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A Counternarrative Autoethnography Exploring School Districts’ Role in Reproducing Racism: Willful Blindness to Racial Inequities


by Muhammad A. Khalifa & Felecia M. Briscoe - 2015

Background: Racialized suspension gaps are logically and empirically associated with racial achievement gaps and both gaps indicate the endurance of racism in American education. In recent U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights data, it was revealed that nationally, Black boys are four times more likely to be suspended than White boys. In some geographic areas and for certain offenses, some intersections of race, class, and gender are dozens of times more likely to be suspended for than others. Although most educational leaders and district-level official express disapproval of racism in schools, racialized gaps in achievement and discipline stubbornly persist.

Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine how school district-level administrators react to investigations and indications of racism in in their school districts. It is relevant because in many school districts that have disciplinary and achievement gaps, the administrators ostensibly and publically express a hope to reduce or eliminate the racist trends. Yet, one administration after another, they seem unable to disrupt the racially oppressive discipline and achievement gaps. In this study, we examined administrators’ responses to our requests about their districts’ racialized disaggregated disciplinary data, and their responses to our sharing of our findings with them. We use counternarrative autoethnography to describe that school district administrators play a significant role in maintaining practices that reproduce racial oppression in schools.

Setting: This study was conducted in large urban school districts in Texas. The profiled districts were predominantly Latino; however one district was over 90% Latino and the other just slightly more than half with sizable White and Black student populations in some schools and areas.

Participants: As this is an autoethnography, we are the primary participants of this study; we interrogate our experiences with school district administrators in our investigations of racial disciplinary gaps.

Research Design: Our autoethnography is counternarrative, as it counters bureaucratic narratives of impartiality, colorblindness, and objectivity espoused by school districts. In addition to our own self-interviews, we base our counternarrative on the examination of 11 phone calls and 35 email exchanges with district administration, and on field-notes taken during seven site visits. These collective experiences and data sources informed our counternarratives, and led to our findings. Our research encompasses three phases. The initial phase was our attempt to obtain disciplinary data from various school districts in Texas. Only two school districts made the data accessible to us, despite being legally obligated to do so. For the second phase of our study we calculated risk ratios (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010) from those two school districts to determine how many more times African Americans and Latinos are suspended than Whites in all of the schools of TXD1 and TXD2. The third phase was the district administrators’ reactions to our presentation of our findings in regards to their district schools with the most egregious disciplinary gaps. Based on the administrative responses to them, we thought that it was important to highlight our experiences through a counternarrative autoethnography.

Conclusions:From our qualitative data analysis we theorize three bureaucratic administrative responses contributed to the maintenance of racism in school—(1) the administrators discursive avoidance of issues of racial marginalization; (2) the tendency of bureaucratic systems to protect their own interests and ways of operating, even those ways of operating that are racist; and (3), the (perhaps inadvertent) protection of leadership practices that have resulted in such racial marginalization. These responses were enacted through four technical–rational/bureaucratic administrative practices: subversive, defensive, ambiguous, and negligent.



Although most educational leaders explicitly express disapproval of racism in American schools, racialized gaps in achievement and discipline persist and testify to the endurance of racism in American education. Academic gaps (and minor, inconsistent gains) for minority students have been widely discussed in educational reform literature (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2007). However, despite the fact that racialized achievement gaps are strongly connected to suspension gaps (Arcia, 2006; Gregory, Skiba & Noguera, 2010), racialized suspension gaps have never been as widely discussed in the national educational reform literature. Further, the race-based suspension problem is deepening, mirroring a number of damaging racialized trends in national incarceration and criminal justice data. It has been clear for some time that school attendance impacts school achievement (Roby, 2004). Yet the impact of racialized school suspension gaps and policies—such as zero tolerance—on “attendance,” which might also be an indication of school climates—is little discussed. Likewise educational administrators largely shy away from controversial issues such as discussions of race or racism (Larson, 1997; McMahon, 2007). Thus, in this paper, we address districts’ responses to our queries concerning racial suspension gaps and their responses when we shared evidence of these gaps in their districts.


Ethical researchers always reflect on and declare their biases and interests around a particular topic; it is even more important in an autoethnography where we develop understandings based on our own experiences with local administrators. During the 2009–2010 school year, one of the coauthors of this study had a son (referred to as Eli in this study) that attended a Texas school. The social pressures and physical bullying that occur in middle schools is often overwhelming for students (Ladd & Ladd, 2001). Eli was physically assaulted a number of times in school, and eventually got into a fight. The taped incident at the school showed Eli being assaulted by another student, and then him physically defending himself. Subsequently, Eli was suspended for fighting and received a citation to appear in court at a legal hearing. When Eli arrived at court with his family, every student in court was a person of color. This caused Eli’s parent (and coauthor of this study) to question why this was the case, despite the large number of White students at some of the area schools. Therefore, we conducted this research to investigate structures in schools that result in or maintain racialized suspension gaps. The purpose of this autoethnographic study is to examine administrators’ responses to our requests about their districts’ disciplinary data and to our sharing of information concerning the race-based suspension disparities we found in their schools. We use counternarrative autoethnography to describe four unique ways that school district administrators play a significant role in maintaining practices that reproduce racial oppression in schools.


REVIEW OF LITERATURE


Our review of literature points to systemic racism as evidenced by the (1) similar patterns between school suspensions and incarceration—otherwise known as the school-to-prison pipeline; and (2) the negative effects of suspensions upon individuals and schools. “Suspension (i.e., a disciplinary sanction that requires the student to be excluded from the school building for a specified period of time) is one of the most common disciplinary consequences used in schools for student problem behaviors” (Christle, Nelson, & Jolivette, 2004, p. 509). But racialized groups are far more at risk of being suspended than others. For example, Gregory (1997) found that African American boys were 16 times more likely to be suspended than White girls. Wald and Losen (2003) refer to these disparities as “clear evidence of dysfunctional systems that not only fail to serve the neediest children but in fact, . . .  create conditions that exacerbate the harm inflicted upon them” (p. 12).


However, it is nearly impossible to understand racialized disparities in school discipline—or any within-school issue dealing with race for that matter—without an examination of larger systems of racism and oppression. Thus, a brief discussion of racialized criminal justice and the racialized prison-industrial complex is useful for two reasons; One, there are strong similarities between trends in school discipline and national data on adult incarceration. And two, scholars have begun to link the criminalization of students in school with adult incarceration (Cobb, 2009; Hirshfield, 2008). In order to better understand the current situation and the importance of the knowledge generated by this research, we present a sketch of U.S. incarceration, focusing on overall rates of incarceration and racial disparities, and its connection to discipline in school. Warren (2011) describes in U.S. imprisonment trends:


The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults . . . Between 1987 and 2007, the national prison population has nearly tripled . . . America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000 adults and children. (p. 5)


These prison statistics are indicative of suffering, for the victims of crimes, but also for the imprisoned population and their family members. They also represent a tremendous amount of talent and energy that is lost from productive activities and represent a huge burden on state and national budgets, especially given the increasing state and federal budget deficits. The United States spent $44 billion dollars on corrections in 2007 and “Between 1980 and 2000, state spending on corrections nationwide grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education” (Warren, 2011, pp. 11–12).


However, the suffering of the incarcerated and their families is not equally shared among the population. Racialized groups suffer greater rates of imprisonment than Whites. According to Warren (2011), 1 in 106 White, 1 in 36 Hispanic, and 1 in 15 African American men 18 years or older were incarcerated in 2008. The explanation for a prison population that exceeds that of any country in the world and for the over-representation of the poor, Latinos and African American men can be found in policies, practices, and socialization processes. The racial pattern of incarceration echoes that of racialized school suspensions. African American and Hispanic students are far more likely to be suspended than their White classmates (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010), and a number of scholars argue that racially disparate school suspensions are a precursor to an overrepresentation of racial minorities in the prison–industrial complex (Cobb, 2009; Hirshfield, 2008; Wald & Losen, 2003). This systemic pattern is a form of institutionalized racism.


We are not talking about individual racism as the overwhelming reason for the negative effect of the education system on so many Black children and young people. This is about systems—government institutions, school institutions, cultural institutions within which we work and with which we collude. What we are in fact talking about is “Institutional Racism” (Blair, 2008, p. 251).


Institutionalized racism is the result of centuries of racism in which racialized oppression was legally, discursively, and actively practiced. During these years, in a multitude of minute ways, biases infiltrated the practices and policies of institutions such as schools. Since these policies and practices, and those implementing the policies are not always overtly racist, it is hard to recognize them as such. Schools are one of the most important institutions for the socialization of U.S. youth. Thus, it is not surprising that the racially disproportionate pattern of school suspensions is echoed in the racially disproportionate patterns of incarceration. Scholars such as Hirschfield (2008) refer to this repeating racially disproportionate pattern as the school-to-prison pipeline. 


INCREASING SCHOOL SUSPENSION RATES AND RACE DISPARITIES


Much like incarceration rates, school suspension rates have dramatically increased in the last decade. At the same time race disparities in suspension rates have increased. Wald and Losen (2003) describe a “near doubling of the number of students suspended annually from school since 1974 (from 1.7 million to 3.1 million)” (p. 10). For example, between the 2000–2001 and 2002–2003 school years, school suspensions in Kentucky increased by over 12 percent (McCoy-Simandle & May, 2004). Several scholars (e.g. Hirschfield, 2008; Kupchik, 2009) attribute this increase to zero tolerance policies. Kupchik (2009) notes that zero tolerance mimics the trend in society at large to incarcerate for minor crimes such as public urination—over the last 30 years the crime rate has not substantially increased even though there has been a quadrupling of the imprisonment rate in the United States. Likewise, Hirschfield (2008) finds that zero tolerance policies have also led to the criminalization of students. The overall increase in criminalization, as seen in incarceration and suspension rates, has been disproportionately borne by students of color.


The degree of disparity in suspension rates differs when comparing one school to another. Schools that are majority-minority and/or low-income have greater rates of suspension than do majority-White, upper-income schools. Disparities in suspension rates of racialized groups within-schools vary depending on the perceptions of school administration and faculty, as well as external factors. These factors include: teachers’ perceptions of threat from minority students (Khalifa, 2011; Kupchik, 2009), and administrators and teachers with stereotypical views of Latinos and African American youth, such as being loud (Morris, 2007), more disorderly and disruptive (Ferguson, 2000; McCarthy & Hoge, 1987; Morris, 2005), and/or more challenging of teachers’ authority than White students (Vavrus & Cole, 2002). Under these negative perceptions administrators and teachers tend to overreact and are quicker to discipline African American and Latino students than White students (e.g., Nelson, Christle, & Jolivette 2005). They also were more likely to feel the need to assert their authority, which relates to increases in suspension rates in majority-minority schools (Kupchik, 2009). Factors external to schools such as decreased funding to urban schools (Nelson et al., 2005) lead to schools warehousing urban youth (Giroux, 2003; Nolan & Anyon, 2004) and are also associated with higher suspension rates.


African American male students are consistently the most likely group of students to be suspended in any school. Hirschfield (2008) notes that demographic factors such as income level account for part of the explanation of racial disparities, but not for all of it. Even when SES is accounted for, a disparity between White and Black student suspensions still exists. In fact, Rausch & Skiba’s (2004) study in Indiana found suspension disparities worse for Blacks compared to Whites in suburban schools. Latinos are not suspended as often as Black students, but they are suspended more than whites (NCES, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 2014). Wald and Losen (2003) found that, nationally, black students are 2.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students, but that “poor black males are at the greatest risk for being suspended repeatedly in a single school year” (pp. 12–13). And more recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2014) found that the trend is worsening; Blacks are now closer to 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than Whites. Furthermore, when GPA is accounted for, race remains a predictor of suspension (Wehlage & Rutter, 1986).


The overrepresentation of Black students persists even though students’ self-reports and extant school disciplinary records have generally failed to find evidence of racial differences in student behavior (Skiba et al., 2002; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Furthermore, a study of school records indicates that the reasons for suspending Whites were more objective (smoking, vandalism, etc.) than those for suspending Blacks—disrespect, loitering, etc. (Skiba et al., 2002). Similarly, Vavrus and Cole (2002) found that African Americans were often referred to the principal’s office because they violated White middle class rules of interaction, e.g., questioning class rules or teacher authority. Likewise, Gregory and Weinstein (2008) found that Blacks were more likely to be referred to the office for defiance or noncompliance than Whites.


In sum, despite any evidence of disproportionality in the behavior of Blacks and Whites, Black students, particularly Black males are more often suspended and usually for subjective, rather than objective reasons. These statistics are alarming to those who seek to create more socially just schools, as studies examining the effects of school suspensions find that the academic and life trajectories of suspended students are negatively affected.


NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF SUSPENSION


Being suspended from school does not improve students’ behavior (Civil Rights Project, 2000; McCord, Widom, Bamba, & Crowell, 2000; McFadden, Marsh, Price, & Hwang, 1992). In fact, quite the reverse: school suspensions increase the likelihood of antisocial behavior a year later (Hempill, Toumbourou, Herrenkohl, McMorris, & Catalano, 2006). Christle et al. (2004) found that the more times a student is suspended, the more frequent and intense their delinquent behavior becomes. Furthermore, frequent suspensions appear to significantly negatively increase the risk of academic underperformance (Davis & Jordan, 1994). Several studies have found that suspension interferes with academic and social progress, which perpetuates failures and ultimately leads to dropping out of school (Baker et al., 2001; Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Skiba & Noam, 2001; Lospennato, 2009). High suspension rates are also related to other negative school factors.


Skiba et al. (2006) notes:


Schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion appear to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters. Perhaps more importantly, recent research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status. (p. 5-6)


Schools with high suspensions rates are associated with other undesirable school aspects, but more importantly, with lifelong negative effects for suspended students. School suspensions lead to decreased academic performance and to increased misbehavior. Moreover, research shows that Blacks and Latinos are more at risk for school suspension than are Whites. Next we present our conceptual framework.


ADMINISTRATIVE POWER: A GLIMPSE AT BUREAUCRATIC DECISION MAKING


Our conceptual framework relies upon scholarship concerning administrative behaviors, in particular the relationship between bureaucratic decision making and organizational threat. In brief, this literature shows that technical–rational, administrative behaviors—in response to perceived external threats—can enact behaviors that reproduce racism in the schools, regardless of whether or not these administrators initiated the practices, recognized the practices, or were themselves individually racist. School districts are bureaucratic organization, which, tend to operate in a technical–rational manner that protects their own goals and interests.


“A useful way of thinking of a bureaucracy is that it consists of those positions or activities whose function is to service and maintain the organization itself” (Scott & Davis, 2007, p. 48). Research on school environments suggests that school officials tend to buttress themselves within the technical–rational function of their job descriptions, especially when faced with uncertainty or controversy. Larson (1997) studied an urban high school within which the African American community strongly resisted the administrative decision to suspend Black students who publically protested the Gulf War during a talent show. The protest—which the Black parents saw as a legitimate form of expression—was viewed unfavorably by the school administrative staff. The administrators expelled the students and refused to discuss race, despite the fact that all of the suspended students were Black, and the numerous claims of racism. Larson (1997) noted that this technical–rational, policy-based administrative posture was antithetical to the culturally nuanced approach that was actually needed. Furthermore, Larson and Ovando (2001) found that school bureaucracies do not respond to the cultural histories, sensibilities, and positionalities of families and students of color.


Both state and federal governments currently hold school districts accountable to very limited and narrowly defined goals, based upon standardized achievement test scores. This has led to a reinforcement of technical–rationality and accountability (Ravitch, 2011. Under such conditions school districts are first and foremost concerned with issues such as their own financial health and with avoiding sanctions. In the highly structured, formalized, and hierarchical bureaucracies of schools systems, school leaders are likely to focus exclusively on policy-mandated goals in order to maintain their financial health and avoid sanctions. As Weber (1968) stated, such technical rationality allows for “nothing but the consistently rationalized, methodically prepared and exact execution of the received order” (as cited in Scott & Davis, 2007, p. 50). Technical–rational bureaucratic thinking limits school administrators to narrowly focused decision making that ignores larger political or ethical issues (Briscoe & Khalifa, 2013; Khalifa, Jennings, Briscoe, Oleszweski, & Abdi, 2013), such as racial disparities in school suspension.


Since discussions of race are so discomforting to those in school leadership (Rusch, 2004), and since racialized suspension gaps and other symptoms of endemic racism have only been recently and minimally associated with school achievement, school administrators tend to cling to the explicitly mandated goals of schools under their purview. In other words, unless an “official” or “policy maker” higher within the hierarchical chain gives the order to address issues such as racialized suspension gaps, schools officials largely ignore the issue. In such contexts, administrators are not likely to focus on the relationship between school suspensions and academic achievement, despite their strong, inextricable connection. Here it is useful to understand the need of administrators to control their environments. As Thompson (2010) argues, “under the norms of rationality, organizations seek to seal off their core technologies from environmental influences” (p. 19). Thus, when threatened, school officials are likely to turn to formal policies, using technical–rational responses.


TECHNICAL–RATIONAL RESPONSES TO “THREAT”


Organizations respond to perceived threats by protecting the organization through the use of reinforced policy-based bureaucratic behaviors, as Conley and Glasman (2008) explain:


A perception of threat in the external environment of a school . . .  appears to cause individuals and groups within an organization to react maladaptively, bringing about rigidity or the persistence of well-learned and dominant responses. This rigidity can occur at the individual, group, and/or school (organizational) level (p. 72).


This rigidity leads to a posture that promotes distinctly hostile relationships between the organization and the perceived outside threat. The organization’s technical–rational response escalates as the organization more stringently protects itself. Conley and Glasman (2008) further argue that this organizational posture to threat solidifies the bureaucratic structure and powerbase, and limits outside influence by restricting any information to the perceived threat. So for example, when school districts are visited by state officials, the administrators would likely only share the specific information that is requested, and could even introduce an elaborate procedure necessary in order for the information to be extracted. Again, Conley and Glasman (2008) argue “At the organizational level, threat is expected to lead to both a restriction of information and a constriction in control by upper management (i.e., organizational centralization)” (p. 72). Much like Larson’s (1997) findings, Conley and Glasman (2008) suggest that unusual or threatening actions—such as questions about racialized suspension gaps—trigger organizations to reinforce their own institutional practices and more staunchly defend their policies.


Technical–rational decision making in bureaucracies acts to reinforce existing practices and polices. Thus, it can act to reproduce oppressive conditions for marginalized students. By sharing our personal experiences, we interrogate the role that technical–rational bureaucratic decision making has on reproducing the racial suspension gap, and ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline. As Weber (1992) noted, bureaucracies have traditionally embedded hierarchical relationships that creates a bureaucratic preference for procedure over content and leaves parents and students in spaces denuded of power. Seminal research has illustrated the ways in which schools tend to reproduce social oppression (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Ferguson, 2000; Moore, 2008; Tobin, Seiler, & Walls, 1999). But when this tendency is married with an inability or unwillingness of those most powerfully positioned to combat such oppression—school leaders (see Solomon, 2002)—it leaves little hope for change, as the schools go on reproducing the same environments from one generation to the next. Thus our counternarrative autoethnography focuses upon district-level administrative bureaucratic discursive response to our inquiries for data and when we shared the analysis of that data.


THE COUNTERNARRATIVE AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AS METHOD


In light of our experiences with administrators—both pre- and post-data retrieval—we thought that it was important to highlight our voice through a counternarrative autoethnography (e.g. Delgado, 1989; Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). Our autoethnography is a counternarrative, as it counters bureaucratic narratives of impartiality, colorblindness, and objectivity espoused by school districts. Counternarrative is a uniquely powerful tool by which to share our own stories about how institutional racism occurs and is reproduced in bureaucratic settings. Counternarrative autoethnography is useful because of historical power imbalances between bureaucratic/nonbureaucratic perspectives and because it is specifically appropriate for dealing with the injustices of racism in the United States. A number of researchers before us have relied on counternarrative and counter-storytelling to present their own realities to the world (e.g., Fernandez, 2002; Shaun & Davis, 2012).


Counternarratives have served as a way for marginalized voices to resist the narratives of power that they confront. Parker and Lynn (2002) argue that qualitative researchers must incorporate counternarratives (and other aspects of Critical Race Theory) if they are to meaningfully research educational problems of race and racism in educational settings. In the face of centuries-old official “legal” and “judicial” racism, critical legal theorists were among the first to use counternarrative voices to resist these official racist adjudications. Critical race theory (CRT) emerged from this field. After noting the permeating and permanent nature of racism, CRT scholars use counternarrative to question official versions U.S. realities. These counternarratives allowed marginalized views of racial minorities to be centered (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). This counternarrative autoethnography uses qualitative data to examine school administrators’ responses to discourses of racialized suspension disparities in their district.


In this research, we also embrace Weber’s (1968) concepts of value in the role of inquiry and research. He argues that in research, the values of the researcher are always present and cannot be overlooked. In a strict Weberian view, researchers needed to divulge their values and talk about research in a descriptive versus prescriptive manner. CRT researchers, and others who embrace counternarrative research, however, not only claim their values and narratives, but they claim them as truth. Thus our positionings as researchers in a counternarrative autoethnography is important. Muhammad, the first author is an assistant professor. An African American man, Muhammad grew up in a middle class family in Detroit, Michigan. His doctorate is in educational leadership. Felecia, the second author, is an associate professor. She is of mixed heritage, but looks White and is generally accorded White privilege. Felecia grew up in a working class family in a suburb of Las Vegas, Nevada. Her doctorate is in Social Foundations. Our different demographic positionings and academic disciplines provide us with vastly different experiences and lenses by which to view the data.


IN THE BEGINNING


Impelled partly by one of the authors’ son’s experience in a public school, during the spring of 2009, we began investigating within-school suspension disparities in urban school districts in Texas. We had hoped to gather data on racial suspension gaps; to share that information with school leaders; and then to help them begin working with school leaders to reduce race based suspension disparities. However, we encountered several obstacles in obtaining and sharing information with school district leaders, which changed the focus and methodology of our study. We turned to counternarrative autoethnography and focused on district responses to our efforts to gather and share suspension data.


School Districts


We considered a number of issues in our selection of Texas School Districts: which districts were geographically closest to the city center, the number of students in each district, which districts had some professional relationship with our university, which districts had a person who held key positions with whom we had a close relationship, and the racial and class makeup of the district. We also considered district administrators who might be happy to work with us. Based on our discussion of these issues, we selected four urban school districts: TXD1, TXD2; TXD3, and TXD4, all of which were majority Latino. TXD1’s district administrator was a former student in our administration program, whom we had identified as an advocate for social justice. TXD3 district administrator had been an affiliate faculty member in our college. We had no former connections with TXD2 or TXD4, but they satisfied our other conditions. We sent each of the districts the following email:


Dear ____________,


I am writing in accordance with the provisions of the Texas Public Information Act (Tex. Gov. Code • 552.001 et seq.), that the following documents be made available for inspection and duplication:


I would like to request the following information regarding discipline in the schools of TXSD School District for the dates 2008–2009 and 2009–2010. I would like the information for the district as a whole and then also disaggregated by school (please include high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools).


1.

The policy governing office referrals, suspensions, and the issuance of citations for students who commit offenses.

2.

Any guidelines for the implementation of how the policy is interpreted in determining who may be suspended, versus who may receive a warning.

3.

Summarized suspension data, including:

a)

Demographic background of students (specifically race, ethnicity, ESL status, and any SES/economically disadvantaged data, gender, age, and geographic location you have on students).

b)

Information on how the data is coded. If one student is referred or suspended 3 times, does that count as 1 or as a 3 for that specific demographic category of race, gender, SES, etc.

c)

For those who were suspended or issued citations, how often students were referred prior to the suspension or issuance of citations (disaggregated by the demographic categories listed above)

d)

Data on which students were issued citations and requested for court appearances (disaggregated by the demographic categories listed above)

1.

Policies for reducing racial and class-linked disparities in education (for example, measures taken to address the racial achievement or suspension gaps).


Thank you in advance for promptly making these documents available for inspection and duplication. If at all possible, I would like to receive this information in electronic form. I look forward to your reply.


Sincerely,


The Texas Government Code 552.001 et seq. is the state level law equivalent to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA, and also related to the Freedom of Information Act), both of which were designed to provide students with greater access to their educational records. Parents, researchers, universities, competing districts, and educational agencies commonly also use it to gain access to student and district data. Personal student information was not associated with any of the data we requested, so the requested information did not inform us of the personal identity of students. We also visited three of the four districts. In TXD1, we met with the associate superintendent and the district statistician and student data manager. We met with a mid-level district administrator in TXD2. We did not personally meet with officials in TXD3. We met with the superintendent of TXD4.


In our attempts to gather the data, we were surprised by the varied responses of district administrators. Another frustration was that each district had unique ways of recording suspensions. TXD1 was the only district to immediately grant us full access to data in a useful form. TXD1 District leaders even met and corresponded with us about the data; thus, after the analysis of the data provided to us, the bulk of our data is based upon our interactions with this district’s administrators. Despite the defensive posture from this district, it is important to note that it was the most cooperative to our data requests of the four different districts, which may relate to our impression that the administrator was a social justice advocate. TXD2 granted us access to the data, but initially provided us data that was not very useful, primarily because it was in paper form. Later they provided us with electronic data, but the data did not associate the disciplinary actions with any demographic markers. Finally, after a number of phone calls and our second visit to the site, they supplied us some data disaggregated in a manner that we could determine race and class disparities. TXD2 was negligent in their recording of suspension data—for one year they systematically recorded data in ways that could not be used to track any type of district or school suspension disparities.


Table 1. Pseudonyms that we use for the districts and their responses to our data requests


Districts (pseudonyms)

Outcomes of requests for data

Texas District 1 (TXD1)

Granted access to data; met to discuss data.

Texas District 2 (TXD2)

Granted access to data, but had to be asked three times before the data was in useable form.

Texas District 3 (TXD3)

Access to data was granted, but placed out of reach by attaching a cost of $1,811.90.

Texas District 4 (TXD4)

Access not granted to data despite numerous assurances that we would be given the data. Final block was to say it would cost over $10,000


We were not able to retrieve data from either TXD3 or TXD4. Both of these districts continuously put obstacles in our way. TXD3 eventually agreed to provide the data at a price higher than we could afford. TXD4 repeatedly blocked our efforts to obtain data, and finally said they would provide the data at an exorbitant price of over $10,000. Thus, our analysis of this situation is entirely based on our interactions and correspondences with the TXD4 staff; yet we note how they resisted giving us access to the data. Their resistance suggests a protective posture. We made the assumption that our request was unusual for Texas Districts and that, as we were outsiders, it was a potentially threatening request. Despite all of the national data and the connection to achievement, none of the districts were already analyzing the data for suspension disparities. Indicating that suspension disparities had not even been an issue of investigation, or even interest, for any of the districts.


Data


The data that we analyzed included:


Thirty-five emails between us, district administrators, or district staff over a 2.5-year period (Fall 2010–Spring 2012);

Eleven phone calls

Interviews of ourselves (e.g., Diaz-Strong, Luna-Duarte, Gómez, & Meiners, 2013);

Quantitative data regarding disparities in school suspensions. Our numerical data included disciplinary data from 98,962 students in 117 different schools from two school districts. Altogether the quantitative data was collected from 75 elementary, 21 middle, 8 high, and 10 alternative schools (7 of the 17 listed did not provide any data) with 67% of the students Latino, 22% European American, 7% African American, and 55% economically disadvantaged. These percentages were rounded to the nearest 1%, thus the total may be slightly more or less than 100%;

Field notes from seven site visits—together we visited two of the sites twice, making up four joint visits. The third site was visited separately: twice by Author 1 and once by Author 2. After each of the joint visits to the central offices, we each separately wrote up our field observations and then compared what we had found with each other. In some cases Author 1 had noticed or interpreted things slightly differently than Author 2. In these cases we discussed any discrepancies and came to a consensus about what best represented our observations. We each wrote up the field notes of our individual visits and shared them with the other person.


Quantitative Data Analysis and Results


We calculated risk ratios (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010) to determine how many more times African Americans and Latinos are suspended than Whites in TXD1 and TXD2. Based on our quantitative analysis indicates that they too were plagued by the same racialized suspension gap trends found in national data. On average, within schools, African Americans were suspended at a rate 2.71 times that of Whites; and Latinos 1.86 times that of Whites. However these disparities varied greatly depending upon schools. In one school African Americans were 24 more times likely to be suspended than Whites. Yet five schools had no disparities between racial/ethnic groups. Like previous studies, we found that the overall suspension rates of schools were related to the percentage of minority students (see Figure 1).


[39_17975.htm_g/00002.jpg]

Note: *Some of the Percentages of ethnic group that were suspended rise above 100 because members of that group were repeatedly suspended during a school year.


However, within-school demographics (the number of students in a school, and the degree of racialized suspension gaps in a school) were not related to within-school suspension disparities. It is likely that the practices and policies within particular schools were key to determining the extent of the gaps, as suggested by others (e.g., Christle et al., 2004). Educational leadership is key in determining the practices and policies of schools.


Qualitative Data Analysis


During the first year (except for the summer) we would meet on average, every other week to talk about the study’s progress and try to make sense about what was going on in regards to our different interactions with the different districts. After recursive reading and mutual discussions of the data, Author 1 did the initial open coding of all the qualitative data we had collected. He coded for the ways in which districts responded to our requests for disaggregated suspension data, as well as their responses to our presentation of the suspension disparities we had found in their district. Some of the codes came from our previous conversations, but other emerged as he read through the data. Author 2 then read through his coding. After we discussed the two additional examples of district responses she found, they were in agreement. We then used consensual analysis to identify the major themes that emerged from our autoethnographic data (Cochran-Smith et al., 2009). The findings in the following section represent the four major codes that came from our examination of the data, and present our joint experiences. Appendix 1 represents a sample of our coding and data analysis.


FINDINGS: THE COUNTERNARRATIVE AUTOETHNOGRAPHY


Our qualitative analysis found that school districts resisted our inquiries for data about, or communication of, racialized suspension gaps in their schools. Their resistance supported Larson’s (1997) findings about the tendency of administrators to hide behind “official” bureaucratic decision making when faced with uncertainty. From our qualitative data analysis we theorize three bureaucratic administrative responses contributed to the maintenance of racism in school—(1) the administrators discursive avoidance of issues of racial marginalization; (2) the tendency of bureaucratic systems to protect their own interests and ways of operating, even those ways of operating that are racist; and (3), the (perhaps inadvertent) protection of leadership practices that have resulted in such racial marginalization. We identified four technical–rational/bureaucratic administrative practices: subversive, defensive, ambiguous, and negligent. We end with specific ways that school district administrators can challenge racist policy and practice in deeply entrenched bureaucratic structures.


First, districts engaged in what we call subversive technical-rationality practices to protect their own interests by blocking the release of information. TXD3 and TXD4 are the best examples of this in that they effectively refused to provide the requested data, although they performed their refusal in different ways. Second, in what we refer to as defensive technical-rationality, we found that districts are constantly attempting to challenge, make excuses for, or avoid discussion of any racism problems within their organization. We refer to the third type of administrative practice as negligent technical-rationality, which is willfully blind to any indicators of racism, aside from those that are mandated. In some ways, all four districts were guilty of this type of bureaucratic reproduction of systemic racism because none of the intermediate school districts (ISDs) were meaningfully interrogating this type of data, including it as professional development (PD) to their districts, engaging parents about its significance and problems, or crafting solutions to deal with the problem. The full degree of negligence of TXD3 and TXD4 is unknown as they effectively denied us access to the data. The final practice was what we refer to as purposeful ambiguity. Here, districts produced ambiguous responses when asked how they would respond to the disparities in their district. All four of these technical–rational practices maintained the racial oppression of students of color because they all lead to a continuance of the conditions that led to disproportionally increased levels of suspensions based on race. In the analysis of our data—in effect, our own experiences—each of these types of technical–rational practices is explained below. This is followed by our conclusions and recommendations for policy makers, ISD administrators, and parents.


Subversive Technical-rationality


[TDX3] will not be able to provide all the documentation pertaining to your open records request until full payment is made. Again, the total amount due is: $1,811.90. Once we have received a check for the full amount, we will be happy to turn over the documents. Thank you.  

Email Correspondence, TXD3 district administrator


After several dead-end phone calls and emails with one of the district staff members, (Author 2) visited the district office, letter in hand, and asked if they could sign a confidentiality form and have access to the records or arrange to have access at some time in the future and then do the work so as to avoid the charge of $1,811, 90. The staff member categorically denied access. In TXD4, administrators did not initially respond to our requests to provide the data. Author 1 went and met with the superintendent of schools for TXD4 and explained the difficulty experienced in obtaining the data. The superintended assured Author 1 that he would provide the information for whatever was needed to look at the suspension disparities. After this meeting with the superintendent, both researchers again sent an email requesting the data, referencing the Texas Information Act. We both received an initial email that they would comply with the request, but then a number of confusing emails followed. In one exchange, they requested a fee of over $10,000 for the documents. In another email, they stated,


This letter is in reference to your open records request regarding “discipline in the high schools of (TDX4) for the dates 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.” Available to you will be the documents responsive to items numbers one, two and 3a. For items numbers 3(c-d) and 4, we regret to inform you that there are no responsive documents. With respect to suspensions, particularly item 3b, every time a student is suspended, the data is entered as a separate incident. We have included administrative procedure F34 (reporting discipline data) as a document which may be responsive to 3b.


Letter sent via email from central district administrator, TXD4


The number/letter references were referring to the letter of request that we sent the district. The conflicting responses, however, left us wondering if we could get the data from the district and if the data would be useful. This was very similar to our experiences at TXD3. The exorbitant fees successfully thwarted our accessibility to the data, as our project was not funded by grants or funding from our university. These subversive measures and barriers to accessibility are reflective of bureaucratic organizations that perceive external threats. The findings here suggest that districts will resist threats by using bureaucratic methods that they believe are supported by policy. Limiting information is one of the primary ways that organizations protect themselves from an outside threat—a reaction that is referred to as organizational “rigidity” (Conley & Glasman, 2008). Straw, Sandelands, and Dutton (1981) suggested that this threat can be financial or could result in, for example, sanctions or diminished reputation for the organization. The administrators seemed to view the possibility of us discovering that the district had racial/ethnic suspension gaps might open them up to litigation, lawsuits, or simply the embarrassment of being labeled racist.


In our counternarrative interpretation, the responses of these two districts protected the bureaucratic core, but by doing so also protected racism within the district. The Texas Department of Education, the school districts we engaged, and independent advocacy agencies in the area all failed to monitor and challenge the suspension gaps in their districts. Furthermore, they restricted information from others who might be interested in analyzing the data. In the following section, we demonstrate that even when the organization shared information, they maintained a defensive posture toward the outside threat being discovered as racist.


Defensive Technical-rationality


"My only question is: how does this compare with State and National Data?"

-TDX1, District Administrator and Data Manager


This remark from a district administrator suggests that a defensive posture was assumed to information resulting from external analyses, which were interpreted as threats. In this case, the TXD1 administrator cautiously released the data to us: “Is this for research, because if it is, I’d like to know upfront?” We assured him that we simply wanted to know if there were indeed any trends of racialized disparities in discipline, and then we would then answer his research question based on what we found. We found a number of disparities to exist in the district; however some of the within-school disparities in suspension rates were extremely large and we felt they needed immediate attention. Thus, we requested a meeting with the district to discuss our findings of the data in the district.


The associate superintendent of TXD1 agreed to meet with us. The meeting occurred during fall semester of 2011. Our intention was to let the district administrators know which of the schools had the highest disparities in their suspension rates so that they could begin to work with those principals to reduce and eliminate the disparities. When we finally met the associate superintendent, the district administrator responsible for managing student data, including demographic and academic trends, also joined us. The administrators we met immediately challenged the statistical calculations that we used to pinpoint the disparities in suspension rates that we were bringing to their attention. Once they were satisfied as to the validity of our calculations, they began to offer explanations, or excuses, about why the disparities were there. One of the administrators emphatically defended the disparities in their district, “yes, but our racial suspension trends are no worse than the State or surrounding districts,” as though this admission ameliorates the problem in his district. They seemed to suggest that they in fact knew the disparities were in place, but that (1) they had more pressing problems in the district and (2) their racial disparities in school suspensions were not much worse than the surrounding district or State of Texas. We sought to impress upon the data manager that in fact nothing excuses the disparities. The data manager reacted defensively, suggesting that there were no problems.


Purposeful Ambiguity


In our counternarrative reality, we noticed two forms of ambiguity, one due to the presentation of conflicting information; the other to vaguely worded replies. As we approached districts for information, the same person or office often gave different, if not conflicting, information as a way to protect their interests. These were attempts by administrators to protect the district by being unclear, or purposefully ambiguous. Purposeful ambiguity as a strategy can be seen to operate in two different ways in our description of how district administrators responded when asked how they were going to address the suspension disparities in their district. Our meeting with TXD1 concluded with the district associate superintendent saying that they had not known the problem was so serious, and that they were going to hold some district-wide professional developments to address the problem. Because of our personal relationship with the associate superintendent, we asked to be kept informed about the ways the district decided to address the problem.


Months passed without us hearing from the district, so we contacted them to ask what had been done, and to offer our partnership and assistance. The superintendent responded by saying “I can’t say that we completely understand until we do it (i.e., calculate the likelihood of suspension disparities) ourselves—which we will be doing soon. We will then test our methods to address the issues to see what is most effective and report that information to you both.” We found this interesting since we had already explained the method to the TXD1 data manager as he took notes; we then sent a step-by-step explanation of how we calculated the disparities, using one of their schools as an exemplar. We received and email back stating that he now clearly understood our methods of calculating the disparities. Later we got an email from him listing his districts’ overall standing in terms of disparities in suspension rates compared to other districts in the state. We never heard from the district with regard to how they were going to address the issue. We emailed him, sending him a link to an article from the Dallas News that discussed the problems of the gaps in suspension rates for racialized groups and asking him again to let us know what their district was doing to address the problem. Finally we got a reply thanking us for bringing the disparities to his attention. Embedded in his reply was the following ambiguous claim of addressing the issue with a rationalization for sidelining the issue.


We are in the process of moving forward w/our principals who have areas of concern in removing students of color from our class at a greater rate than Anglo students. Some of those who stood out are working on assessing the data with their staff. However, I’m sure that you can imagine that this is one of many social justice issues we deal with on a daily basis from funding to staffing to parent education.

-TDX1, Associate Superintendent


Of note here are four different strategies the district administrators employ upon learning about the suspension disparities. The first strategy is purposeful ambiguity as he claims vagueness once again about how the disparities were calculated. Once they had a written clear explanation, instead of letting us know how they were going to respond to the situation, the administrators then resorted to defensive technical–rationality by sending us a table that compared their district to others in the state. The third strategy was to state in purposefully ambiguous terms what they were doing to address the situation as seen in the email above where no specific information is given. Finally, the district administrator notes that they have many other social justice issues to attend to, thus they cannot focus their attention on the suspension disparities.


The findings here suggest that unless mandated by law administrators in bureaucratic organizations enact technical–rational behaviors that maintain the organization and are not necessarily in the best interest of the students. Moreover, they will defend the behaviors and actions of the institution despite the fact that they may be knowingly reproducing racist conditions for the children they serve. This is in line with what Scott and Davis’ (2007) claim that organizations are first and foremost interested in—maintaining the organization. Since the administrators were not actually mandated by law to address suspension disparities, it was not clear that they actually did anything at all to address the problem. We found that their defensiveness regarding discipline disparities helped to reproduce conditions that continuously led to racial marginalization. That is, the administrators likely felt that they were merely defending the reputation or interests of the organization, which indeed they were. But when they did so, they defended all of the district’s practices, including harmful practices. We felt that there was indeed some negligence in TXD1’s approach because they knew of the disparities yet did not address them, but the other Texas districts were far more negligent.


NEGLIGENT TECHNICAL–RATIONALITY


The final way we narrate that districts reproduced oppression was by their method of recording student discipline data. Despite the national and local prominence given to racial suspension disparities, TXD2 recorded their discipline data in such that it was impossible to discern racial/ethnic disparities. In fact, all districts, and even the Texas State Board of Education, were in some ways negligent. On the state level there are no requirements for consistency in how districts maintain, report, and respond to racialized suspension data. At the time of this study, newspapers carried a story that summarized a Texas Board of Education decision to deregulate the manner in which districts carried such data, due to tumultuous financial conditions. There was no clear district response to the possibility of racial suspension disparities in any districts we approached. We attribute this—and attribute blame—to a district’s tendency to only respond to state mandates for which they would be held accountable, consequently ignoring other issues that may be oppressive toward students or their families.


During the time of this study, there were a number of major stories that carried in major Texas Newspapers, such as the San Antonio Express News and the Dallas News that highlighted the problem of racialized suspension disparities. It is difficult to believe these districts leaders were ignorant of the problem, and therefore we place the responsibility on the district for not having input, monitored, and responded to data that might indicate problems in the district.


Conclusion and Implications


In this study, four urban school districts in Texas acted to protect practices that have led to racism in their school districts by allowing African American and Latino students to be suspended from school at disproportionate rates. This is very damaging for the students, and is strongly linked to school failure and drop out in Texas according to a 2011 study at the Public Policy Institute at Texas A&M University (Fabelo et al., 2011). According to the same study, Blacks and Latinos were disproportionately suspended, and were also more likely to be ensnarled by the juvenile justice systems. Interestingly enough, only 3% of the students who are suspended had actually committed offenses that warranted a suspension. Armed with similar local data, we felt it would be appropriate to partner with local districts to address and begin eradicating this problem. This marginalization of students of color, we believed, would raise alarm warnings with the school districts, and we were best positioned and willing to help. The types of alarms that were sounded in districts, however, were precisely the kinds we did not expect. Thus, we chose to share our counternarratives to illustrate how racism can take yet another form. By definition, bureaucratic organizations are egalitarian and equal, offering all opportunities and resources to all students equally.


However, what our autoethnographic counternarrative study offers is two researchers’ view (and, in the case of one of us researchers, a parent’s view) of how the system acted to protect its own interest. By default, the resistance, negligence and purposeful ambiguity of bureaucratic school administrators left in place any practices that may have been oppressive to students served by these school systems. In this regard, we interpret their administrative behaviors as reproducing racism by not noticing or addressing school factors that led to the disproportionate suspension of students of color.


Instead of joining our efforts, the administrators resisted them and in effect helped maintain conditions that would allow this oppression to be reproduced. This occurred in various behavioral dispositions: subversion, defensiveness, ambiguity, and negligence. Essentially, district administrators were not comfortable engaging in discussions about race. They interpreted it as a threat, and this likely prevented them from actually addressing the problem. In the case of two districts, they perceived questions about racialized discipline data to be an external threat and prevented outsiders, us researchers, from getting the data. Another district was negligent in collecting and storing the data; the data they shared with us was incomprehensible. And the remaining district indeed shared data, met with us to discuss the threatening data, but was very defensive and ambiguous in regards to our findings that students of color were being disproportionately suspended. This all leads to a fossilization of the racism as expressed by suspension disparities.


Our primary message is meant for administrators, who often don’t understand that when racism already exists in a system, a non- or post-racial posture is not acceptable. Though most administrators likely found racist practices in the district prior to their own arrival, nonetheless it would still be enacting racism if they chose not to challenge those practices. Racialized oppressive practices are accepted and systematized, while administrators claimed they were doing their jobs, because they were responding to the stated bureaucratic needs. Thus, the overall findings of this study indicate that school district administrators will perpetuate embedded racist practices unless they make principled decisions and take actions to resist current practices.


Because the administrative commitment to bureaucracy and their technical–rational disposition, we suspect that if the State of Texas mandated a collection and reporting of racialized discipline data, districts would perhaps engage it differently. The implication for policy makers thus, is that schools must be held accountable for race and class based suspension gaps, as they have been for racialized achievement gaps. Only then, when districts are held accountable for suspension gaps, will the issues surrounding the racialized achievement gap be addressed. Given the strong relationship between the two gaps (i.e., racialized achievement and suspension gaps), these findings are very important for Texas lawmakers who, for example, decided recently to weaken district requirements for tracking such discipline data. As researchers, we declare our desire—or more poignantly, bias—to help schools become places of inclusion and tolerance of Black and Latino children. But despite our obvious biases to contribute to useful discourses and dialogues on issues of racialized suspension gaps, we sincerely hope that districts—for legal or ethical reasons—begin to address this problem on their own. We suggest that if intermediate school districts (ISDs) or state-level education departments—in partnership with universities and researchers—led research efforts to address school discipline disparities, this might be a way to reduce district-level resistance to addressing the issue. We speculate this to be the case because; we believe such relationships would lessen the perceived threat from outsiders.


Implications for Researchers


This work is informative for understanding how researchers approach urban school districts that restrict information to outsiders they perceive as threatening. Likewise, as suspension disparities research becomes even more crucial, it is important for researchers to understand discrete ways in which oppression is reproduced. Implications of this research, therefore, might be broken into two broad categories: those impacting access to information and those concerned with how to interpret data received from the district. Regarding access, we suggest that researchers move to develop trusting relationships with the prospective districts before asking for entry to data. In this study, the district from which we received most access and dialogue was the district with which we had the closest relationship. Though they were defensive and ambiguous, they were forthright in giving us the information and willing to have a dialogue about the findings. This is more than we can say for any of the other districts. One strategy in establishing a dialogue might be to hold a number of relationship-building meetings with select district officials, in which researcher may simply just ask what their job entails. This rapport-building may “let down the (defensive) guards” of administrators and bureaucracies that feel threatened by outsider requests for information. Secondly, this study has impacted how we, as researchers, view bureaucratic structures in our own understanding of research and practice. In other words, if researchers know that school districts and administrators are likely to reproduce social conditions in schools, be they equitable or oppressive, they may begin with a more particular set of questions—a set of questions that would allow them to focus on how such systems can be resisted rather than if such systems even exist.


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APPENDIX

SAMPLE OF DATA ANALYSIS


Codes: Welcoming /openness to dialogue (O), Subversive technical rationality (S-tr), Defensive technical rationality (D-tr), purposeful ambiguity (P-A), Negligent technical rationality (N-tr)


I.

Sample One: Email exchange (between TD1 and Researchers)

Drs. Briscoe and Khalifa,


We certainly appreciate your bringing us the risk ratio way of looking at this data and we are in the process of moving forward w/ our principals who have areas of concern in removing students of color from class at a greater rate than Anglo student. (O) Some of those who stood out are working on assessing the data with their staff. However, I'm sure that you can imagine that this is one of many social justice issues we deal with on a daily basis from funding to staffing to parent education. (D-tr)



While it is disappointing that other districts have not responded to your request or perhaps are taking the issue seriously, we are not interested in a press conference on this issue. (O)


Attached you will find further research we have done on risk ratios in (TXD1). Dr. R [a pseudonym] pulled data to show the following:


1. where we stand compared to the other 14 largest districts in the state (by student enrollment) on per 100 assignments to ISS and OSS (regardless of student characteristic). (D-tr) As you can see, using 2009-10 data, we were above the state average in per 100 assignments to both ISS [in school suspension] and OSS [out of school suspension] - something we have been trying to address this year through monitoring and training. (O)


2. risk ratios of African American and Hispanic students compared to Anglo students for both ISS and OSS compared to the other 14 largest districts in the state. These tables also employ 2009-10 data as we had to pull from TEA. The state average on these four tables represents every district in the state. As you can see, there is a serious problem in OSS comparing African American to Anglo students across the state. (D-tr)


3. Finally, there are several pages that calculate risk ratios for both ISS and OSS for African American and Hispanic students compared with Anglos across all of our secondary schools. These tables employ current year data and will be quite helpful in pointing out where we have issues to address. We will be reviewing this material with secondary principals next week. (O)



II.

Sample Two: Field notes


“I had previously known Michael Davis [MD, a pseudonym], a white male in his 40s as a student. He was one of the better students in class and more oriented toward social justice issues than many people in the class. But I wasn’t sure who he would be as an associate superintendent. Would he become an apologist for the system or be as concerned as we were.


We arrived at the district office at about 5 minutes to 2pm and our appt was at 2. We found the front office easily the receptionist that Drs. Briscoe and Khalifa were here to see MD. She asked us to sit in some chairs and wait. About 8 minutes later (2:05), MD came out to greet us personally and escort us to his office.


We sat down at a table in MD’s office wood grain and round with 6 chairs around it I sat across from each other and MD sat at the head of the table with a chair between him and Muhammad and between him and me.


Muhammad told MD about how he lived in the same school district and had become interested in suspension data especially in regards to disparity and that he was talking about it one day and I said I would be interested in working with him and we had gotten the data from (TXD1) and run the numbers and wanted to present what we had found to MD.


I pulled out the data display and told him what a risk ratio was and how it was calculated. I also pointed to the Chi square tests that were run and that except for Health Sciences, in relation to whites: African Americans and Hispanics were suspended at a statistically significant rate p < .001. MD said that he had seen that. I pointed out the two worst schools in terms of risk ratios which were J and C. MD seemed receptive. I asked him if he was aware of this data. MD said not in this particular fashion. (O).


MD was looking at the data and I was explaining the various correlations with suspension rates and then R, a white man in his fifties, came in and sat down. (D-tr) Muhammad passed his data display over to R to show him what we had found and I briefly explained it to him. R wanted to know what variables were controlled for. I asked what he meant. He said, like SES. I pointed out that the eco dis risk ratios were far less than those for Latinos and African Americans, so that it could not be based upon SES. I also explained that we used frequency counts using chi-square. He said that he understood that. R seemed pretty defensive. Neither Muhammad nor I knew that R was going to be at the meeting MD hadn’t informed us ahead of time. (D-tr)


I pointed out the correlations that suspension rates had with drop out rates, gpa’s, school morale, test scores and future problems, etc.


MD said he was surprised about one school that had the highest AF Am risk ratio, because that was one of the best schools in the district in terms of test scores. I asked if that was true for AF Am’s as well and he seemed to say yes. (O)


MD said that it was apparent that there would be a negative correlation between suspension and achievement level. (O)


R wanted to know how the districts data matched up with national and state data. I said that we didn’t know that we were just starting with SA and wanted to see where it would go. (D-tr)


R persisted in wanting to know how this data matched with national and state data. (D-tr)


Muhammad pointed out that it didn’t really matter if the national risk ratios were 5 to 1 and the districts was 3 to 1, that 3 to 1 was still unacceptable.


R still wanted to know how the data compared to State and National data and pointed out that we could get the info from TEA for every district in TX. (D-tr)


I could feel myself getting progressively angry and said that while it would be interesting to compare their district to state and national suspension risk ratios, we weren’t here to compare TXD1 with the nation or state--that a university worked closely with the district we were here to let them know there was a problem at their district so that they could address it at a policy level and that we would help them in whatever way we could. I said that I would be interested in going to the TEA website and pulling up the information for the state and for school districts and that that was good to know. I could feel the anger in me, but tried to remain professional and I hope no one noticed. —Muhammad said afterward that he did not notice that I was angry, but that the other two men might have been aware being more accustomed to white displays of anger. He did say that R got a strange look on his face at that time.


R wanted to know if there was a national trend. (D-tr)


Muhammad pointed out that yes there was a national trend and that in many cases community advocacy groups and the media got involved and the school district was smeared badly and the good things that school districts were doing was lost in the upheaval.


I listed several places (Florida, Kentucky, Seattle, etc.) that have been in the media for disparities in suspensions based upon race and ethnicity. I pointed out that in Florida’s case a suit was brought against the district.


Muhammad said that we certainly did not want to see something like that here. Muhammad said that we had several people at (Universities) that were experts in this area and would be glad to help this district address the issue.


Muhammad then pointed out the serious nature of these disparities in suspension rates that in fact several people saw this as the first step in the school to prison pipeline.


MD said he was aware of this. (O)


Muhammad said that the percent of prisoners who had been suspended while in school was something like 80%.


MD said he wasn’t surprised.


MD pointed out that it was interesting because this school year he had done a professional development with the secondary principals (middle and high school) about developing alternatives to suspension. (O)

I pointed out that research had shown that in the cases of disparity both teachers and students had reported the same number of infractions by white and black students even when black students were being suspended at a far greater rate. I pointed out that sometimes there was an escalation when teachers were sometimes unaware of how stereotypes affected them and over reacted to Black and Latino male student behavior and then things just spirals into a bad scene. MD said he could see how that happened. (O) I also pointed out that more often than whites, students of color were suspended based upon the discretion of the principal rather than for offenses such as bringing a knife to school or threatening another student.


R wanted to know if this was based upon research. (D-tr) I said yes.


Muhammad pointed out the important role of principals in setting the school climate.


R kept asking if these assertions were based upon actual research. (D-tr). Muhammad and I both repeatedly said yes. But each time we brought up a new finding (even saying previous research) R would again ask that question. (D-tr) I elaborated a bit more on some of the research that said alternatives to suspension was great, but that such an approach did not address the disparities based upon race, ethnicity or SES and that those things in particular needed to be addressed. I also talked about research that showed a proactive positive approach was better in reducing behavior problems rather than a reactive punitive approach.


Muhammad pointed out that a warm and caring, but authoritative approach worked best for minority students that they might be more accustomed to a more authoritative approach at home. I elaborated on what Muhammad had said. MD said that most good principals were aware of that and would say that is what they do.


R interjected that all of the brain-based research had been discredited along with all the learning styles stuff. (S-tr).


Muhammad seemed a bit heated at this point and he said we are not talking about brain-based research, but research does repeatedly find that culturally sensitive teaching did make a huge difference.


I added on that the disciplinary style research was recent, coming out in the last 5 years and had not been discredited.


I asked if their SROs (MD interjected police, we call them police) were trained. MD said yes and detailed a high degree of training to deal with students in a school situation. He also pointed out that they would never hire a regular SA police without training. (O)


I said that was a good thing!


MD pointed out that while suspensions should not be used excessively there were some students who with one-day suspension suddenly saw the light and changed. (D-tr) So he said the circumstances surrounding the student had to be taken into account. He also said that sometimes student behavior was so bad, that they needed to be suspended—even if it was in the first two weeks of school.


Muhammad pointed out that that was certainly true and he definitely knew that was the case, but that there was still a problem with the disparities in suspension.


MD agreed. (O)


A number of times Muhammad and I asked R how the district would respond. His answer was that they needed to look over the data more carefully and then they would get back to us about how they might address this issue. (O) I agreed to send the data display to him as well as an article that explained how risk ratios were calculated and talked about disparities in suspension. I also asked R for his card saying that I might want to call him for help if I had a problem locating the suspension data on the PEIMS TEA website. He or MD (I forget which one) said that oh I would need to send out another open records request. (S-tr) I said I didn’t want more data from them, just some help in negotiating the webpage. R. said, oh okay and handed both Muhammad and myself his card.


I told MD that I had told Dr. K that MD was one of my better students in class and MD said thanks!


We walked out with R bringing up the rear.


MD shook both of our hands and R just disappeared.


I sent the email to MD as soon as I got back to my office.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 8, 2015, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17975, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:56:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Muhammad Khalifa
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    MUHAMMAD A. KHALIFA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Having worked as a public school teacher and administrator in Detroit, Dr. Khalifa’s research examines how urban school leaders enact culturally relevant leadership practices. Dr. Khalifa has recently published in Educational Administration Quarterly, Urban Education, the Urban Review, and Race, Ethnicity and Education. He is coeditor of the forthcoming books, Rage, Love & Transcendence in the Emergence of Social Justice Scholars: Becoming Critical in Diverse Social Spaces (SUNY Press), and Handbook on Urban School Leadership (Rowan and Littlefield). Dr. Khalifa has conducted leadership and equity training in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. Recently, Dr. Khalifa has been helping U.S. urban schools perform online equity audits to address achievement and discipline gaps in school.
  • Felecia Briscoe
    University of Texas
    E-mail Author
    FELECIA BRISCOE is currently an associate professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Her research interests center around identity, power, and issues of equity. She has recently published two articles: “‘That Racism Thing:’ A Critical Discourse Analysis of a Conflict Over the Proposed Closure of a Black High School” published in Race, Ethnicity, & Education and “Anarchist, Neoliberal, & Democratic Decision-making: Deepening the Joy in Learning and Teaching” published in Educational Studies. She and Dr. Khalifa have just finished a book, Rage, Love & Transcendence in the Emergence of Social Justice Scholars: Becoming Critical in Diverse Social Spaces, which is under contract with SUNY Press.
 
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