Andrea Joseph-McCatty is an assistant professor at the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee. Her research examines disproportional school suspensions and, in particular, the ways in which inequity impacts the experiences of students of color. Below are highlights from an interview with The Conversation. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You recently gave a talk about the disproportionate suspension of Black girls in the U.S. Why is equity so hard in our schools?
Most recently my work has focused on understanding and addressing racially disproportional school suspensions and the ways in which those are also gender disproportionate. For example, we know nationally that in the 2017-2018 academic year, over 2.5 million children received one or more out-of-school suspensions. While these numbers are going down compared to years prior, students of color and students with disabilities are receiving a greater share of suspensions and expulsions.
It’s also important to disaggregate the data to understand trends at the intersection of race, gender, class and other student characteristics. For example, in 2017-2018, Black girls had 4.19 times the risk of receiving an out-of-school suspension compared to white girls. Nationally, they are the only group of girls disproportionately suspended in relation to their enrollment.
To address high and disproportional suspensions, schools have implemented multitiered interventions, such as restorative justice practices, and positive behavior interventions, which create positive, predictable, equitable and safe learning environments. While some studies show a reduction in high and disproportional suspensions from these efforts, discipline disparities often persist.
However, some schools are seeking to change these disproportional rates for Black girls and other girls of color by partnering with community organizations such as Gwen’s Girls Incorporated, The F.I.N.D. Design and Code Switch, among others, to provide gender and culturally responsive interventions.
Yet, a major barrier to intervention is the perception adults hold about Black girls. Instead of receiving developmentally appropriate and socioemotional support, many Black girls are adultified – a concept coined to describe how Black girls are disproportionately perceived as less innocent, needing less nurturing, less protection, less support, knowing more about sex and adult topics, and are more adultlike than their peers.
While some may generally assume that students only receive school discipline for breaking school rules, social scientists have used data to show how race, gender, disability and class bias at the intersection of punitive discipline policies and systematic inequities lead to disproportional suspensions.
For example, we know that Black girls in particular are getting disciplined in school for wearing their natural hair in afros or having braids, both of which are styles that allow Black girls to embrace their beauty and have cultural pride in the face of Eurocentric beauty ideals that suggest that straight hair is more professional and neat.
In other cases, Black girls are more likely to receive school discipline outcomes for subjective infractions such as tone of voice, clothing and disrespect compared to other girls. And that’s part of the way racial and gender discrimination intersect to create disproportional suspensions for Black girls. In my research, I build on these ideas and also explore how adverse childhood experiences, including neglect, abuse, neighborhood violence and parent incarceration and/or death, become another layer by which Black girls are misunderstood.
In my research and community partnerships, we explore how race, gender and adultification bias are shaping the way adults perceive the behaviors of Black girls and how this might impact how their trauma-response behaviors are perceived. Will it be met with punishment or support? Increasingly, schools are adopting trauma-informed practices and policies to decrease the punishment of childhood adversities in school.
But I wonder if they account for the way that race, gender and class bias and inequities both inform adverse childhood experiences and inform adult perceptions about children’s behaviors. While school-based trauma-informed practices are a step in the right direction, the next question I also ask is, how are school districts defining what an adverse childhood experience (ACE) is? Are they using the early measure normed on a predominantly white middle-class population, or are they using the [expanded measure] that surveyed a diverse population and identified additional ACEs such as racial discrimination, foster care involvement, neighborhood violence and bullying?
Without using the expanded definition, it is possible that schools are continuing to overlook students’ needs and instead punish their trauma. My colleagues and I suggest that practitioners need trauma-informed professional development at the intersection of race and gender at minimum to begin to provide robust support for students of color experiencing adversity.
Does the race of the teacher play a role in all this?
I would say yes, but I don’t think it’s a simple answer. I think there is a movement that says, hey, we still need more teachers of color to foster a more equitable environment. While there is research to suggest that Black teachers are less likely to suspended Black students, this is not always a consistent finding for boys and girls, and across school demographics, because having a diverse workforce does not totally eliminate bias.
Therefore, having more teachers of color is not the sole solution to addressing disproportional suspensions. It can help in terms of seeing students’ behaviors in context, particularly when an educator of color comes from a similar cultural context, gender context and class as that young person. However, despite these benefits and their training, it is an uphill battle for any educator to teach in a school system that has not addressed past and present funding, practice and policy inequities.
So when we think about change, it’s really systemic change that we need. We need whole school change to begin to address some of these inequities. Meanwhile, as I continue to co-advocate with my community partners for Black girls, we’ll continue to ask, “Is your intervention intersectional”? – meaning does it take into account the the interconnected nature of social categorizations and discrimination.
Andrea Joseph-McCatty is Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Tennessee.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Thanks for the story, I’m not surprised. Look at the history of this country that will tell us something. We have been discriminated against for eons don’t expect it to stop, it will not. Word has it that that the white woman is the most protected person in the country, the bkack woman is the least protected person in this country. Now we see it in the school system, it is every where. Word has it that more black men are in prison than white men, is that true? Probably. The system we live in. This society has always tried to keep people of down, that will not stop. We don’t have to let them keep us down. We do need more teachers of color in the classroom, perhaps that will help. Is it harder for teachers of color to get a job, probably. We as people of color should continue to move forward, our forefathers did with oppressive Jim Crowe laws, must be we as a people can do it also.
Concerned Citizen says
You spout quite a bit of racism on this forum. Yes we know you don’t like White people. I have asked before. Besides being racist yourself what are you doing to stop racism?
I supported my African American Wife while we fought it for over 30 years. Culminating in a successful medical career. She earned every bit of it. We don’t tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind. We need to all stand against it. To get rid of it.
Disruptive is disruptive ? Back in the day, I had it explained as this. There are a room full of students and anything disruptive actions were interfering with the lesson plan for the class. Anyone that doesn’t want to be in the room and learning without disrupting the teacher ? Well those kids need to be elsewhere. I’ll bet Asian children are least likely to be suspended from school, they generally set the bar for the grading curve quite often. Naturally competitive, I always tried to set the bar for the classrooms fr subjects I was interested in. I never was suspended K-12, my parents wouldn’t have tolerated that behavior. I also never skipped classes, perfect attendance beyond a rare sick day. Teacher never had an issue with any of my parents children. K-12 is free education, take advantage of it, or not, regardless of gender or race. Just me, but the idiot disrupting the class for me, I didn’t want them to be in the classroom. They were cheating me out of the education I wanted to get & earn. The sooner any troublemaker is dealt with appropriately, the better the scores will improve for Flagler County schools. If that means they drop out as criminal, so be it. If you aren’t making the scores better in Flagler County, go elsewhere, nobody will miss you here. Don’t pollute our school systems being disruptive.
Pierre Tristam says
Such a lily-white record to go with a similarly colored truncheon. No surprise.
Concerned Citizen says
Pierre.Please tell us how you really feel about Caucasian folks.
When I was growing up and going thru School the rules didn’t care what color you were. If you broke them you were suspended. And then had to deal with it when you got home.
I’m failing to understand why ANYONE should receive a free pass. Enforce the rules across the board. It’s really that simple. We need to stop tippy toeing around things.
Bring discipline back into the schools. So our kids are safer and can learn.
Your assumption of me being lily white is rather inaccurate. On a best to worst case basis I’ve faced probably the same racism, spoken & unspoken as you may have. I tan rather dark as Italian American with olive skin tone. I often am mistaken for several nationalities & races.
As I grew up in Daytona Beach, FL, I could argue based upon my childhood scholastic experience, that white males were more likely to get the walk of shame to Ira J. Foster’s principal office for a paddling or suspension. I can imagine that if one is lippy enough to earn the walk of shame, the lippiness didn’t end nor get any better to force the decision for a suspension to be handed down.
It’s really absurd to claim that black female students are expected to be more adult-like than any other student. I mean they are students among their peers, the assumption is, never being exposed to the subjects, the equal footing is they are all ignorant children with fresh minds to expose & teach. That’s always been what Day 1 and a semester or year of classes in school was about. Where anyone took their reputation was a choice based upon their IQ and prior schooling to lend itself to be successful. I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know. I suggest for any student, when the bell rings for class, they have 50 minutes to absorb as much knowledge as the 30+ other children in the room are getting the opportunity. If they don’t respect themselves to get that, they won’t respect the teacher or the 30+ other children in the room. Really, when the bell rings, sit in their chairs in an air conditioned school, shut up and learn, ask questions for clarification. Rinse & repeat K-12.
Ray W. says
Just which of Ira J. Foster’s many different styles of paddles did you select from his lower right hand desk drawer? The grooved version? The manifold drilled holes version that whistled as he swung it? Never suspended, but often paddled. Thank you for prompting the memories.
Michael Cocchiola says
Our school systems suffer from systemic racial bias. Every study I’ve ever become aware of reached this conclusion. Then we get our education governor, Ron DeSantis, and his legislative minions enacting legislation not to address the problem, but to bury it under penalty of law.
Florida will inevitably sink to the bottom of the list of dumbest states in America.
don miller says
we all know the answer so why pretend any other reason. when my kids were in school and living at home they were taught fear of God, and respect for authority. that was their role model. these poor children are results of bad parenting models that disrespect authority and act/settle things the way they want not the ways acceptable to decent society. they do what they want to do and justify it in their own eyes.
@don. . . this mature, enlightened “white” woman, whose ancestors came here in the 1600’s, wants to know who anointed “you” to make a broad brush judgement that “those poor children are results of bad parenting models that disrespect authority”. . .blah, blah, blah. Also, who in the hell are “you” to define “decent society”?
Everything you’ve said here is horrifically “racist”! By the way, your poor grammar, and lack to correct punctuation tells me all about your own lack of education. You are most certainly not in a position to judge others!
don miller says
you want to know how I know? not only was I a HS teacher but a HS sports coach. Saw it first hand. I had to get disrespected, breakup black on black fights when they were the vast majority of the combatants, and take them home when no parent showed up after practice to get them. Been in their houses and met with their Intervention officers. Yes, unfortunately the minorities were the ones I was dealing with the most not the white’s. Overwhelming attitude was I am gonna do what I want, you ain’t gonna do nothing about it and if you do I don’t care. Their parent(s), if you could talk to one, always blamed the system not the child.. What you got to base any of your stuff on? Suppose you think the B on B crime in Chicago is a white man’s fairy tale.
don miller says
apparently you have no recent experience in the public educational system. The article was slanted towards black girls being picked on. I was a HS teacher and HS sports coach in Flagler. I define decent society as one in which authority is respected, the rules followed and enforced. The parents I was able to reach about their child’s behavior blamed the system and never the child. The child’s civil community intervention officers blamed the parents. The excuse was always they get to retaliate however they wish if they think they were disrespected no matter the reason nor the authority. The incidents requiring discipline were overwhelmingly minority on minority. I can tell by your combative attitude, you have no first hand experience in the matter but thrive in the jumping the conclusions and scolding with no evidence to back it up. What you got for first hand experience in the matter?
Talk about a “broad brush of judgement”, who died and left you the Queen of Grammar? The author clearly states “how adverse childhood experiences, including neglect, abuse, neighborhood violence and parent incarceration and/or death, become another layer by which Black girls are misunderstood.”
I guess you being “this mature, enlightened “white” woman, whose ancestors came here in the 1600’s”, is certainly more qualified to “judge others”, than anyone else.
The Geode says
I live in the middle of this shit and “Don” is completely RIGHT. Our kids have zero guidance. Zero discipline. Zero structure. They are treated like cattle and the streets are the pasture in which they roam without supervision. They get their sense of entitlement from being raised by a parent that exists on entitlements. However, don’t blame this on us. It’s the liberal democratic policies that inspire this behavior and make excuses for the state of the country today.
Truth is only “racist” to those looking at things with the blinders of an alchemist trying to turn lead into gold.
Caroline S. says
And neither are you in a position to judge others, Sherry. You are no better than anyone else. In fact I would go so far as to say that if your family truly had been here from the 1600’s, then the amount of white privilege you hold is likely astounding and your white voice wholly unnecessary.
Land of no turn signals says says
Until you stand in a teachers shoes don’t make assumptions.