Frequently
attending underresourced, overcrowded schools, they are apt to feel alienated
from, rather than engaged in, the education process. Some do indeed express
their discontent through antisocial behavior (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif,
1998). Still, African American students believe they are triply disadvantaged:
"Unjustly accused, unfairly silenced, and unnecessarily punished" (Sheets
& Gay, 1996, p. 89). They are, in fact, far more likely than whites
to be suspended (Gordon, Della Piana, & Keleher, 2000).
Schools are now realizing that the consequences of discipline disparities
based on race can prevent the educational success of an entire category
of young people. Thus, many employ a range of strategies to ensure the
equitable treatment of African American students specifically, and the
fairness and educative value of their discipline procedures in general.
This digest presents a brief review of the practices whose success has
THE ROLE OF CROSS-CULTURAL COMPETENCE IN THE STUDENT-SCHOOL RELATIONSHIP
The Perception of Difference
U.S. society has long been characterized by ignorance about African
American social styles, denigration of African American traditions, and
persistent negative and fear-inducing media images of African Americans.
Thus, as products of this society, educators may project negative attitudes
about African American students and avoid, rather than mentor, them. Teachers
may try to control black males more tightly than whites, believing that
they are not sufficiently disciplined at home (McCadden, 1998). School
practices may fail to account for the knowledge, cognitive abilities, culture,
and values of African American students. The reasons for the differential
treatment of students of color and white students are many and complex,
but the result is often the same: African American students may feel encouraged
to act out. Moreover, the bad conduct of a white male student is likely
to be excused as a one-time slip while an African American youth who similarly
misbehaves is labeled a perpetual troublemaker and severely punished, thought
by the school that he has nothing to lose by being so classified (Fremon
& Hamilton, 1997).
Sadly, many African American youth, males in particular, believe that
should they manage to excel in school, despite the obstacles, racism will
limit their ability to reap the advantages available to white achievers.
So, the students, males in particular, often manage their anxiety by being
resistant to cultural norms or even dropping out, thereby confirming for
schools the legitimacy of their low expectations for the students (Mahiri,
The Development of Cross-Cultural Competence
Schools can transform their programs and culture to create a hospitable
environment for African Americans by communicating the expectation that
all students can succeed; providing them with the opportunity to do so;
fostering their development of social skills and self-control strategies;
setting criterion-based achievement objectives; and evaluating students
for their strengths, not their weaknesses. They can also try to increase
the number of African Americans on their teaching staffs, and train existing
staff, regardless of race, to master cross-cultural communication skills
and teaching strategies and change entrenched ways of dealing with students
of color (Brookover, Erickson, & McEvoy, 1996; Dandy, 1990; Ferguson,
2000; Sheets & Gay, 1996).
Obviously, school disruptions cannot be tolerated. But racial and cultural
differences in the definition of good behavior, along with miscommunications,
frequently lead to the inequitable punishment of students of color by school
personnel who do not respect their style of classroom participation. Further,
arbitrary and excessive consequences for minor offenses can develop in
all students a sense of powerlessness, dependence on authority, and anger
that leads to further misbehavior (Gathercoal, 1998).
Schools are beginning to use a number of strategies to prevent many
discipline problems and to deal with those that arise while still respecting
students' rights and individual differences. In fact, some districts and
schools have successfully adopted one of the several research-based comprehensive
programs for maintaining a safe and effective school. They include the
Gottfredsons' Program Development Evaluation, the Canters' Assertive Discipline
classroom management program, Glasser's Reality Therapy program for teachers
(all reviewed in Gottfredson, 1990), and Gathercoal's Judicious Discipline
(Gathercoal, 1998). The practices described below incorporate principles
of these programs and additional strategies shown to be successful.
Good Conduct Policies
Schools need a written and widely circulated code of conduct that all
students, staff, and parents understand. A classroom code established by
teachers is also useful. Rules should be culturally sensitive and developmentally
appropriate; they should promote student safety, allow adults to model
responsibility and respect, reflect democratic principles, and provide
for positive reinforcement of good behavior as well as suitable and neutrally-applied
sanctions for misbehavior. The message should be clear that students are
responsible for their actions (Beyer, 1998; Brookover, Erickson, &
Contextualization of Misbehavior
Before disciplining students, educators should elicit and consider the
reasons for their perceived misbehavior, particularly as they relate to
racial differences between teachers and students. Doing so demonstrates
a teacher's respect for student concerns. It can even uncover information
about a problem that the school might help solve, such as the need for
educational supports; assistance in securing food and shelter; relief from
victimization through bullying; and counseling for trauma, depression,
and family difficulties (Gathercoal, 1998).
For example, in class, many African American students speak out loudly
and interrupt as a way of showing their interest, or even argue as they
press their point; their intention is to participate, not misbehave, although
some teachers may consider them disrespectful. Students may engage in certain
challenging behaviors common to the African American male adolescent community,
not because they want to disrupt the classroom but because they want to
demonstrate their rebellion against what they consider a teacher's "power
tripping"; lessons they consider irrelevant, racist, or too simplistic;
their perception that teachers believe them incapable of achievement; or
their inability to keep up with white classmates because of learning or
developmental differences (Dandy, 1990; Sheets & Gay, 1996).
The goals of discipline, once the need for it is determined, should
be to help students accept personal responsibility for their actions, understand
why a behavior change is necessary, and commit themselves to change. The
discipline measure should model good behavior, not retribution and humiliation,
and students should have some control over its nature. Students can help
determine discipline policies in general, but specific punishments should
be customized (Gathercoal, 1998; Gottfredson, 1990).
Punishment for misbehavior should fit both the infraction and the student's
self-esteem, academic, and personal development needs. It should involve
restitution and an apology. For example, a graffiti-writing student should
be helped to understand why he should clean the dirty wall, and be able
to do so when it would not interfere with a school activity nor be seen
by other students; should a custodian clean the wall before the student
can, the student should offer thanks. A student who is disrespectful to
a teacher should be helped to understand why an apology is necessary and
devise a personal way of expressing regret. A student who fails to do a
homework assignment should be given an opportunity to explain why and develop
a plan with his teacher for doing the work as soon as possible.
A great many, but not all, incidents of misbehavior can be dealt with
by such student-centered strategies. Rules of conduct should be specific
about incidents whose seriousness requires immediate action. An immediate
step, designed to maintain classroom order, might be for the teacher to
summon an on-site crisis team carefully trained to handle the misbehaving
student, probably by removing him for a private discussion (Nimmo, 1998).
An option for students who cannot be helped to assimilate into a regular
school is an alternative school with both good academic and counseling
programs (Gottfredson, 1990).
Parent Involvement Strategies
Schools need to keep parents apprised of their children's behavior,
both good and bad, so they can work together when improvement is needed.
The staff can provide African American parents with ideas for promoting
their children's development through: (1) encouraging their children's
learning and self respect; (2) setting behavior limits and disciplining
appropriately; (3) establishing high expectations; (4) maintaining strong
communication lines; (5) promoting positive identification as a male or
female and as an African American; (6) teaching them to resist violence
and other urban temptations; and (7) taking advantage of community resources
(Hrabowski et al., 1998).
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