Abstract: Rooted in Whiteness: A Critical Race Examination of Educator Perceptions of School Discipline (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Rooted in Whiteness: A Critical Race Examination of Educator Perceptions of School Discipline

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Michael Massey, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, The Catholic University of America
Background: School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) is a multi-tiered school disciplinary framework and popular alternative to exclusionary disciplinary practices that have been used to disproportionately punish Black students and other students of color compared to White students. Eliminating disciplinary racial disproportionality is a “grand challenge for the social work profession” (Teasley et al., 2017, p. 2). The national school social work model calls for school social workers to implement “evidence-based” multi-tiered models such as SWPBIS, but there is little evidence that such models effectively address disproportionality.

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 sought to open the “black box” behind research that suggests while SWPBIS may help improve school discipline, it does not reduce racial disciplinary disparities.

Methods: This study used a hybrid theory-driven/inductive thematic analysis to examine interview data from an evaluative case study of a high school (VHS, pseudonym) in the pre-implementation stages of SWPBIS. The sample—recruited via faculty meeting announcements—includes 23 members of the educational staff (e.g. teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers). Semi-structured interviews elicited perceptions of SWPBIS, 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, several provisional, a priori codes, were developed from CRT literature. They were then applied in conjunction with codes that emerged from an inductive, open coding process.

Findings: Data analysis identified two meta-themes present throughout every interview. Whiteness, an ideology that secures the power and privilege of White people and creates institutionalized systems of racial stratification, was expressed in two forms—Visible Whiteness, the observable manifestations of a racial hierarchy, and Invisible Whiteness, the subtle, apparently non-racial mechanisms that assert Whiteness as the institutional norm. The other meta-theme,Two Schools in One, represents participants’ description of VHS as two different schools in one building—one serving a largely White, affluent, and high-achieving population and another serving less affluent and lower-achieving students of color. Taken together, the meta-themes represent the ideological and structural context in which common and seemingly race-neutral processes and practices—e.g. school discipline, academic tracking, school staffing, professional discourse—assign White students and families a greater value than students and families of color. The cumulative impact of these factors renders Black students and other students of color less worthy and more expendable.

Conclusions/Implications: Using a CRT lens to center race and racism, the findings revealed a school structurally rooted in Whiteness. School discipline was but one thread of a vast web of processes that maintained stratification. This suggests that interventions focused on changing routines without altering the structure, such as SWPBIS, are unlikely to address the roots of inequity, even if they are improvements over past approaches. A critical lens is needed when implementing and evaluating school-based frameworks. With such a lens, school social workers can take leadership roles in making sure interventions are targeting the structures that maintain racial inequity in schools.