MERC report explores racial disparities in school discipline

David Naff Tall
Dr. David Naff, co-researcher on the study.

A new report by the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), a research alliance between VCU’s School of Education and seven central Virginia school divisions, explores racial disparities in school discipline outcomes in metropolitan Richmond.

Titled Understanding Racial Inequity in School Discipline Across the Richmond Region, this multi-year study includes two phases. Phase one uses data from the Virginia Department of Education and the U.S. Census Bureau to understand the relationship between racial disparities in school discipline outcomes and the racial and socioeconomic composition of schools and communities. Phase two involves case studies of three schools in the Richmond region exploring how students, teachers, administrators and other educators navigate the discipline programs in their schools as well as their perceptions of racial disproportionality.

The report also explores alternative discipline programs designed to reduce suspensions and address the issue of racial disproportionality. These programs include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), restorative practices and trauma-informed care. The report concludes with a series of recommendations for making a positive impact on this issue in metropolitan Richmond.

Dr. Adai Tefera and Dr. Genevieve Siegel-Hawley were co-principal investigators on the study. Tefera said, "The collaboration between MERC and local school divisions was an important opportunity to study racial inequities in school discipline – a complex and challenging problem not only in the Richmond area but also across the country. It is my hope that this report and its findings are the first step of many in our collective effort – between parents, students, educators and researchers – to dismantle systemic racial inequities, ultimately for the benefit of all learners."

School leaders in the region also recognize the importance of this research for policy and practice. Dr. Amy Cashwell, superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools and chair of the MERC Policy and Planning Council, said, “This study examines a critical issue which our division continues to work to address. While there is still much to be accomplished in our efforts to reduce disproportionality in discipline, the report’s recommendations support a number of strategies with which Henrico is experiencing success. Prevention and intervention are the key. Henrico has, for several years, implemented meaningful ways of supporting our students through difficult situations. For example, we’ve been working with staff on implementing restorative practices in an effort to get to the root of issues, manage conflict and repair relationships.”

Findings emphasize the importance of sharing discipline data with faculty, and providing ongoing professional development for administrators and teachers to implement an equitable discipline program with consistency. “Our faculty and staff need to see the data,” said Dr. Brian Maltby, disciplinary hearing review officer for Hanover County Public Schools and a member of the research study team for this project. “The study notes a need to make sure there is an ongoing dialogue between administration and staff. Understanding and an open line of communication is paramount to making positive changes.”

Jason Kamras, superintendent of Richmond Public Schools (RPS), said, "I'm so grateful to MERC for highlighting this incredibly important issue. We have a moral obligation to end racial inequity in school discipline – particularly here in the Richmond region given our history as the former capital of the Confederacy. To ensure this work remains front and center at RPS, we built it in as one of our ten key goals in our strategic plan, Dreams4RPS. To start, we've begun to implement restorative justice practices as a means of ending the school-to-prison pipeline, which we know disproportionally affects our African-American young men. Of course, we have so much more to do and we look forward to using this research as a catalyst for future efforts."

"This report affirms the critical work that we must do to ensure that we are meeting the individual needs of all learners,” said Dr. Jeremy Raley, superintendent of Goochland County Public Schools. “It is important that, as educators, we are aware of the individual needs and backgrounds of our students as well as the root causes that may have an impact on the choices that students make in certain situations. This approach will require a change in mindset from traditional approaches that have typically been used in the past."

Dr. Jesse Senechal, the director of MERC, said, “On the one hand, this confirms what we know: racial disproportionality in school discipline is a significant problem across the Richmond region and beyond. What’s valuable in this report is how it sheds light on the complexity of the issue. Ultimately, this report suggests that we need to address this problem from multiple levels of the system.”

Dr. Andrew Daire, dean of the VCU School of Education, emphasized the university’s role in supporting this work, "This report from MERC reinforces the commitment of the VCU School of Education to conduct impact-oriented research in collaboration with community partners on complex issues like racial disproportionality in school discipline."

Dr. David Naff, assistant director of MERC and co-researcher on the study, points to the central goal of the study: ”The report adds increasing urgency and impetus for action to a robust dialogue already underway. As with any MERC study, we hope that this report informs practical, actionable solutions for addressing this issue beyond simply pointing out that it exists.”

Read the report and learn more on the MERC website.