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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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It was reported that over 80 percent of schools located in mostly urban areas, used some type of security and surveillance program (Dinkes, Kemp, & Baum, 2009). Aspects of these operations include detection dogs, adult supervision in hallways, uniformed security guards, police officers, security cameras, locked or monitored doors, locker searches, and the use of metal detectors (Hirschfield, 2008; Giroux, 2003; Watts & Everelles, 2004). Besides police controlled canine searches, schools were also noted to conduct sting operations involving undercover police officers as students (Berger, 2002).

Also reported were extreme cases where groups of students were strip searched by police officers to locate stolen goods (Sultan, 2001).

Schools increasingly resemble prisons where students appear more criminal like than pupils, and are treated like “suspects who need to be searched, tested, and observed under the watchful eye of administrators who appear to be less concerned with educating them than with policing their every move” (Giroux, 2003, p. 554). In many ways with the use of metal detectors and the presence of police in schools, combined harsh disciplinary practices schools function like prisons and criminalize students (Watts & Everelles, 2004). These types of school cultures produce prison like populations of students rather than populations of academically inspiring students. Opponents of prison like practices in schools, indicate that not only do these tactics create environments of mistrust and fear, but also puts students at risk.

In a response to widely publicized incidents of school violence, zero tolerance policies began being instituted during the mid-1990s (The Civil Rights Project/Advancement Project, 2000). The requirement for schools to develop their own zero-tolerance policies was put into motion with President Bill Clinton signing the GunFree Schools Act (GFSA) in 1994. This law forced public schools to adopt a zerotolerance policy or risk losing federal funding and mandated student punishment.

Students who brought objects to school that even slightly resembled a weapon would be punished with automatic suspension or expulsion.

Consequently, teachers elected to adopt a zero tolerance stance on student misconduct, issuing recommendations for suspensions to students whom they perceived to be misbehaving. Eventually many schools and school districts expanded their zero tolerance policy beyond its original scope and began enforcing even stricter disciplinary consequences. At the beginning of the last decade, 94% of U.S. public schools had adopted a zero tolerance policy (Skiba & Leone, 2001); many of which have extended their zero tolerance policy to include tobacco, alcohol, assault, knives or weapons, and explosives.

Payne and Welch (2010) suggested that certain school practices (e.g., zero tolerance) and staff perceptions of students influence the use of particular discipline policies in schools. Using data from a large Midwest predominantly urban school district in the state of Michigan, Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) examined how principals made disciplinary decisions relevant to the zero-tolerance policies and the impact those decisions had on students. The study included 36 principals from two high schools, three middle schools, and 17 elementary schools. In total, 80% of the district’s principals were involved in the study. Of the school administrators surveyed, 61 percent of the participants were African American, and 39 percent described themselves as ‘European American.’ The student demographics for the study included 75% African American, 17.1% White, 5% Asian or Native American, and 2.4% Hispanic.

Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) concluded that school leaders’ comprehension of zero tolerance policy indicated that each principal had his or her own understanding of the zero-tolerance policy. Welch and Payne (2010) indicated that schools with a larger percentage of African American students used more punitive disciplinary response such as zero tolerance, and that the decision for greater use of punitive controls was a function of a racial threat perceived by school personnel. Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) found that principals’ individualized interpretation of events and incidents led to differential treatment on like-offenses, indicating zero-tolerance policies were not equally applied among students. It was also reported that many principals made ‘common sense and practical decisions’ (e.g., considering if there was a parent at home to care for the student during their removal from school) when determining the necessity of a suspension or expulsion.

Findings indicated that the majority of expulsions occurred between the 6th and 8th grades or in the 9th grade. Forty percent of expulsions occurred in the 9th grade, whereas only 20% of expulsions involved 10th and 11th graders. Some differences were attributed to the age of the student or the number of previous offenses. Overall, it was determined that discipline policies were implemented and applied in school settings in a variety of ways and often with high levels of inconsistencies.

Dunbar and Villarruel (2002) provided valuable insight into principal’s perspective regarding their interpretation of zero tolerance. They documented instances of zero-tolerance policies being arbitrarily imposed throughout districts in the state of Michigan. For example, they recorded that in a rural Michigan school district where hunting after school was a part of a community’s culture, it was acceptable and not considered a violation of zero-tolerance for students to have guns in their vehicles as long as they remained concealed and students did not show the weapons to other students while on school grounds. This district’s practice was different than another rural community districts wherein if a principal was aware that a student had a gun in his vehicle, the student would be asked to leave school to take his gun at home and then return to school. An additional instance was noted in an urban school district where a student’s beeper was heard and generated a search of his vehicle that led to the discovery of a firearm.

Dunbar and Villarruel (2010) documented instances of variability and clearly demonstrated that disciplinary policies are not evenly enacted. It is important to document these inconsistencies within school disciple policies and bring to the surface the fact that certain groups of students are grossly affected and denied their educational right. A strength of this work is the examination of institutional dimensions of school discipline policies and practices. Furthermore, the study revealed the continued need for school personnel to understand the impact their decisions have on students’ educational experiences and lives outside of school. A limitation of the study is the relatively small sample size (36 principals), and hence, the limited generalizability of the study findings.

A great limitation of zero-tolerance policies is the subjective nature in which decisions are made. In addition, the automatic mandate for school suspensions has been seen as a denial of school access. Repeated suspensions and denied educational access places students on a pathway in a direction of future incarceration or involvement in the criminal justice system. Often when students are suspended, no homework is given or communication provided regarding class assignments. In many ways, zero-tolerance policies, suspensions and expulsions are not used as a disciplinary strategy, but as a way to get rid of students viewed as trouble-makers (Arcia 2007; Christle, Nelson, & Jolivette, 2004).

The studies examined in this review make an important contribution toward addressing the gaps in the literature on school discipline policies and inequities; however, while the researchers build a strong case for examining disciplinary practices, a large percentage (81%) of the studies lacked an important feature—student voice. There is an absence of student voices within studies that focus on school discipline and punishment.

Understanding students’ perspectives and interpretations of their environment and experiences would provide valuable insight into student behavior.

Summary of Explanations for Disciplinary Inequities Several explanations have been offered for African American and Hispanic students’ engagement in school discipline infractions. This research provides explanations at the macro-level as well as personal factors. At the macro-level, broad justifications were given which included the characteristics of a school (e.g., size, location), demographics of students and teachers at a given school, and school personnel’s understanding of school policies.

A variety of explanations were provided that suggested to play a role in Latino and African American male students being highly represented in school discipline. The main arguments contained in the literature centered on cultural deficit perspective, individual characteristics and institutional demographics, and students’ cultural backgrounds no being aligned with the culture of the school and teacher expectations. In short, described was teacher and administrator bias toward students, a student being disadvantaged based on a low socio-economic level, attending a school located in a low income area, or students being perceived as defiant and challenging to authority. In summary, three broad explanations were outlined: (a) cultural deficit perspectives, (b) cultural differences, and (c) institutional factors.

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Student actions regarded as misbehaviors are investigated through a sociocultural model that explains complexities of classrooms through the interdependence of three cultural layers: What People Bring, What’s Already There, The Work People Do Together (Artiles, 2003, in press; see Appendix D). This perspective affords a more complex understanding of students’ cultural tools that mediate their interpretations and decision-making processes during interactions with teachers. In addition, the model allows researchers to study the way discipline infractions that occur in the classroom are constructed during teacher-student interactions. Because student behaviors continue to emerge and cycle during interactions with a teacher, we need to account for these three layers to understand the complexity of misbehavior that can result in classroom conflicts.

Drawing on insights from sociocultural theory and the sociocultural origin of behavior, I explain how what notions, ideas, and beliefs teachers and students bring with them into the classroom contributes to their social functioning within a setting. I address the institutional layer of the framework by explaining what is already there through constructs from sociocultural theory. The work that people do together entails the interactional layer. In the interactional contexts of classrooms, teachers or students make decisions mediated in part by perceptions and interpretations.

Nested within the design of the conceptual framework for this study is the belief that when a teacher’s perception is enacted upon the student, or vice versa, each responds to the other based on their perception of what has transpired (see Figure 2). These iterations of moment-to-moment interactions create subjective behavioral outcomes open to criticism and scrutiny both personally and by others. These expected behavioral outcomes can be stated or unstated, distinguished or undistinguished, explicit or implicit, implied or directly communicated. Along with personal behavioral expectations, the teacher and student “expect” the other to “perform” or “act” in a certain way. It is within the space of what teachers and students do together that can lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretations, or misbehavior (perceived or real).

Figure 2. Conceptual framework.

Source: Adapted from Artiles, A. J. (in press).

Relating this to conflict, the preceding review of the literature revealed that the precursors of student disciplinary infractions have been neglected in this knowledge base.

In addition, the explanations and research methods used in this literature do not take into account an interpretative perspective or examine interactional processes. Absent in this work is the perspective of the student and highly represented is only the teacher and administrator’s account of transpired classroom events.

We know that most disciplinary referrals begin in the classroom (Skiba et al., 2002). This means that teacher perception of student behavior is a significant influence on referral decisions. Through teacher-student interactions, disciplinary infractions are co-constructed (Vavrus & Cole, 2002), but because of the relations of power between teacher and students, only the teacher’s interpretation of what counts as disruptive classroom behavior is often valued as a correct interpretation of a disruption or what constitutes misbehavior. The individual beliefs and worldview a teacher has is a personal influence they bring with them into the classroom. Personal influence plays a role in a teacher’s perception of students because it shapes how they deal with student behaviors.

The same notion applies to students in that what a student thinks and how a student views a teacher also mediates the interactional space where classroom conflicts occur.

Important is that African American males are “aware of how race [shapes] the manner in which they are viewed by their teachers and school administrators” (Howard, 2008, p.

954). The assumption could be made that if a student is aware a teacher perceives him negatively he could react awkwardly in response to his feelings.

Scholars have studied teacher beliefs and found that teachers often misunderstand and misjudge expressive movements of African American and Hispanic students (Cole & Boykin, 2008; Morris, 2005; Neal et al., 2003). This is a problem because the actions of students of color are generally interpreted as threatening, aggressive, disrespectful (Morris, 2005; Newcomb et al., 2002; Skiba et al., 2002), and in some cases, deceptive (Gregory & Weinstein, 2008). White, African American, and Hispanic students can engage in similar behavior, although only the behavior of African American and Hispanic students may be brought into question (Morris, 2005).

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