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How Can Schools Counter Bias? Broward County Research Project Wants to Know

Nationwide, schools are suspending and expelling fewer students today than in years past—but the racial gaps in who gets disciplined still yawn. A new, community-wide research project in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hopes to find ways to counter the unconscious perceptions that may be undermining reform attempts. 

"Implicit bias exists in all of us, and we have to be courageous enough to confront it if we are going to meet our goals," said Robert Runcie, the superintendent of the Broward County, Fla., district, which encompasses Fort Lauderdale. "We're uniquely positioned at the nexus of education and policing in these students' lives. Ultimately, if we don't address it properly here, we become the main conduit into the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline."

Over the next two years, Phillip Goff, who studies the effects of implicit bias on interactions with police and other authority figures, and fellow researchers from the Center for Policing Equity, will work with the district and the civil rights group, the Advancement Project. They will survey the attitudes, experiences, and perceptions of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and staff members from the 33 schools in Fort Lauderdale. The researchers will also survey school resource officers from the Fort Lauderdale police department. Then, the researchers will match attitudes to what students and adults actually do in academic and behavioral situations over time, to find how implicit biases affect interactions at school.

"What this does is allow us to get a measure of the entire ecosystem of a child's life," Goff said. "It's very rare to see a municipality come together in such a unified way to address such a difficult topic."

Struggling to Close Racial Gaps

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Back in 2011, Runcie vowed to shrink the massive discipline disparities between black and white students in Broward County, which with more than 271,000 students is the nation's sixth largest school district and one of its most diverse.

Runcie and his staff overhauled Broward's zero-tolerance policy and developed a new program to deal with the 12 most common nonviolent reasons students get suspended, expelled, or arrested. They created a new agreement with Fort Lauderdale police to reduce officer involvement in minor offenses on campus. Runcie was named one of Education Week's Leaders to Learn From in 2014, in part for his discipline work, which cut suspensions, expulsions, and arrests by more than half.

Yet, after years of dedicated work, the racial gap in discipline stretched just as wide as it had before: "Black students continue to be suspended, expelled, and arrested at rates three times higher than the rest of the population," said Michaelle Pope, the executive director of Broward's student support services. "We had to ask why? With all of what we are doing, why?"

Broward is hardly unusual in that frustration. The most recent federal civil rights data show nationwide that black students in 2014 were suspended at three times the rate of white students and were also disproportionately expelled or arrested in school. 

"We recognized that we couldn't just look to go and change our school policies in a vacuum; we needed a cultural change in our entire community," Runcie said.

That means not just looking at each schools' policies and practices as written, but also looking at the way both adults and children on the campuses experienced them in action.

"I can be an educator and go into two classrooms. In one classroom you ask, 'where's everybody going to college?' and in another classroom, with a lot of minority [students], you say, 'how many of you are going to college?' That's a bias in my view that you might not even recognize," Runcie said. 

The research project is intended to identify the policies, practices, behaviors, and contexts in both the district and community police force that could contribute to the racial gaps in discipline on and off campus. 

"We know from the moment a child enters the doors of a school building, they are treated the way they are perceived, and they are often perceived in ways associated with implicit bias in the adults," said Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the national office for the Advancement Project. "We could have neutral policies across the board but if those neutral policies are being applied in an unfair way, then ... we need to look at our practices."

The district will also pilot interventions designed to reduce or counteract implicit biases in the schools. In prior research, Goff and his colleagues found that a variety of factors can trigger an implicit bias to become active prejudice, including threats to an adult's authority, and simple stress and weariness. "If teachers are asked to multitask too much, when your brain is tired, you are much more likely to fall into these identity traps like implicit bias," Goff said.

The project plans to release an interim report in summer 2017, and a final report in 2018.


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