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«Behavioral Dissonance and Contested Classroom Spaces: Teachers’ and Students’ Negotiations of Classroom Disciplinary Moments by Rebecca Neal A ...»

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Twenty-six percent of the total sample within this study indicated being suspended at least once. More than double, 59% of African American male students reported being suspended or expelled from school, compared to 26 percent of White male students and 42% of Hispanic male students (Toldson, 2011). Forty-three percent of African American females reported being suspended, almost double when compared to 26% of Latina student suspensions, and nearly four times the percent of White females who reported being suspended; however, despite this trend, there is a lack of documentation that substantiates African American males displaying higher levels of disruptive behavior (Wallace et al., 2008).

Rates of suspension across gender, race and school level indicated that males were more likely than females to experience at least one suspension and that African American students were more likely than White or Hispanic students to be suspended (Mendez & Knoff, 2003). Again, among all student groups African American males were among all student groups to be the most likely to be suspended. Skiba et al. (2002) also substantiated this circumstance and reported that African American males were most likely to be referred for disciplinary measures and received the most severe behavioral sanctions. African American males are also overrepresented in suspensions across almost all infraction types. Their overrepresentation in school discipline begins during elementary school and continues throughout their school career.

The literature showed that Latino and African American male students were among the highest student groups to receive disciplinary referrals. Absent however, was a discussion regarding school disciplinary measures for minority students in special education. No study disaggregated its data by ethnicity and students receiving special educational services or had a discussion exclusively regarding Latino and African American male students in special education being dismissed, suspended or expelled from school.

Wallace et al. (2008) also examined discipline referrals that included race and gender differences of school disciplinary practices from a large nationally representative sample of African American, American Indian, Hispanic, and White students that spanned 14 years. They reported a small decline in the percentage of students of color sent to the administrative office occurred during 1991 to 2005, but conversely, during that same time period the expulsion rates of African American students increased. This examination like others (Roque, 2010; Vavrus & Cole, 2010), demonstrated that African Americans were disciplined the most at school (Wallace et al., 2008; Welch & Payne,

2010) and brings into question if African American students are judged unfairly by school personnel.

Socio-demographic status. Cited in the literature was the association between a low socioeconomic status and office discipline referrals (Mendez & Knoff, 2003; Payne & Welch, 2010; Skiba et al., 2002). Commonly noted was that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were at an increased risk for school suspensions (Mendez, Knoff, & Ferron, 2002; Richart et al., 2003) and disproportionately represented in school disciplinary measures (Skiba et al., 2002). Although this literature review spans eleven years, from 2000 to 2010, Skiba et al., (2002) indicated there is more than two and a half decades worth of evidence documenting the socioeconomic and racial disproportionality in the administration of school discipline (e.g., Children’s Defense Fund, 1975; Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997; Thornton & Trent, 1988). Skiba et al. (2002) also noted that ethnicity and socioeconomic status influenced school suspensions. Agreeing with Skiba et al. (2002), Nichols (2004) reported disparities of discipline consequences to also exist among students of color receiving free or reduced lunch.

Indicators of neighborhood poverty or low socioeconomic status were measured by the amount of students receiving free or reduced lunch. It was also shown that significant proportions of African American children attend schools in the highest poverty areas (NCES, 2006) and Arcia (2007) found that schools with a higher concentration of African American students have higher dismissal, suspension and expulsion rates.

Monroe (2005) showed that teachers frequently approach classrooms of lowincome African Americans with a strong emphasis on controlling behaviors; and when disciplining African American students, teachers were more likely to demonstrate reactions that appeared more severe than required. Even when controlling for economic status, Gregory and Weinstein, (2008) found that African American students were disciplined more harshly and more often than their peers.

Although students of color are capable and have the ability to do well at school, there is evidence to suggest they unfairly receive discipline referrals and as a result an overwhelming percentage of students involved in school suspensions and expulsions struggle to stay positively engaged and involved in school. If the lens that teachers and school administrators use to view students of color is negative or limited in perception, it can perpetuate the ongoing representation of Latino and African American males being among the highest student group to be issued behavioral referrals. In most cases race, gender and a low socio-demographic background were seen as cause for teachers to issue behavioral referrals; and interpreted as an inhibitor to doing well at school. However with close examination of discipline inequities, it was determined that overall many claims regarding Latino and African American male students misbehaving was unfounded and often a biased decision.





Cultural differences. The process of singling out minority students through the use of discipline policies was seen as a principal dynamic leading to students of color being overrepresented in discipline (Fenning & Rose, 2007). Often noted was that students of color were perceived by teachers and administrators to be more rule-breaking, disruptive, defiant and disrespectful than other student groups (Gregory & Weinstein, 2008; Newcomb et al., 2002; Skiba et al., 2002). In one study, school officials viewed the behaviors of Hispanic boys as threatening (Morris, 2005) and indicated they more often issued strict and punitive disciplinary sanction to Hispanic students. On the contrary, school officials tended to view the behaviors of White and Asian American students as non-threatening, which resulted in fewer and less strict behavioral sanctions (Morris, 2005). Agreeing with Morris that some students of color were perceived more aggressive than their peers, Payne and Welch (2010) indicated that African American students were more likely to receive stricter or harsher behavioral controls than White students.

It was evident throughout the literature that teachers and school administrators believed certain student groups misbehave more than other students (Kupchik & Ellis, 2008; Morris, 2005; Vavrus & Cole, 2002). A prevalent explanation for the disproportionate representation of African American and Hispanic students in school discipline was that they engaged in more disruptive and offensive behaviors (Payne & Welch, 2010). A central argument for their overrepresentation in exclusionary discipline and the group’s overall struggles to achieve and maintain academic success, is that African American and Hispanic students are to blame for their own behavior.

It is unclear if it is due to cultural difference, but Watts and Everelles (2004) found that African American students may be act out because of their resistance toward oppressive social conditions that force students to feel vulnerable and angry. If this were true, then the premise is that due to one’s cultural background they are more prone toward acting out and noncompliance. Another potential claim to the culture difference argument is that African American students have a greater involvement in school discipline because of their “urban pedagogies”, which make students less competitive and subjected “to an education that emphasizes discipline and control” (Duncan, 2000, p. 30).

Although these claims can be disputed, it is clear that the results of some studies imply that students are the cause of their own educational demise due to their personal cultural background.

Such is the case with African American and Hispanic students. The scantiness of these studies and others is the examination of teacher-student relationships and adjustments students make at school. With that said, earlier investigations documenting the quality of classroom interactions between teachers and students have not been very robust (Meehan, Hughes, & Cravell, 2003), but rather limiting in scope.

Using one year of a high school’s suspension referrals, Gregory and Weinstein (2008) examined patterns of suspension referrals. They determined that nearly 70% of referrals issued to African American students were for defiance compared to 55% of referrals issued to White students. Due to the subjective nature and variability of how defiance is conceptualized by teachers, Gregory and Weinstein (2010) cautioned there is still little known about why African American students are excluded from school or if their (perceived) misconduct occurs across classroom contexts. An important notation within their study was that most behavioral referrals were issued by “one or a few teachers, but not by the majority of teachers” (p. 496). Given that, the continued examination of teacher-student relationships can serve as a point for disciplinary encounter prevention and potentially change the social and academic trajectory for students being suspended and expelled.

It has been documented that the perception, treatment and educational outcomes for African American students, particularly African American males was stigmatizing (Fenning & Rose, 2007) and generally described negatively. Both media and the educational literature portray African Americans as existing in cultures of drugs, violence, educationally inept, or social deficient and deviant. Scholars theorize, this perception directly contributes to African American students being overrepresented in exclusionary school disciplinary sanctions.

Teacher and administrator bias has been identified as a contributing factor to high representation of students of color in school disciplinary measures and Skiba et al. (2002) alluded to racial and gender bias against Latino and African American male students as a contributing factor to their overrepresentation in school discipline. Neal et al. (2003) found that teachers perceived the movement styles common among African American students to be more aggressive and in some cases less academically able than students with standard movement styles.

It is because African American students are perceived by school personnel “to engage disproportionally in delinquency, despite findings that they do not” (Payne & Welch, 2010, p. 1024), that greater school punitive measures are directed toward them.

Nichols (2004) went as far as to suggest that teacher and administrator bias regarding perceptions of deviance perpetuates the expectation of negative behavior and can contribute to more physical contact and vocal assertiveness of African American students. Monroe (2005) argued that African American students are “targeted for disciplinary action in the greatest numbers” (p. 46). Although the merit of these studies is without question, further investigation is needed regarding how students understand and make sense of their school experiences.

Very Lil Prior research considers student’s perceptions regarding the enforcement of school rules and this is an area that requires further investigation; however, Howard (2001) assessed the perceptions of African American elementary age students and reported that student preferred classrooms where teachers displayed attitudes of care toward them. Studying the viewpoint and perspectives of students is necessary for understanding the range of variables that may shape their perceptions (Kupchik & Ellis, 2008), thus influencing their behavior. A limitation of the previously mentioned studies is the lack of attention to micro-level analyses of teacher-student interactions. As noted, analyzing the roles of teachers and students in classrooms has the potential to “impact students’ academic and social outcomes” (Hinojosa, 2008, p. 176).

Institutional Factors Various school characteristics have been found to affect disciplinary practices and student punishments. Schools with a high percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch, a high African American student population, and located in neighborhoods with higher crime rates tended to operate with stronger social control of students. Arcia (2007) found that school personnel disciplined students depending on neighborhood crime rates. This means that students are disciplined more harshly when crime levels increase and less harshly when neighborhood crime rates decrease. It was concluded that the actions of school staff were seen as a safeguard for the school.

When this occurs school staff makes disciplinary decisions operating from a position of fear and in anticipation of future offenses that often results in severe forms of punishments to students. Such actions criminalize students. Payne and Welch (2010) remind us that the criminalization of students results in an intensification of harsh school discipline that can increase the likelihood of students committing future offenses and crimes.

Being a student of color and poor are strongly correlated to receiving school reprimands as Payne and Welch (2010) concluded that schools with a greater African American, Hispanic, and low income student population are more likely to respond to misbehavior in a punitive manner and less likely to respond in a restorative manner.

Johnson, Boyden, and Pittz (2001) reported that schools with a student population comprised of 50% or more students of color, tended to use strict security measures than schools with a predominantly White student population. Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) suggested these acts of “beefed up security” imply “there is a socially constructed image of African American and Hispanic students that is manifested in an institutional context of schools that govern disciplinary actions” (p.102).



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