Updated: Jul 31, 2021
How School Leaders Reinforce Supremacy through Discipline & Behavior Expectations
Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice | SLSJ.us | July 2020
Traditionally, societal expectations are decided by what’s normal. What’s average. What “most people” do. This normalcy is often rooted in whiteness. What the white middle-class does and how they do it have become the markers of success, and therefore the expectation. School discipline and behavior intervention programs tend to reinforce these arbitrary white rules and expectations despite the fact that schools have diverse populations that reflect a bevy of cultural values. Further, schools tend to punish any behavior that is not aligned to these rules, even when the behavior is a cultural normalcy. As a teacher, assistant principal, and principal, I found myself often repeating these words to students when they didn’t meet school expectations: “That behavior may be okay at home, but it is not okay at school.”
Whoa. Let’s think about that. What are we saying to students when we say these words? We are effectively telling them that when you enter these doors, you cannot be yourself. You are not welcome here. It may be language oppression - telling a Spanish-speaking student to only speak English, or insensitively correcting a Black student’s grammar. Or, it may be forbidding a student from hi-siding a friend, a common practice in Black families, or telling a Black student to remove a headwrap. The way we have defined “healthy behavior” and “appropriate behavior” is based almost exclusively on white, middle-class norms, and we expect these norms to be followed by everyone. This expectation shows up in how we respond to students in our schools. The oppressive and racist nature of these expectations is clearly proven by the discipline disparities seen in many US schools which are almost always aligned to race and gender. Across grade levels and states, Black and Latino boys and girls are more than three times more likely to be referred to the office for behavior and are more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled for similar behavior. Why? We both engage with and discipline students under a value system to which they do not subscribe.
What value system says kids can’t be active? Or loud? Or funny? Or communal? Or assertive? Or say what they want or do not want to do? What value system says that students cannot wear a headwrap? And what group decided that these behaviors were wrong and promoted their own values instead?
Here’s the harsh reality: Black and Latino students attend white-led schools and are taught mostly by white teachers. Even in high minority schools, the curriculum and the code of conduct are grounded in white middle-class norms and expectations. And, Black and Latino students’ cultural values and norms are often absent from the policies, systems, and structures to which they are subject for a minimum of seven hours per day. One hundred and eighty-seven days per year.
But wait. These expectations are societal expectations. This is not just about school! Exactly. Therefore, as school leaders, we are dually challenged. We must prepare Black and Latino students to exist in white spaces for their protection. We have seen what happens when they go into society without knowing and following society’s “rules” - no matter how oppressive these “rules” are. But we must also realize that by teaching students to follow these rules and meet these expectations without critically analyzing and subsequently dismantling any inherently oppressive structures that demand their assimilation and compliance to ensure survival, we are perpetuating the very supremacy we have committed to combat. This is the foundation of social justice in education.
As school leaders, we must - at the same time and with the same energy - ensure our students’ survival and fight their oppression. We do this by actively promoting anti-racism in every area of the school - curriculum, codes of conduct, clubs, and more. When done transparently, we often find that demands placed on our students are the direct result of our own whiteness - whether we are white or not. Note that one does not have to be white to ascribe to and perpetuate whiteness. There are many non-white educators who bolster racist systems because historically, ideal societal behavior has been determined by white decision-makers, and compliance with white rules has been both encouraged and rewarded. People of all races and social classes (particularly the middle class), value these norms because under them, one can be seen as “successful”. Sometimes, though, these values require undermining identity for the sake of conformity and compliance. When deconstructing these values that we once upheld, those who have never looked at them through an equity or justice lens, whether parents, teachers or other stakeholders, find that they don’t hold up to anti-racist scrutiny.
Achieving justice in our schools, therefore, may require that we act contrary to our socialization. It may require that we act contrary to societal norms. It may require that we actively deconstruct our own notions of “right,” in order to determine what is right, fair, and just for the students in our schools. As a school leader and justice and equity advocate, my goal is to normalize blackness. In the classroom. In the boardroom. On social media platforms. While teaching Black students societal norms is currently a necessity for their own survival, I’m less interested than ever in teaching them how to survive in whiteness - which society is presently proving to be critical - and more interested in creating and sustaining culturally affirming environments that ensure their physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional safety and value them when they show up in all their Blackness.
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Skiba RJ, Michael RS, Nardo AC, Peterson RL. The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment. The Urban Review: Issues and Ideas in Public Education. 2002;34(4):317. doi:10.1023/a:1021320817372
Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The Achievement Gap and the Discipline Gap: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Educational Researcher, 39(1), 59–68.
Skiba, R. J., Homer, R. H., Chung, C.-G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race Is Not Neutral: A National Investigation of African American and Latino Disproportionality in School Discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85–107.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black and Hispanic students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leadership in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.