School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) is a nationally expanding school disciplinary framework and an alternative to exclusionary zero tolerance disciplinary practices that have been used to disproportionately punish Black students and other students of color compared to White students. Eliminating racial disproportionality in school discipline is, according to Teasley et al. (2017), a “grand challenge for the social work profession” (p. 2).
Through a qualitative, single-case examination of high school educator perceptions of SWPBIS and school discipline through a critical race theory (CRT) lens, this study seeks to open the “black box” behind research that suggests while SWPBIS can help lower overall school discipline problems and suspension/expulsion rates, it does not reduce racial disciplinary disparities.
This study uses a combination of theory-driven and inductive thematic analysis to examine interview data from an evaluative case study of a high school in the pre-implementation stages of SWPBIS. The sample—recruited via announcements at faculty meetings—includes 23 members of the educational staff (e.g. teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers). Semi-structured interviews elicited perceptions of SWPBIS, school disciplinary policies and practices, and racial disciplinary disproportionality. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed thematically using a rigorous six-phase process (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Before analysis, a set of provisional, a priori codes were developed from critical race theory literature. These codes were applied in conjunction with codes that emerged from an inductive, open coding process.
The analysis revealed two related meta-themes that are present throughout the interviews and highlight the complex and racialized nature of school discipline. The first is Whiteness, an ideology that secures the power and privilege of White people and creates an institutionalized system of racial stratification. Whiteness was expressed in two forms—Visible Whiteness, the observable manifestations of a hierarchical racial order, and Invisible Whiteness, the less overt, apparently non-racial mechanisms that assert Whiteness as the institutional norm. The other meta-theme is Two Schools in One, which represents participants’ description of the school as two different schools in one building—one serving a largely White and affluent population that is generally achieving at high levels and another serving less affluent students of color generally achieving at lower levels. Four lower-order themes emerged that provide a detailed picture of participant views of school discipline, disciplinary disproportionality, and the coming implementation of SWBPIS. Educators endorsed key elements of SWPBIS, such as positive discipline and school-wide consistency in disciplinary practices. And while many participants identified systemic barriers to achieving equity, they simultaneously relied on discursive strategies that upheld Whiteness.
Using a CRT lens to center race and racism, the findings revealed a school that is deeply structured in Whiteness. These findings provide insight into the possibilities and limitations of colorblind frameworks such as SWPBIS. They suggest that SWPBIS may be an alternative to punitive school discipline, but faces critical barriers in addressing disciplinary disproportionality. The racially stratified school structure raises questions about whom SWPBIS is for and who will bear the burden of implementation.