By Alice Doyel
Guest blogger


Alice Doyel, education advocate

Below is a magnificent essay on implicit and explicit racial bias that was written for me by Rose Spidell, Senior Education Ombuds, Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO), part of the Washington state Office of the Governor.

Mission: OEO works with families, communities, and schools to navigate educational challenges and increase collaborative problem-solving so that every student can fully participate in and benefit from public K-12 education in Washington.

Vision: OEO envisions an equitable public education system that is responsive and accountable to every student in the State of Washington.


Addressing Implicit and Explicit Bias in Discipline


I personally started working on school discipline issues about 15 years ago. Even at that time, disparities had been evident for years and people were saying: We’re going to double down and reduce our racial inequities and our racial disparities. It’s 2020 and we are still seeing the same kinds of racial disparities. Even when schools have reduced discipline overall, they have not seen similar reductions in gaps between how students of color are treated compared to their white peers.

Thinking about it that way, it feels really daunting. On the other hand, we have more data available now that can help pinpoint some of the root causes of disparate outcomes.

When school districts look at their data, they often see, for example, that the greatest racial disparities are for offenses like disruption or disobedience. Those are categories of behavior that can be interpreted in many different ways. That opens the door to potential influence of bias in decision-making. Another place districts have found disparities is with student dress codes, with data showing African American girls disproportionately disciplined for dress code violations. These kinds of disparities call on districts to consider how implicit biases and stereotypes about students of color can influence adults’ decisions around how to enforce school rules. Research has shown, for example, that adults tend to perceive African American girls as older than their age, influencing how adults interpret and respond to their behavior.

Additional research highlights how race can play into whether a student’s behavior is interpreted as just messing around or as a more serious reflection of character. When a minor act is interpreted as part of a pattern of misbehavior, an adult might respond with a disciplinary action, instead of a redirection or reminder of expected behavior.

Again, we have known about the disparities in discipline for a long time. Districts have said for years that they want to reduce these disparities. I would like to see districts turn to students and their families who have been disparately affected by discipline practices to listen and learn from their experiences. Districts could start with an acknowledgement and apology to groups of students that their data show have been disproportionately targeted for disciplinary action. For example, imagine a district that finds that it has disproportionately disciplined African American girls for dress code violations: the district could acknowledge this, share the data, and offer an apology to the African American girls. The district could invite the girls to share how the discipline affected them, and offer their ideas for change.

Taking the step of acknowledgement and offering an apology to the affected students allows those students to see themselves in a different way in relation to authority. Students repeatedly singled out for discipline are likely to internalize a message that they are a student with a behavior problem. It is a different kind of self-image and relationship to the school than if the school acknowledges, you weren’t really breaking a rule any more than anybody else does.

OEO included a new section on disproportionality and bias in our school discipline guide on our website. Two key ideas from that are:

  1. Involve the students and families most directly affected when you are analyzing data and coming up with solutions; and
  2. Look at data and information on the adult decision points in the discipline process to help identify possible factors contributing to the overall outcomes.

This last point encourages a close look at what factors influence teachers, principals, and others as they make decisions about whether to refer a student for discipline, or impose a suspension or expulsion.

When we ask whether a particular decision made by a particular adult was biased, or even influenced by implicit bias, we often find that we can come up with all kinds of reasons why the decision would have been the same regardless of race.

At the same time, research teaches us that our society continues to hold stereotypes based on race. Also, research teaches us that our decisions are most likely to be influenced by implicit biases when we are busy, experiencing stress, and acting on less than complete information. That sounds a lot like the kinds of circumstances often present when educators make important decisions about student behavior.

One of the valuable tools I have learned about in different professional development opportunities around cultural responsiveness and diversity, equity, and inclusion is the reminder to “hit the pause button” and think about what is influencing my thinking here – what is influencing my instinct to action versus inaction?

Educators enter their profession out of a sense of caring. Confronted with the idea that their decisions are biased and unfair is such a disconnect. I would love to see the development of a culture that welcomes and accepts the need for reflection and revisiting decisions. We need to increase the opportunities for students and families’ perspectives to guide inquiries into root causes of disparities and identify potential solutions. Then, I think we will see more substantial change.