Acknowledging the Gap

Tracy Bruno is the principal at Isaac Litton Middle Prep in Nashville, Tennessee.

Like many urban districts, Metro Nashville Public Schools has been fighting an uphill battle in regard to race and discipline. We have a very diverse population of students in our district, but not a very diverse set of data when it comes to discipline records. We put minority students out of class on a much larger scale than their counterparts. At Isaac Litton Middle Prep, our student population is about 48 percent African American, 43 percent Caucasian, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. A few years ago, I started to really think about the office referrals that came past my desk. Were there an inordinate number of African American students referred to the office? Were African American males making trips to the office at a greater clip than anyone else? The answer, as I feared, was yes.

As much as I like to think that our discipline plan takes out much of the human bias factor, at the end of the day teachers still make judgment calls about discipline. When a teacher is isolated in their classroom and refers a student to the office, they are doing so in a silo. It was my job to paint a broader picture of our discipline profile. I started to look at the longitudinal discipline data at our school. Yes, discipline incidents had decreased. Yes, there was more structure in the classrooms and during transition times. Yes, you could feel a calmer atmosphere when you walked into our building, but were we decreasing our discipline gap? No. I started to study the monthly in-school suspension (ISS) reports. While African American students made up 48 percent of our population, they were accountable for about 85 percent of the ISS instances.

I asked our ISS monitor and a teacher to present this information to the staff and to try and come up with some measures we could put in place to address the discipline gap. We started to institute morning meetings; we started to bring students together who had non-violent conflicts so they could talk out their differences and come to a peaceful solution; and we started to listen more in the office. The administrators started to pull back on the urge to just send a child, regardless of race, to ISS or suspend them from school for an office referral. When students knew that a simple apology, conversation, or service to the school could replace massive amounts of lost class time, things started to change a bit. We still have a long way to go, but I feel like acknowledging the gap in discipline is the first step toward closing it.