How Can Schools Create Safe Spaces for Black Students?

By Kaela Farrise, M.A., CEI Program Assistant, Innovation & Research Support

Note: This blog is part 2 of a series on supporting Black students in Schools. Part 1 which specifically addressed bias towards Black girls in schools can be found by clicking here.

The pain and suffering of Black people have been at the forefront of America’s consciousness over the past few years as the deaths of multiple Black people were caught and shared widely on social media. As we address injustices in the criminal justice system, so too must we address the disparate and sometimes harmful treatment of Black children in schools. Part 1 of this series laid out the harsh reality of the situation for many Black girls in schools. In May, a 15-year old Black student called Grace was jailed after a judge found that not completing her school work during shelter-in-place and online schooling was a violation of her parole. This is just the latest high profile example of how Black students, and Black girls specifically, are treated differently than their peers when it comes to discipline or compassionate support. So what can schools do to start to address the biases that impact Black girls most severely and students of color overall?  Schools and individual educators can take steps to make their communities more inclusive and less-impacted by personal biases. We have three suggestions on how to get started and resources to continue the conversation.


Look at the Data and Review Policies 

Utilize data from previous years on school suspensions, expulsions and other punishments as well as rewards and recognitions to determine how different groups are being seen in the school community. In addition to specifically collected data, schools can assist teachers and other staff in examining school policies and think through when, where, and why they might bring about different results for different students. For resources on where to start, schools can look at work by Dr. Monique Morris, who wrote the book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools as well as directed a documentary by the same name. She offers a number of helpful resources on the documentary’s website. Organizations like Dignity in Schools and Let Her Learn provide model codes and policies to reduce anti-Black bias and eliminate discriminatory policies in schools. Last, it is important to bring in experiences from Black students, alumni, and families to understand the school climate and how actions from school personnel may be perceived. 

Hire Black Teachers, Staff, and School Administrators 

An in-depth dive into an assessment of school climate also includes examining school staff and leadership. Preliminary research shows that Black students are more likely to graduate from high school and to enroll in college when they have at least one Black teacher in grades K-3 (Gershonson et al., 2019). Researchers point to positive educational results from a same-race teacher as resulting from higher expectations than white teachers might have for Black students, more positive self perceptions and attitudes towards education from students, and the benefits of having a role model that students can see themselves reflected in (Egalite & Kisida, 2017; Grissom & Redding, 2016; McGrady & Reynolds, 2013). Schools can ask themselves how many people on school staff are Black or of color? How many leadership positions are filled by racially diverse candidates? If the answer is low or zero, schools may want to work to address this by recruiting, supporting, and retaining Black teachers and staff in order to benefit all students.

Hold Programming to Help Adults Recognize Their Biases and Increase Cultural Competence 

Once schools have a clear understanding of the overall picture and where improvements are needed, it is time to talk about it with all personnel. We all have biases based on our personal experience and what we’ve been exposed to. The trouble is acting on those biases in ways that are unfair and prejudicial. Consider having a continuing series of school-wide trainings on recognizing and combating unconscious bias in your professional roles, and learning specific interventions teachers can use to combat their own bias. See the list of resources below for organizations who provide skill-building in this area and check out for parts 3 and 4 of this series for specific interventions to address bias and anti-Black racism among teachers and staff.

The work of combating bias and anti-Black racism in schools is a continuous practice that must be implemented thoughtfully over time. To be clear, this work should be implemented by trained professionals in this area, and not shouldered by teachers of color who are not compensated for this role or by students of color. A number of fantastic resources have come out in the past few years specifically for educators and school personnel hoping to address anti-Black bias in their schools. School leaders can explore some of these below as they come up with a plan to make the schooling experience safe and supportive for every student.

Resources

References

Atlas, J., Morris, M. W., Major, C., & Danglades, V. (2019). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools . Women in the Room Productions.

Cohen, J. (2014, July). A teenager didn’t do her online schoolwork. So a judge sent her to juvenile detention. ProPublica.

Egalite, A.  & Kisida, B. (2017). The effects of teacher match on students’ academic perceptions and attitudes. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 40(1): 59-81.

Gershonson, S., Hart, C., Hyman, J., Lyndsay, C. & Papageorge, N. (2019). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers. Institute of Labor Economics.

Grissom, J. & Redding, C. (2016). Discretion and disproportionality: Explaining the underrepresentation of high-achieving students of color in gifted programs. AERA Open, 2(1). 

McGrady, P. & Reynolds, J. (2013). Racial mismatch in the classroom: Beyond Black-white differences. Sociology of Education.

Morris, M. W. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. The New Press.


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