At a community forum last week at Downey High School, an expert in social psychology explained how unspoken or implicit biases may influence even a cultured school teacher to escalate disciplinary action against students of color.
Dr. Jason Okonofua also explained how the teacher-student relationship is damaged if a student thinks he or she is a target for unfair treatment.
“If a person feels they are going to be a victim of discrimination it leads them to not want to be in that setting,” said Okonofua, who was hired to study and address school discipline rates for kindergarten-through-12th grade students in Modesto City Schools.
For the past several months, the scholar’s team has conducted focus groups and surveyed more than 100 teachers on implicit bias and disciplinary practices in Modesto City Schools and provided online modules for teachers and students to use.
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But none of the preliminary findings were disclosed to the 100 people attending Thursday’s forum, many of them adults who say they witnessed discrimination as schoolchildren in local schools, and now their own children live with it. And not much was divulged about recommendations to reduce suspension and expulsion rates for students of color, which according to social scientists, create a pipeline to unemployment and prison.
Thursday’s forum led by Okonofua was no hand-holding session. The national expert, who holds degrees from Stanford and Northwestern universities, stressed the value of academic research in coming up with solutions for implicit bias. He said his work is strictly about science, and he answered many questions from audience members by saying he lacked the data or research findings to provide an immediate answer.
“I’m a scientist, not a politician,” he said. The school district, which has worked with Okonofua for eight months, said it won’t release preliminary findings because it could distort the final results and make them inconclusive.
The UC Berkeley associate professor was hired in May following a threatened lawsuit by Advocates for Justice and the Modesto-Stanislaus Branch of the NAACP backed by attorneys from California Rural Legal Assistance and the Lawyers’ Committee of Civil Rights of the Bay Area.
The groups charged that African-American students in MCS were 3.5 times more likely to be suspended when compared with the general student population, and Latinos were three times more likely to be suspended than other students. To avoid costly litigation, the school district paid $50,000 to settle with the 10 claimants and paid $120,000 in attorney fees. And it agreed to hire Okonofua for expert advice on making changes.
Okonofua’s work with teachers and administrators could determine if MCS incurs more legal costs. The civil rights groups have vowed to resume litigation if they don’t see changes in discipline rates for minority students.
The school district says discipline numbers for students of color have fallen since 2011-12. That year, alarming data on student discipline rates created a groundswell for changing practices in public schools across the country.
In California, African-American students missed 64 days of instruction per 100 students in the 2011-12 school year, compared to 17 days of missed instruction for white students. The discipline rate for African-American students declined to 39 days per 100 in 2016-17, compared to 10 days for white students; however, African-American students in junior high lost 71 instruction days in 2016-17 and those in high school lost 43 days, almost triple the rate for all students statewide, according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies.
Modesto City Schools expelled a red-flag-raising 149 Latino students in the 2010-11 school year, compared with 34 white students, and then managed to virtually eliminate expulsions in the next several years. Eight Latino and two white students were expelled for serious disciplinary problems in 2014-15. Four Latino and six white students were ousted last year.
Suspension rates for African-American high schoolers have remained high in the last six years; about one in six were removed from class last year compared with 1 in 25 white students at high schools in MCS.
In a study on school districts across California, plenty of other districts had higher numbers in terms of lost instruction days for suspended students.
Ceres Unified School District was third highest in the state for disciplined students missing class time in 2016-17, with African-American students missing 89 hours per 100 students, white students missing 64 days and Latinos missing 51 days. Turlock Unified was 28th in the state among districts with the largest gap between African-American and white students missing classes due to suspensions. Turlock’s numbers were 64 days per 100 African-American students due to suspensions, which was 46 days more than white students.
In terms of lost instruction days, Modesto City Schools did not appear in the top 25 or top 50 lists of school districts with high discipline rates in the Center for Civil Rights Remedies report.
Regardless of study results, members of Advocates for Justice said they’ve dealt with a history and culture of bias toward students of color in Modesto schools. Suspensions lead to expulsions or students dropping out of high school, boosting minority-student enrollment in alternative schools that offer fewer education opportunities, the group says.
Maria Andrade of Modesto said MCS teachers need training to help them with better decision-making in the classroom. She said a referral made her son, who has an attention deficit disorder, become depressed and suicidal.
“We have an issue with implicit bias,” said Andrade, who attended last week’s forum. “It is even worse with the president we have” in the White House.
In announcing the legal settlement in May, attorneys for the claimants said school districts like MCS have artificially lowered their discipline numbers by sending students to intervention classrooms, where they sit at desks and receive no instruction. The district has disputed the claim.
At any rate, the $300,000 contract with Okonofua’s team is a serious effort to address implicit bias among staff and ensure fewer students are removed from classrooms, the district says.
Okonofua said implicit bias affects most everyone, whether it’s teachers, police officers or employers, because stereotypes about ethnic groups or poor people are rooted in the culture and “are in the air we breathe.”
While supervising classes full of young people, he said, teachers may not recognize they harbor subtle biases or stereotypes that can shape their quick decisions to discipline students who are defiant or disruptive. The same goes for principals who are under pressure to manage hundreds of elementary-school students or the thousands on high school campuses.
Okonofua has done research concluding that teachers, due to implicit bias, tend to escalate discipline for African-American students and are more likely to label a black student as a troublemaker in the class. The research measured teacher responses to nonviolent misbehavior in classrooms.
The teacher-student relationship suffers when a student feels he or she is singled out for unfair discipline, which makes them want to leave that setting, he said. Likewise, an employee who feels no respect from a boss will soon look for another job, but will stay longer if appreciated by a co-worker or someone else in the workplace.
One way to maintain the teacher-student relationship that’s vital for learning is discipline that still makes the child feel respected in the relationship, Okonofua said. After the data is analyzed, he said, a possible recommendation could deal with what happens after an MCS student is suspended. What meetings are held before the child returns to class? Who advocates for the student? And what’s the plan for moving forward?
During the question-and-answer period at the forum, a teacher for an alternative school called for an emphasis on training in MCS as hundreds of new teachers are hired in coming years due to a wave of retirements. According to the teacher, she was “No. 2 referral queen” at the school and repeatedly asked for training before finally paying out-of-pocket for coaching.
The next year she reduced her referrals by 90 percent, she said.
The ethnic makeup of school district staff is bound to arise in the discussion of student discipline practices. As of September 2016, five of the 34 principals in Modesto City Schools were Latino, 27 were white and two were African-American.
The district had almost 140 teachers of Latino descent in elementary schools, representing 23 percent of teaching staff, while about 20 percent of high school teachers were Latino. Less than 2 percent of elementary and high school teachers were African-American.
Latinos make up 60 percent of the 30,000 students served by MCS, white students make up 20 percent and 3 percent are African-American. The suspension rate for Latino high schoolers was 150 percent of the rate for white students in the 2017-18 school year.
MCS spokeswoman Becky Fortuna said the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan includes action to expand recruitment activities with an aim to diversify staff. District representatives attend an annual NAACP job fair and plant seeds with the Black Student Union on high school campuses to educate students on career opportunities with MCS, she said.
Okonofua has favored online training for elementary, middle and high school teachers aimed at minimizing the influence of implicit bias. According to a timeline released by MCS, the scholar’s team is scheduled by the summer to complete data collection of three years of student records and school records from the 2018-19 academic year.
The team will analyze the disciplinary data and school records in the fall and report the results in winter 2020. Recommendations based on statistical analysis and scientific insights are due in spring 2020.