Do you remember the feeling of the first day of school? On the first day of school, some people are excited. There is this rush that comes when you realize you’re going to see your friends that you may have not seen for a little while. You get to pick out an outfit to wear. You get to express yourself and learn about aspects of the world. Some people are nervous. They don’t know if they will fit in. They might fear how the people around them will see them. If they will see them. Some may feel relieved. They get to escape violence in their home. They get to know that they will be able to eat that day. As people, we all go through life in a unique way. Actions have consequences; these consequences can be good or bad. An inevitable truth of society is that a person’s race plays a large part in the way they are perceived by the people around them. The way you look is the first thing a person sees when they meet you. At that moment, the things that they have experienced in life converge and you are perceived. Only then do they choose whether the rest of you matters. In schools across America this happens every day. Teacher’s perceptions of their students, student’s perceptions of their teachers, and student’s perceptions of each other dictate the events that occur within the school building.
School safety is of prime importance people worldwide. When a parent sends their child to school, they want to know that they are safe. More importantly, when a child walks into school they should feel as though they are in a safe space. This feeling of safety is not only from physical harm, but also mental. A student should feel as though if needed, they have the guidance that they need to accomplish their goals and reach their potential. School discipline is a necessary evil of education. When working in an environment where everyone brings in different experiences, it is impossible to think that difficult things will never happen. However, when talking about discipline it is important that schools work towards being equitable and empathetic. The goal of a discipline measure should not be to hurt the student; these measures should be teachable moments and proactive.
This research examined school safety protocols and disciplinary measures across general education and special education classrooms in school districts that differed between racial composition and socioeconomic standing. Studying these protocols and measures is important because research suggests that they may have impacts on incarceration disparities that occur later in life. These gaps in discipline and safety can be seen in achievement gaps that are present in the education system (Gregory, Skiba & Noguera, 2010). We aimed to examine the way that school safety and discipline looked like on a day to day basis and how teachers perceive the codes that govern their school. Then, we observed the way these disciplinary and safety codes affect both students and teachers.
We conducted a qualitative, narrative inquiry using interview methodology to take a closer look at safety and discipline within the various school districts. Our participants included eight members of school staff that have been working in education for a minimum of twelve years. Of the participants three were men and five were women. Seven are certified to teach special education, five currently work exclusively with special education, and two work in inclusion classrooms where some of the students have IEPs. One works exclusively with general education. All have experience working with general education. Their roles within the school vary. One participant is a teacher’s assistant. Two participants are currently employed as principals. Five are currently employed as head teachers in the middle school and high school setting. One participant is Black. Six participants are White. One participant is of mixed race (Asian and Hispanic).
Participants were recruited by word of mouth. I either asked them to participate in the study or they were asked by a mutual associate if they would like to participate. If yes, then I was contacted, and we continued with the interview protocol. After sitting with participants and introducing myself, I asked them to answer a series of questions developed from the literature. Interviews ranged between seventeen minutes and on hour depending on how in depth they chose to answer each question. The interview was set up in a semi structured approach. My materials included the interview questions and recording materials. Each participant gave me permission to record the interview. Once data was collected, I listened to the interviews while writing a narrative about the participants based on their answer to each question. Next, I chose three specific questions from protocol and highlighted the answers across cases to perform a horizontal analysis.
Three specific questions that I pulled from the interview involved the participants perceptions of school safety and discipline, if they found that race, gender, and ability of a student affected the way that they were disciplined, and if the participants could change one thing about safety and discipline policy/practice what would it be. Regarding the first question, answers ranged. Some participants associate safety with words such as protocol, patience, fear, support, understanding, cooperation, guns, and sad. They associated discipline with words and phrases like parents, no used correctly, trust, equity, healing, consequences, and ISS. From this sample of answers alone one can see that the way that teachers perceive safety and discipline varies greatly. Whereas some see it positively, others see it negatively.
In relation to the second question, four participants noticed differences in the way that students were treated based on their race. Four did not notice these differences, but one noted the fact that she works in a district that is a majority white, so it is very hard to perceive differences as such. Those who didn’t perceive these differences did note differences in the way that students are treated based on ability or gender.
The third question allowed for a large amount of variability. All participants quickly came up with something that they would change about their school’s safety and discipline policy or practice. These answers included:
- More mental health/psychological training
- Alternatives for suspension such as an alternative location
- Teachers dealing with issues in the classroom in the classroom to the best of their ability as opposed to administration
- Resource officers/security measures
- Increased follow through
Conducting this research on school safety and school discipline has provided me with perspective that I will carry with me as an aspiring teacher. When prompted with the question “Why do you want to be a teacher?” I can think of more answers than I could for any other question. Despite this, one of the main reasons I want to become a teacher is that I get to wake up every day knowing that I have the potential to influence the lives of the future. The potential to influence can be both positive and negative. I want to know that everyday practices and policies that govern my classroom are beneficial to all students. Making a change in the world is a dream come true, but with so many issues the question is where I can start. This research has shown me that teachers understand that there are differences are present in the way that children are dealt with based on things they cannot change. Likewise, teachers have the potential to end this pattern or contribute to it. Conducting this project has shown me that the topic of school discipline and safety is broad. There is no immediate or easy answer. Although some teachers may be on similar pages, they are not on the same page and without proper training and conversations, they won’t be.
I want to know how administrations of schools can work on implementing policies and practices that are not reactive, but proactive. I believe that with implementation of more proactive measures associated with mental health and racial sensitivity training there would be less of a need to go to extraordinary measures for things that are preventable and should have never happened in the first place.
Eventually I would like to become an administrator. From interviewing teachers, administration and TAs I have been informed about how bad the lack of communication between all parties. One of my participants was never informed about an order of protection that involved a student in her classroom. She found out in February about the situation when the mother contacted her. This is just one example of how this can be a major liability. From a position of leadership, I have learned that it is important to have an open dialogue with all parties. Especially between teachers and administration. The dialogue is not currently open enough for things to run smoothly and effectively. One of my participants referenced administration pushing for a communal environment with students to reduce discipline issues. If there is an idea that a more communal school leads to less discipline and safety issues, then why is that communal behavior being implemented only upon the students? Is it not important to practice what you preach? Administrators and teachers must have better communication moving forward.
When asked about student discipline practices the most common answer I was given is “it depends on the student”. At first when I heard this I thought yes, it does depend on the student. As much as we like for things to be black and white often, they fall into a gray area. I was told that politics has a lot to do with the decision making. After taking the time to think about this I concluded that “politics” seems to me as a dressed-up way at saying “institutional racism and institutional classism. At the end of the day, what about the kid makes it depend? The fact that their parents are friends with an administrator? The fact that their family owns a business down the road.? What is it? What do these people look like?
I understand that I have a host of experiences that have framed the person that I am and the way I think. It’s confusing being a mixed-race girl that in her community can pull rank. Pulling this rank is a form of privilege that I have. My closest friends are all Hispanic. Out of them, I am the only one that was a successful athlete and graduated top five percent of my class. These experiences put me next to a bunch of people who didn’t look like me. These people trusted me, and in the end have helped me achieve different things. But why me? Why can I go home and walk into a room full of people who don’t look like me and be trusted, but my closest friends cannot?
Despite these things, what this research has helped me realize is the difference between me and white people who have accomplished the same things as me. For me to pull rank you must know me. You must know my accolades, my personality, my drive, and my passion for the things I love. You must be a person I’ve touched in some way. If I was white you wouldn’t have to know me. You would just have to look at me and suddenly you would feel like you could trust me. I wouldn’t have to work as hard to break down your walls.