Reducing Discriminatory Discipline for African Americans

Akisha Jones headshotHow Strategic Data Project Fellow Dr. Akisha Jones Sarfo brought a research lens to a civil rights issue.

In December 2018, Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance intended to reduce racial discrimination in school discipline. At a time when black high school students are twice as likely to get suspended than their white counterparts, this move has been shrouded in controversy. Yet amidst harsh social realities and divided political opinions, researchers like SDP Fellow Dr. Akisha Jones Sarfo are working to bring an evidence-based voice to the table.

Guilford County School District is among those districts working to address this civil rights issue. That is why in 2012, the district established the African American Male Initiative (AAMI) to address their history of racial inequalities in student outcomes. Prior to the AAMI’s inception, the district assembled a team of leaders, student support staff, principals, parents, and representatives from higher ed to conduct root cause research through focus groups, forums, questionnaires, and student feedback. This initial research revealed two priority areas for the effort: early literacy and disproportionality in discipline referrals and suspensions. Thus, the AAMI was launched as an initiative focused on improving literacy performance of African American males in grades K-3 as well as decreased disciplinary actions among African American males in targeted schools.


However, little was known about the AAMI's true impact above and beyond other district-wide efforts. So in 2015, Dr. Jones Sarfo came to the district as a data fellow to focus her work on the evaluation of efforts to reduce referrals and suspensions among the district's African American males. She was tasked with answering whether the initiative was achieving positive impact in its two priority areas. What she found, which is typical of many well-crafted data and research efforts, was a far more nuanced scenario than could be cleanly answered by a “yes” or a “no.”


Coming from four generations of Detroit educators and having experienced the U.S. school system as an African American, Dr. Jones Sarfo brought a personal perspective on how school may be experienced differently by minorities. “My mom is a teacher, so we often had these conversations about how school might look different for different people,” Jones Sarfo explains. “I always had an interest in race and equity, I always liked numbers, and I was always interested in education.” With her unique combination of skills, background, and interest, she was a natural fit to help drive the conversation in Guilford County.


To seek answers to her research questions, Dr. Jones Sarfo examined the experiences of administrators and students--as well as the policies and procedures underpinning those experiences--within both participating schools and non-participating schools. “We were really trying to understand how the initiative unfolded within AAMI schools, and we drew impact by comparing schools in the initiative to schools not in the initiative.”


She found that while the goal to reduce racial disparity was consistent throughout AAMI schools, the initiative looked different in every school. Issues like changing policies, administrative turnover, and varying approaches to disciplinary policy were creating mixed results in the rollout of the program. “It really was different in every school,” she explains, and differences in support and buy-in were apparent. Namely, her research found that across most schools referrals and suspension were spiking in the 6th and 9th grade, and supports for students during the transition from middle school to high school and elementary school to middle school would be of paramount importance.


Yet while the enactment and effect of the program ran a spectrum, one of the program’s biggest wins was a renewed focus on race and racial disparities in student outcomes. “As much as this project was a final report, it was an ongoing conversation,” reflects Jones Sarfo. Ultimately, she was able to reveal barriers to the initiative’s success and provide evidence-based recommendations for future efforts. “A conscious knowing of the issue allowed for more targeted interventions and decision-making.”


Reimagining Discipline


Based on Jones Sarfo’s work in Guilford County, leaders are reimagining what the initiative could look like moving forward. Her research helped uncover hallmarks of a successful school focused on reducing referrals and suspensions among African American males. Through data, she revealed the following approaches helpful in reducing discipline disparities:


  1. Implementing restorative discipline practices in classrooms that allow students to learn from their behaviors and restore relationships with teachers and staff

  2. Seeking and providing additional professional development or workshops from entities that allow teachers to improve teacher-student relationships as classroom disciplinary practices that reduce discretionary referrals

  3. Providing incentives or encouraging positive behaviors from students

  4. Incorporating developmental or mentoring programs for targeted students focusing on positive behaviors, academic coaching, and preparing them for life after high school

  5. Examining discipline data on a regular basis to identify teachers who frequently refer students

  6. Reducing or eliminating discriminatory discipline policies