To become a champion of racial equity and social justice takes more effort than one might think. As a culture, we laud individuals with good character, attributing such virtue as a necessary component to ending the inequities that afflict society. We rely on our intuitive wisdom that tells us, “If you want to make a difference in this world, be a good person!”
And although this is admirable and has its merits, social psychology has demonstrated that being a good person is not nearly enough to make real progress toward justice. “So why is it that being a good person in insufficient?” you might ask. The answer is simple: We all carry implicit biases. When considering how to address the racial disparities that plague the juvenile justice system, wrestling with our own implicit biases has to be part of the equation.
Implicit racial bias is not racism, or the belief that one or more races are superior in comparison to another. Implicit biases are in essence automatic associations in the brain. The brain has the ability to make connections between different concepts, allowing us to sort through the myriad of information we absorb on a daily basis.
For more research on implicit bias, check out our recent National Juvenile Justice Network Snapshot Implicit Bias: Why It Matters For Youth Justice
This is why we intuitively know that fire equals danger, and why we associate peanut butter with jelly. Unfortunately, one kind of automatic association that our brains tend to learn, and then rely on, is racial stereotypes. In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded by subtle and not-so-subtle stereotypes. Without realizing that it’s happening, our brains absorb these racialized associations, using them to guide our social interactions.
Many Americans of all genders and racial identities associate blackness with criminality, whiteness with innocence, women with weakness and men with leadership, among many other stereotypes. These shortcuts can be activated in the brain whenever these stereotypes are “primed,” or triggered.
Research shows that stereotypes can be primed simply by seeing stereotype-consistent words (e.g., lazy, criminal), or seeing a member of a stereotyped group. We do not have to believe in these stereotypes for them to be awakened subconsciously. In fact, we can consciously object to them. However, conscious objection to stereotypes does not stop us from using them unconsciously, to interpret the people, things and situations around us.
For example, when there is a report of an active shooter, many of us will automatically conjure up images of a white male. We may not realize we are relying on an implicit bias until we have paused to think through our assumption, or received evidence to the contrary. Without self-reflection or objective-fact finding, our biases can control our perceptions.
Now imagine how implicit bias might work when we are faced with situations that involve black youth. Do we associate them with violence, culpability or recidivism, without considering the facts, their level of adolescent development or interrogating the real nature of our own conjectures? Studies have shown that implicit bias can disrupt the integrity of decisions made by teachers, principals and law enforcement officials in regards to black youth, and is a contributor to the disproportionate rate of black representation in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Defenders of justice have gravitated toward implicit bias trainings as a means to temper the influence of these negative automatic associations. And although there are limitations to the effectiveness of trainings, they are indeed important. Trainings bring about awareness and provide the tools to understand what implicit bias is, the risk factors that trigger its effects and offer recommended practices to limit its influence in our decision-making.
This can have a real impact on the decision-making processes used to decide if a juvenile should be arrested or expelled from school. But beyond trainings, there is much more that can be done to prevent us from relying on implicit bias. Specifically, we must turn our attention to the actual policies that guide the behavior of those who work or interact with youth.
Social psychology has documented a number of factors that put individuals at risk of relying on implicit biases to make decisions. Unbeknownst to us, these risks are often contained within the policies we lean on to make determinations about youth every day. One major risk factor is having broad discretion to make choices. Another is ambiguity, or when a rule or situation is open to multiple interpretations.
Studies reveal that when guidelines for appropriate behavior or social expectations are unclear, people are more likely to make decisions with racially biased outcomes. Policies can initiate circumstances where these risk factors affect those tasked with carrying out the mission and goals of an institution. For example, a policy can give discretion to identify and punish juvenile misconduct, but the factors that count as misconduct might be left ambiguous.
Language such as “major disruption,” or “real and present danger,” left without concrete guidelines for interpretation, can lead to the practice of discretion in unfair and inconsistent ways. The more discretion and ambiguity overlap within a policy, the more one is at risk of having implicit bias confound one’s decisions in the practice of the policy. The less discretion and ambiguity are present in a policy, the less risk that one will rely on implicit bias. Thus, policies can raise or lower the risks that make one vulnerable to implicit bias.
How then might we take this information and strengthen the policies we use daily? This is challenging since the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity are often common features of policies. The goal then is to constrain or remove them when feasible, and when doing so will promote equity.
Social psychology research also demonstrates that accountability measures can inhibit risk factors by placing limits on how far actors can utilize discretion or interpret ambiguous content in policies. Accountability is the obligation to accept responsibility for one’s actions (or the actions of others). A system of accountability that prevents biased decisions before they occur, and requires decision-makers to thoughtfully explain their decisions, has some ability to limit the influence of implicit bias. If we constrict risk factors within policies and strengthen accountability measures, it is possible to create a decrease in the racial disparities affecting youth in the juvenile justice system.
We are all susceptible to implicit biases; however, we do not have to act on them. The first step is the acknowledgment that our intentions to be fair and good people are not enough. Implicit bias is not about character. If we are willing to learn about it and practice the tools to protect ourselves from its influence, we are off to a great start.
Implicit bias trainings can provide the support to do this. Organizations can find sound implicit bias trainings from reputable institutes such as the Center for Policing Equity. Additionally, efforts to thwart implicit bias can be taken even further and include reassessing the policies that guide our daily professional practices. This involves identifying and addressing the risk factors of discretion and ambiguity in written policies that may lead to racial disparities.
Moreover, organizations can engage in programming and initiatives that actively support employees in challenging unconscious stereotypes that include interactions with diverse communities or the distribution of learning materials. If you don’t want to harm youth, and you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, this will include an understanding of our judgments and evaluations in radically different ways. Facing and fighting implicit bias is an honorable step in the right direction: to win the battle for racial social justice.
R. Nicole Johnson-Ahorlu is the director of juvenile justice and education at the Center for Policing Equity: She supports education and law enforcement partners in addressing the “school-to-prison pipeline” in their jurisdictions. This includes designing empirical studies to inform solutions for racially disparate outcomes for youth in education and the justice system. She has an M.A. in African studies and a Ph.D. in education, both from the University of California at Los Angeles.
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the streamlining of at-risk students from schools to incarceration or related correctional-type facilities that results from punitive discipline practices and criminalizing misconduct in schools. Ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline is the consequence of zero tolerance policies that originally mandated schools to penalize students for bringing weapons and drugs onto school grounds.
This penalty has grown to include nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm. An alarming rate of students have been suspended and/or expelled for noncriminal acts such as disruptive behavior, violation of dress code, displays of affection or defiant behavior toward authority. In the 2011-12 academic year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 130,000 were expelled due to minor infractions. During that same time, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once. It has been discovered that a student is 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school after receiving exclusionary discipline.
With individual schools having discretion to apply zero tolerance, a recognizable pattern has developed of minority students being disciplined more harshly, and at disproportionate rates, for minor subjective behaviors that do not cause physical or mental harm, such as verbal aggression, being disrespectful toward authorities or cellphone usage. Students of color have been found to be lower academic achievers, overall, and are detrimentally impacted by the low expectations set forth by school systems.
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), African-American students represent 16 percent of the national student population, but 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. Similar statistics are reflected for Hispanic and other racial minority youth nationwide.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and students with disabilities are also found to be negatively impacted by this pipeline. LGBT youth are often victimized by their peers and blamed as the cause of problems by their teachers, and students with disabilities are often misdiagnosed and more likely to be held back a grade, which often leads to dropout. With such staggering statistics found in the available research, it is imperative that newer approaches to school discipline be considered and implemented to decrease the negative impacts such policies have on students and to decrease the streamlining of students into incarceration.
Alternative discipline strategies
While strict disciplinary actions such as expulsion are vital for punishing behavior that threatens the safety of others in school settings, it is not effective in correcting more minor problematic behaviors. Schools should instead use more positive-based strategies for addressing and modifying defiant behaviors.
Protecting the most vulnerable students from the dangers of incarceration and recidivism must be of primary concern. The school environment should be one of the main settings to help these students work on eliminating such undesirable behaviors, particularly for those who lack effective discipline at home.
Methods such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion that have the ability to create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is warm and welcoming for all students.
OCIP provides counseling and support services to help students address and modify challenging behaviors by giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes and focus on personal development. This program also emphasizes the development of essential life skills such as effective communication, goal setting, decision making and issues surrounding sexuality and healthy relationships. A Harvard report found that students enrolled in the OCIP demonstrated improved behavior and had a noticeable decrease in disciplinary referrals.
CMCD is another program that is an alternative approach to many of the harsh disciplinary actions associated with zero tolerance policies. Designed to improve the overall environment of inner-city schools, it has the primary goal of having teachers and students collaborate to set classroom rules. Such a method creates a fundamental shift in the ways students are disciplined and expected to behave and allows for a more shared power dynamic. This program also focuses on rewarding positive behavior, which is imperative for improving school climate, especially for schools that have poor attendance and poor academic performance. Such programs as these have made drastic changes within schools and helped to dismantle the pipeline.
Cultural competency training
As previously mentioned, there has been an alarming rate of students of color being suspended and expelled from schools due to minor infractions over the last decade. Several studies have negated the probable cause that the basis of race alone is the reason behind minority students engaging in negative behaviors.
In fact, there is no evidence that African-American students engage in more problematic behaviors than their Caucasian counterparts, yet they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at higher rates. The racial disparity of the school-to-prison pipeline reveals a deeper-seated issue, systematic racism within American schools. While minority students and students from the majority may display the same behaviors, there’s an identifiable correlation with stronger negative perceptions and negative feedback for minority students.
America’s historic racial narrative has transformed into implicit bias, which is one of the main causes of the pipeline and helps to explain the disproportionate rate of minorities being disciplined for subjective behavior. Implicit bias training and cultural diversity training are potential solutions to resolve consequences from actions motivated by implicit bias. Implicit bias training allows professionals to self-report their innate decisions and teaches how these decisions impact the lives of youth.
Cultural diversity training allows professionals to become more aware of others’ culture, and prompts the exploration of how and why certain stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs exist. Being made aware of the potential stereotypes and biases that exist in the subconscious minds of professionals working with students can have a significant impact on the ways in which school personnel interact with students and can also help make the shift from making biased decisions to choices that are objective and more concrete.
It is up to schools and associated administrators to eliminate the cultural biases and conflicts prevalent in all school systems and work against the academic progress and successful development of all students, with at-risk students from minority groups in particular. Learning from such shifts has the potential to transform how students are disciplined into ways that better facilitate the necessary maturation to become successful adults and members of society.
Considering the impact policies such as zero tolerance have had on the school-to-prison pipeline, it is necessary to advocate for new policies that reconsider how to discipline problematic students in more effective and rehabilitative ways. The school environment is where students learn and grow, and it only makes sense that in this environment they are also exposed to and experience better approaches to development that occur outside of textbooks and classroom lectures. Students must learn how to act appropriately and how to respond to external stressors that can often provoke undesirable behaviors.
With evidence from research that proves zero tolerance and related policies that incorporate mandatory punishment for minor offenses do not work and, in fact, exacerbate misbehavior, newer approaches must be considered. Not only have studies found such policies to increase problematic behaviors, they also point to unsafe school climates and a lack of improvement in terms of students’ academic performance. School policies need to be revised to only use suspension and expulsions for the highest level of violent offenses and alternative effective methods for minor nonviolent offenses.
Some states have been diligently revising their code of conduct and rules. For example, Oregon replaced its zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety and well-being of others within the school environment. Other schools across the nation have cleared up grey areas concerning disciplinary action and limited including law enforcement during disciplinary decision-making practices. While research is ongoing and necessary to track results from such changes, more needs to be done to increase the rate at which changes are being made to strengthen America’s youth and schools.
Schools have been a prominent cornerstone for youth’s overall development and the learning environment for them to become contributing members of society. However, far too many students have been robbed of their right to be comprehensively educated due to the school-to-prison pipeline. We dim the light for students and the nation's future when we continue to push problem students out of schools and funnel them into the juvenile/criminal justice system, thereby feeding the belly of mass incarceration.
School personnel and administrators, lawmakers, social workers and counselors must make dismantling this pipeline a top priority and consider this small sample of strategies for improving the lives of our most vulnerable students and our school climates. The utilization of such solutions needs to be incorporated into the future and advancement of all schools to strengthen our school systems and the educational experience of all students.
Kendra Cheek is a social work senior at Middle Tennessee State University with a passion for research and serving youth in marginalized populations. She’s an emerging leader, currently serving as the secretary for Phi Alpha National Honor Society in Social Work and vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.
Justin Bucchio is an assistant professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University, with expertise in child welfare and LGBT foster youth. Justin’s experience with social work and the child welfare system stems from his early years in foster care, which ignited his passion for serving youth in out-of-home care.