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The Disproportionate Discipline of African American Learners: Reducing School Suspensions and Expulsions.

In recent years, school disciplinary practices have come under increasing scrutiny (Riak, 1985; Rose, 1988). Exclusionary discipline measures, in particular, have given rise to concern and litigation An action brought in court to enforce a particular right. The act or process of bringing a lawsuit in and of itself; a judicial contest; any dispute.

When a person begins a civil lawsuit, the person enters into a process called litigation.
 on behalf of students with disabilities (Center & McKittrick, 1987; Yell, 1990) and their peers without disabilities (McFadden, Marsh, Price, & Hwang, 1992). Further, the discipline of both dominant culture and ethnic minority culture children and youth has long been rife with ethical and practical concerns. While questionable discipline practices that exclude students from school settings are used with students across ethnic groups, they are especially problematic for African American African American Multiculture A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. See Race.  students who continue to be disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment corporal punishment, physical chastisement of an offender. At one extreme it includes the death penalty (see capital punishment), but the term usually refers to punishments like flogging, mutilation, and branding. Until c. , suspension, and expulsion.


The differential administration of exclusionary and punitive discipline with African American children and youth has been consistently documented. The Office for Civil Rights (1993) reported the findings of a national survey showing that while African American males composed 8.23% of the total student population, they received corporal punishment and were suspended at rates over three times their percentage in the population. In a study of the educational status of 25,000 eighth graders from the National Education Longitudinal Study longitudinal study

a chronological study in epidemiology which attempts to establish a relationship between an antecedent cause and a subsequent effect. See also cohort study.
 of 1988, Davis and Jordan (1994) found that suspensions were imposed upon African American males much more than any other group. Garibaldi (1992) reported that while African American males composed 43% of the school age population in a New Orleans New Orleans (ôr`lēənz –lənz, ôrlēnz`), city (2006 pop. 187,525), coextensive with Orleans parish, SE La., between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, 107 mi (172 km) by water from the river mouth; founded  district, they received 65% of the school district's suspensions and 80% of the expulsions. In another study of urban school districts, African American children received more office referrals and subsequently more suspensions than any other ethnic group (Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997).

Some identifiable student attributes increase the likelihood that students will receive exclusionary discipline. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Wu, Pink, Crain, and Moles (1982) students' low socioeconomic status, underachievement, low achievement, and residence in urban areas place students at high risk for school suspension. Furthermore, the intersection among African American ethnicity, male gender, and low family income increases students' risk for exclusionary discipline practices.

Effects of Exclusionary Discipline on African American Students

The use of suspension and expulsion with African American students has wide-ranging consequences. Among the most obvious is the denial of access to learning opportunities that occurs when students are not in school. Students who receive out-of-school suspensions or expulsions typically are not provided opportunities to continue their school work. Given histories of underachievement and school failure, lost opportunities for schooling are of even greater import. A widening achievement gap exists between African American students and their white peers (Garibaldi, 1992; Simmons & Grady, 1990). In view of these concerns, African American children and youth can ill afford school practices that restrict or deny their access to educational opportunities.

Disciplinary measures that exclude African American students may create a "domino effect" that further widens that achievement gap. For example, the belief that students who are excluded from school lag behind their peers academically may cause school personnel to relegate rel·e·gate  
tr.v. rel·e·gat·ed, rel·e·gat·ing, rel·e·gates
1. To assign to an obscure place, position, or condition.

2. To assign to a particular class or category; classify. See Synonyms at commit.
 frequently suspended students to lower-ability groups. Yet students in lower tracks tend to receive lower quality resources and instruction (Oakes, 1994). Thus, while other students have opportunities to participate in general education and accelerated learning programming, students with histories of school exclusion may be subjected to lower-track or remedial programming. If that programming is not effective, those students may continue to receive poor academic grades and be retained more frequently than other students.

In addition, suspended or expelled students typically do not receive instruction on prosocial behavior. This lack of exposure to social skill instruction, coupled with frequent opportunities to affiliate with individuals with antisocial antisocial /an·ti·so·cial/ (-so´sh'l)
1. denoting behavior that violates the rights of others, societal mores, or the law.

2. denoting the specific personality traits seen in antisocial personality disorder.
 behavior, gives rise to dismal outcomes (Wu et al., 1982). When excluded from school, students are allowed to spend unsupervised time on the streets, further jeopardizing their social success. Suspended and expelled children and youth are at greater risk for encountering the legal system (Chobot & Garibaldi, 1982). Indeed, discipline practices that alienate To voluntarily convey or transfer title to real property by gift, disposition by will or the laws of Descent and Distribution, or by sale.

For example, a seller may alienate property by transferring to a buyer a parcel of the seller's land containing a house, in
 students from school are dearly associated with higher rates of voluntary or involuntary school withdrawal prior to graduation (DeRidder, 1991; Eckstrom, Goertz, Pollack pollack: see cod.
 or pollock

Either of two commercially important North Atlantic species of food fish in the cod family (Gadidae).
, & Rock, 1986; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Together these data indicate that frequent school exclusion among African American children and youth increases their opportunities to engage in illegal behaviors and contributes to early school leaving.

It is also important to examine the messages transmitted to students suspended at rates two and three times their percentage in the school age population. When the vast majority of school exclusions are meted out Adj. 1. meted out - given out in portions
apportioned, dealt out, doled out, parceled out

distributed - spread out or scattered about or divided up
 to African American students who comprise a minority of the school population, it is easy for those students to interpret this disparity as rejection and to suffer from lower self-esteem as a result (DeRidder, 1991). A negative collective, self-fulfilling prophecy self-fulfilling prophecy, a concept developed by Robert K. Merton to explain how a belief or expectation, whether correct or not, affects the outcome of a situation or the way a person (or group) will behave.  (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) may develop as a result of the messages that African American youth receive that they are incapable of abiding by schools' social and behavioral codes.

Polite (1995) applied chaos theory chaos theory, in mathematics, physics, and other fields, a set of ideas that attempts to reveal structure in aperiodic, unpredictable dynamic systems such as cloud formation or the fluctuation of biological populations.  from physics to the circumstances facing many African American males. Chaos theory suggests that small cumulative events can have important effects: The simple flutter Flutter (aeronautics)

An aeroelastic self-excited vibration with a sustained or divergent amplitude, which occurs when a structure is placed in a flow of sufficiently high velocity. Flutter is an instability that can be extremely violent.
 of a butterfly's wings has a significant effect on events hemispheres away (Gleick, 1987). In the same way, outcomes experienced by African American males may not appear significant when considered independently of each other. In sum, however, phenomena such as overrepresentation in special and remedial classes, suspension, expulsion, and other indicators of school failure can have cumulative and disastrous effects on African American males.

School Factors

The extreme and worsening shortage of African American teachers (King, 1993) points up a cultural divide that exists between contemporary African American students and their teachers. With increasing numbers of African American students enrolled in our nation's classrooms, it is highly probable that those children and youth will be instructed by teachers whose ethnicity bears little resemblance to their own. Shortages of African American teachers and administrators thus limit students' exposure to school professionals who serve as role models, symbolizing sym·bol·ize  
v. sym·bol·ized, sym·bol·iz·ing, sym·bol·iz·es
1. To serve as a symbol of:
 attainment of professional goals by same-ethnicity and gender individuals. Such shortages also increase the likelihood that African American students will be taught by teachers who have limited knowledge of, exposure to, and understanding of, their cultural backgrounds.

While it is important to increase the presence of African American educators, physical presence alone may be insufficient to reconcile the cultural conflicts African American students experience in school settings (Townsend, Thomas, Witty, & Lee, 1996). Social class, generational, and experiential ex·pe·ri·en·tial  
Relating to or derived from experience.

 differences can increase the divide between African American students and their teachers and administrators, even with similar ethnic backgrounds. Students living in poverty may have vastly different experiences than teachers who share ethnic backgrounds but live in middle-class communities and engage in activities associated with middle-class status. Thus, the combined effect of race and class differences often means that African American students' behaviors are likely to be misinterpreted by school personnel from both similar and different ethnic backgrounds. Those misinterpretations contribute to the disconnection dis·con·nect  
v. dis·con·nect·ed, dis·con·nect·ing, dis·con·nects
1. To sever or interrupt the connection of or between: disconnected the hose.

 of African American students from school settings.

Cultural Conflicts

Cultural conflicts also pose threats to African American students' participation and engagement in schools (Franklin, 1992). Ranking high among the offenses that result in suspensions or expulsions are physical aggression (Costenbader & Markson, 1994), noncompliance, and insubordination in·sub·or·di·nate  
Not submissive to authority: has a history of insubordinate behavior.

 (Skiba et al., 1997). Cultural conflicts may exist between African American students' culture and schools' mainstream culture. For example, many African American students are accustomed to engaging in multiple activities simultaneously in their homes and communities. They can be involved in multiple conversations while eating, studying, watching television, or participating in other recreational activities. Thus, those students may prefer activities that allow them to socialize so·cial·ize  
v. so·cial·ized, so·cial·iz·ing, so·cial·iz·es
1. To place under government or group ownership or control.

2. To make fit for companionship with others; make sociable.
 with others while completing tasks. At school, teachers usually expect and reward students' individual engagement in one activity at a time, as opposed to managing multiple tasks and working with others. If school instructional goals are primarily structured to promote working on one activity at a time, students may be penalized pe·nal·ize  
tr.v. pe·nal·ized, pe·nal·iz·ing, pe·nal·iz·es
1. To subject to a penalty, especially for infringement of a law or official regulation. See Synonyms at punish.

 for their need and ability to simultaneously engage in multiple activities, being perceived as willfully willfully adv. referring to doing something intentionally, purposefully and stubbornly. Examples: "He drove the car willfully into the crowd on the sidewalk." "She willfully left the dangerous substances on the property." (See: willful)  ignoring directions or as being otherwise insubordinate in·sub·or·di·nate  
Not submissive to authority: has a history of insubordinate behavior.


African American students' task orientations may also conflict with mainstream school culture. According to Gilbert and Gay (1985), African American students have a propensity toward "stage-setting" behaviors before actually beginning tasks. Toward this end, they may execute behavioral rituals to prepare for the tasks (i.e., sharpening pencils, straightening out papers, socializing with others, going to the bathroom) before beginning the task at hand. Yet methods to prepare for tasks that differ from those of the teacher provide further opportunities for misinterpretation. Teachers may mistakenly interpret those behaviors as signs of avoidance and assume that students are being noncompliant when they do not respond immediately to directives.

In response to school expectations that may conflict with their culture, African American students may engage in behaviors that alienate them from schools. According to Fordham and Ogbu (1986), some African American high school students perceive successful school behaviors as "acting white" and, in turn, develop oppositional identities. Stated another way, some African American students may purposely pur·pose·ly  
With specific purpose.


on purpose
USAGE: See at purposeful.

Adv. 1.
 resist engaging in behaviors the students deem irrelevant. They may defy school rules and expectations and associate with a peer culture that endorses that defiance. Behaviors such as speaking standard English are often included among behaviors African American youth may characterize as "acting white."

Language and Communication

Verbal and nonverbal non·ver·bal  
1. Being other than verbal; not involving words: nonverbal communication.

2. Involving little use of language: a nonverbal intelligence test.
 language differences may create additional opportunities for cultural conflicts and misinterpretation. When African American students speak nonstandard non·stan·dard  
1. Varying from or not adhering to the standard: nonstandard lengths of board.

 English, school personnel unfamiliar with that dialect may misunderstand mis·un·der·stand  
tr.v. mis·un·der·stood , mis·un·der·stand·ing, mis·un·der·stands
To understand incorrectly; misinterpret.
 the speakers' intended meaning or tone. The changing vernacular or slang popular among African American children and youth may also contribute to misinterpretation. To further compound the problem, language used among these youth may have meanings that appear to hold meanings the opposite of their intent. Currently, a popular word is dawg, a term reserved for persons who are close or endearing to African American students, while tight and 'bout it are used to describe something or someone that is, or looks, good. As an indicator of the trendiness of that lexicon, an earlier term, phat, was used in a very positive manner by many African American students. Since its homonym hom·o·nym  
1. One of two or more words that have the same sound and often the same spelling but differ in meaning, such as bank (embankment) and bank (place where money is kept).

 is fat, it was open to misinterpretation. Among diet-conscious adults, being described as phat may be viewed as insulting and disrespectful dis·re·spect·ful  
Having or exhibiting a lack of respect; rude and discourteous.

. Those are examples of language that lends itself to misinterpretation by individuals unfamiliar with that generations cultural or ethnic codes.

Nonverbal communication nonverbal communication 'Body language', see there  is equally open to misunderstanding. Many African American students, especially girls, talk using a unique style of communication. To others, they appear to use excessive nonverbal gestures to communicate and punctuate punc·tu·ate  
v. punc·tu·at·ed, punc·tu·at·ing, punc·tu·ates
1. To provide (a text) with punctuation marks.

 their points. That communication style is popular among young African Americans and is frequently demonstrated in television and video media that target that group. Yet speaking in such an impassioned and emotive e·mo·tive  
1. Of or relating to emotion: the emotive aspect of symbols.

2. Characterized by, expressing, or exciting emotion:
 manner may come across as combative com·bat·ive  
Eager or disposed to fight; belligerent. See Synonyms at argumentative.

com·bative·ly adv.
 or argumentative Controversial; subject to argument.

Pleading in which a point relied upon is not set out, but merely implied, is often labeled argumentative. Pleading that contains arguments that should be saved for trial, in addition to allegations establishing a Cause of Action or
 to unfamiliar listeners. Some educators admit to taking offense when their students talk with them in that manner and have referred those students to the principal's office (Patton & Townsend, 1999). Another example involves African American males or females who talk in louder tones than students of mainstream culture. That style can be disconcerting dis·con·cert  
tr.v. dis·con·cert·ed, dis·con·cert·ing, dis·con·certs
1. To upset the self-possession of; ruffle. See Synonyms at embarrass.

 in an environment where students are expected to use quieter tones and can be perceived as an infraction Violation or infringement; breach of a statute, contract, or obligation.

The term infraction is frequently used in reference to the violation of a particular statute for which the penalty is minor, such as a parking infraction.

 or violation of classroom and school codes. Thus, African American students' verbal and nonverbal modes of communication may appear noncompliant, increasing the risk of suspension or expulsion.


Examining Data

School personnel can begin addressing the differential use of exclusionary discipline with African American learners by examining their suspension and expulsion data to ensure that differential discipline is not applied to any group of students based on their ethnicity, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or an intersection of those variables. Applying a commonly used definition of disproportionality Dis`pro`por`tion`al´i`ty

n. 1. The state of being disproportional.
 (Harry & Anderson, 1995), African American students would be expected to be suspended or expelled disproportionately if the frequency with which they receive punitive consequences is greater than their percentage in the population by 10% or more. For instance, if African Americans compose 20% of the school age population, approximately 18%-22% of the suspensions might be expected to be imposed on African American students. When African American students are suspended more than 22% of the time, they are disproportionately suspended. Schools should first determine if their discipline data are an accurate reflection of the rate of suspension and expulsion. Subsequently, school professionals should critically examine the policies and practices by which students are referred for discipline and ultimately excluded from school. Genuine efforts must be taken to determine which students are differentially affected in order to develop proactive strategies to prevent differential and inequitable outcomes.

The "So What" Test

School policies related to behavioral expectations must be examined for potential biases or inequities. While dear behavioral expectations are necessary to maintain environments conducive to academic and social learning, some expectations have little to do with attaining that goal. Such expectations may stem more from issues related to power and control than from the need to socialize students to become productive citizens. Arbitrary expectations may hold little relevance in students' lives and may violate African American students' cultural norms.

Having observed many African American children in classrooms, this author noted the frequency with which teachers interrupted the academic engagement of some children because they were not sitting "properly." Those children were either sitting with their legs tucked under them, or half-standing while hunkered over their tasks at their desks. The teachers spent time redirecting students believed to be sitting improperly, even though the students were intensely involved in academic tasks. School personnel must revisit re·vis·it  
tr.v. re·vis·it·ed, re·vis·it·ing, re·vis·its
To visit again.

A second or repeated visit.

 rules and expectations that serve only to impose control over students' lives, as opposed to more meaningful codes that will influence students' quality of life. Simply stated, the "so what?" test could be applied to determine which expectations are more important for students to meet. In the previous scenario, the teacher could ask, "So what if he sits on his knees while working? What is the potential harm?" Or "So what if the students work together on an assignment, instead of working alone?"

For some African American students, schools are viewed as antagonistic antagonistic adjective Referring to any combination of 2 or more drugs, which results in a therapeutic effect that is less than the sum of each drug's effect. Cf Additive, Synergism.  controlling environments. When school codes appear meaningless and controlling, such students may become confrontational. A spiraling effect sometimes occurs when teachers expect students to engage in behaviors that they perceive as meaningless and controlling; the students become combative and further violate the schools' norms, and the teacher feels justified in referring the student for discipline that excludes them from that very setting. As more African American students are suspended than any other group (Skiba et al., 1997), negative attitudes about their ability to abide by To stand to; to adhere; to maintain.

See also: Abide
 school norms are perpetuated.

Attitudes and Expectations

Educators can also examine attitudes regarding those students who are largely disciplined with exclusionary or alienating practices. School personnel can begin this process by identifying their own beliefs, values, and experiences related to schooling. Additionally, they can identify their beliefs about families, cultural traditions, expectations, and other aspects that differ between themselves and their African American students. Understanding that there is great variance within ethnic groups, teachers can identify some general behavioral styles that may cause dissonance between their own experiences, values, and belief systems and those of their African American students. While attitudes are less obvious and more difficult to examine, teachers can observe their interactions with those students.

Classroom Management and Instruction

Teachers must take deliberate steps to better engage African American students, especially males, in instruction that goes beyond discipline and management. Davis and Jordan (1994) found that high suspension rates occurred in schools where extensive amounts of time were spent on discipline-related matters. Similarly, Kamps and her colleagues (1989) analyzed the statements teachers made to children in inner city and suburban first-grade classrooms. In the suburban classroom, the majority of the teacher statements revolved around academics. In the inner city classroom, however, teacher statements largely focused on management commands, resulting in fewer opportunities for academic response. To ensure that differential treatment of African American learners does not occur, teachers can observe the rates at which they make positive statements to students, call on students, and academically engage students. Using colleagues as peer coaches is an excellent strategy for gaining feedback in a nonthreatening manner. Peer coaches can videotape a segment of teaching for analyses of teacher-student interactions.

In light of historical and contemporary factors that have sabotaged African American students' academic achievement, creativity is required in designing teaching and social skill methods that are appealing and effective, while countering the forces that perpetuate African American students' disconnection and exclusion from their schooling processes. In designing instruction, Sleeter and Grant (1999) identified three alterable aspects of teaching to appeal to diverse learners. These are content (the what of teaching), context (teaching conditions), and mode (how of teaching). Each of these aspects of teaching can be changed to respond to the learning and communication styles of African American students.

Many classroom activities require students to be seated and are structured in ways that do not allow physical movement. The propensity of African American children for more physical movement than children of dominant culture has been well-documented (Hale-Benson, 1986). Classrooms that thwart physical movement may contribute to African American students engaging in inappropriate behaviors. To the greatest extent possible, instruction should be conducted using academic and social activities that promote physical movement for these children and youth. Collaborative or cooperative learning cooperative learning Education theory A student-centered teaching strategy in which heterogeneous groups of students work to achieve a common academic goal–eg, completing a case study or a evaluating a QC problem. See Problem-based learning, Socratic method.  groups (Slavin, 1987) and peer tutoring (King-Sears & Bradley, 1995) incorporate tasks which encourage student movement. Another more active technique is active learning, where students assume various roles and responsibilities that capitalize on Cap´i`tal`ize on`   

v. t. 1. To turn (an opportunity) to one's advantage; to take advantage of (a situation); to profit from; as, to capitalize on an opponent's mistakes s>.
 individual students' strengths. Boykin (1982) characterized the need of African American children for schooling processes that incorporate verve and rhythm by varying instructional strategies and pacing. To be culturally responsive, the teaching-learning interaction should include varied interactive lessons that are creative and adequately paced (Franklin, 1992).

Cultural Discontinuity dis·con·ti·nu·i·ty  
n. pl. dis·con·ti·nu·i·ties
1. Lack of continuity, logical sequence, or cohesion.

2. A break or gap.

3. Geology A surface at which seismic wave velocities change.

Ogbu (1982) suggested that school failure often occurs because African American children and other ethnic minorities face cultural discontinuity in school settings. Ogbu explained that secondary discontinuities develop when subordinate minority group members interact in dominant culture school settings. African American students, for example, must often be familiar with both minority and dominant cultures. Yet dominant culture individuals in those settings need only familiarize themselves with their dominant or mainstream culture. In response, African American students wish to maintain their identities and reject values and behaviors that typify dominant culture. Thus, schools must employ strategies to minimize the cultural discontinuity and reduce those students' resistance to engage in academic and social behaviors that lead to their success.

Knowing African American students' cultural styles and preferences is helpful when planning and implementing instructional and management strategies to meet students' academic and social needs. Typical cultural considerations that can be incorporated in schools and classrooms center on relationship-building, communication, and learning styles. African Americans tend to be people-oriented (Franklin, 1992) and establishing and maintaining relationships are important in various settings, including schools. With all the demands of teaching, minimal attention may be directed toward fostering relationships as part of the teaching-learning process. As consumers, some students may have difficulty engaging in their educational processes in the absence of positive relationships developed with their teachers. Likewise, they may be more likely to comply with school directives when they have a positive relationship with teachers and administrators. Before participating in academic activities, those students may initiate discussions with teachers or peers that may, on the surface, have very little to do with their learning tasks, but will increase their willingness to be engaged. As teachers gain insight into those students' social needs and preferences, they can contextualize con·tex·tu·al·ize  
tr.v. con·tex·tu·al·ized, con·tex·tu·al·iz·ing, con·tex·tu·al·iz·es
To place (a word or idea, for example) in a particular context.
 learning and reduce the cultural discontinuity that impedes the teaching-learning process.

School professionals who have developed positive trusting relationships with African American students can skillfully skill·ful  
1. Possessing or exercising skill; expert. See Synonyms at proficient.

2. Characterized by, exhibiting, or requiring skill.
 teach and promote the mainstream expectation in a manner that denigrates neither the student nor their individual or cultural customs. Gay (1993) proposed that educators become "cultural brokers" who are knowledgeable about both mainstream and their students' minority culture. The task of a cultural broker is to find aspects of the students' experiences that can serve as starting points from which to relate to mainstream cultural expectations. These can then serve as a basis for teaching less familiar skills or concepts.

Minimizing Linguistic Barriers

The expectation that standard English will be used in school and workplace settings frequently causes cultural discontinuity for some African American students. Cultural brokers would familiarize themselves with patterns of African American students' dialect or the meanings of some of the trendy slang or colloquialisms that are popular among African American children and youth. It is important to note that both rapidly evolving slang and more stable dialectical di·a·lec·tic  
1. The art or practice of arriving at the truth by the exchange of logical arguments.

 patterns hold myriad opportunities for misinterpretation. In teaching aspects of standard English, cultural brokers could teach language as a setting-specific skill and facilitate students in "code-switching," that is, adapting their behavior or language to fit the setting (Perry, 1993). Cultural brokers thus explicitly discern the differences between language expected in school settings from language norms expected and appropriate in home and community settings, and help students bridge the gap between those settings (Franklin, 1992).

The propensity of African American students to interact with speakers may create a cultural discontinuity in many traditional classrooms. "Call and response" is an African American tradition that occurs when listeners actively and verbally respond to speakers (Franklin, 1992; Hale-Benson, 1986). When classroom expectations stipulate stip·u·late 1  
v. stip·u·lat·ed, stip·u·lat·ing, stip·u·lates
a. To lay down as a condition of an agreement; require by contract.

 that students engage in passive listening behaviors (i.e., looking at the speaker, nodding appropriately, etc.), African American students may appear to purposely distract the speaker or even "talk back" to the speaker. Students who engage the speaker in call and response routines may be perceived as behaving inappropriately, even though that style demonstrates that they are engaged and such engagement may facilitate their learning.

The teacher as cultural broker can mediate students' need for call and response on the one hand, and the demands of the subject matter and instruction on the other. The teacher can acknowledge call and response as a valid way to enhance learning, but also establish parameters with students, allowing time for both structured and unstructured interaction with the speaker. Alternately, students might be allowed to maintain a written or verbal reaction or comment bin, using notepads or microcassette recorders, to immediately record their thoughts for later discussion. Other viable methods for accommodating those learners would be to use grouping arrangements that promote speaker-listener interactions (i.e., smaller groups, dyads, teams).

Building Relationships

Many African American students who are suspended believe they have poor relationships with their teachers. In one study (Garibaldi, 1992), 40% of the African American males perceived their teachers had lowered goal expectations for them, and 60% believed their teachers failed to push them enough. Ironically, when the teachers were asked if their African American male students would go on to college, 60% of them indicated that they would not. Since 65% of the teachers in the study were African American, that author noted the susceptibility of both dominant culture and African American teachers to hold lowered expectations for African American male students.

To reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, school professionals can foster nurturing and caring relationships with all students, while especially making efforts to connect with those students who have histories of school infractions or with attributes associated with suspension, dropping out of school, and other negative outcomes. Wu et al. (1982) characterized those at highest risk for being suspended as being low-achieving, African American males who live in urban areas and whose families have low incomes. To develop a relationship with students who are at great risk of being excluded from schools, educators must make genuine efforts to get to know them. In order to better understand the student perspective, this author and her colleagues (Townsend et al, 1996) conducted focus groups with African American male high school students who frequently received school suspensions. When asked to inform teachers concerning effective strategies for making school a better place for them, they invariably in·var·i·a·ble  
Not changing or subject to change; constant.

 suggested that teachers "get to know" them and what their lives are like when they are not in school settings. Those young men suggested that school personnel utilize interest questionnaires or surveys, talk with students, and generally show an interest in their extracurricular interests.

Participation in School Activities

Of their own volition vo·li·tion
1. The act or an instance of making a conscious choice or decision.

2. A conscious choice or decision.

3. The power or faculty of choosing; the will.
, African American students who have been less successful in school settings are unlikely to join or be affiliated with school clubs and organizations, athletic teams notwithstanding. Often, special invitations from school personnel are needed to demonstrate confidence in those students and to entice them to participate. After becoming acquainted with students' unique talents and interests, school personnel can effectively match students with school groups or initiatives that will connect them to schools and create a sense of school belonging. Participation in school-related activities also affords those students opportunities to be viewed more positively by adults and their peers in the school environment. For example, students with natural leadership abilities can maintain student representative roles on task forces to address schoolwide issues (i.e., school safety, student conflicts, etc.).

Multiple efforts must be made to create a sense of belonging for African American learners in school environments. Inviting students with artistic talent to assist in planning a school banner may be a strategy for connecting and involving students. Students may need nurturing to assume school leadership and participation roles after their expertise potential has been identified. In that regard, students who display verbal skills can be encouraged to participate on the debate team. Those students sensitive to social injustice Social Injustice is a concept relating to the perceived unfairness or injustice of a society in its divisions of rewards and burdens. The concept is distinct from those of justice in law, which may or may not be considered moral in practice.  can be motivated to participate in a class social change project. Developing community awareness campaigns is an activity that might pique some students' interests, especially when those issues such as the prevalence of diabetes among African Americans are of import to their families and communities. Doing so may reduce students' own opposition to, and defiance of, school norms perceived as irrelevant and meaningless.

Increased Interest and Relevance

Borrowing from the business literature, a "segmented marketing" strategy might be used to promote educators' understanding and appreciation of students' diverse preferences and styles (Gay, 1993). This strategy involves targeting a segment of the population as consumers of products or services, and designing services in accord with their styles and preferences. Before entrepreneurs design services or products for their potential consumers, various strategies are meticulously developed to gain useful knowledge about that group and to guarantee their participation as targeted consumers. In the same way, educators must develop creative and genuine techniques for gaining insight into the lives of their African American students. That insight can enhance the traditional curriculum, making it more meaningful to those students.

While adults tend to minimize the learning potential of video games See video game console. , knowing that students are highly adept at video game technology and pride themselves on mastering the games can be useful in planning classroom instruction and management. To motivate students to learn new skills or concepts, rationales for using those interests can be connected to various aspects of the popular market of increasingly sophisticated video games. Video game magazines can be used, for example, to create interest in reading for pleasure. To teach research skills, students might design and conduct experiments with their peers regarding their video game preferences. Math activities might be generated in the context of operating a video game rental business, while problem-solving scenarios could center on the purchase and rental of video games. Students themselves can be resources and suggest meaningful practice activities that reinforce learning and simultaneously respond to their unique needs and preferences.

Family and Community Partnerships

Genuine partnerships must be developed with African American family and community members. In light of the diversity of existing ethnic groups, and the differences that exist among African Americans, it is unrealistic to expect educators to be familiar with all cultural aspects that characterize an ethnic group. Instead, fostering collaborative relationships with individuals who are members of that cultural group is more realistic and will reduce the likelihood that students' verbal or nonverbal behavior will be misinterpreted. In sharing their expertise in such a collaborative context, African American family and community members can provide insights on student behavior that can lead to the development of strategies for motivating and instructing African American learners.

Educators must also work to develop positive, caring, and productive relationships with family and community members (Townsend, 1994). Schools must examine their attitudes toward families and communities that may demonstrate behaviors that differ from traditional norms. Monocultural notions of parental support for education are often limited to traditional expressions (e.g., attending school activities, providing school-related materials, visiting students' classrooms, accompanying classes on field trips, and raising funds for school activities). When parents, families, and community members do not engage in those middle-class and dominant culture modes of showing support, they may be perceived negatively or judged as not caring about their children's education. Family support of education, such as statements emphasizing the importance of education, that occurs in settings other than schools often goes unnoticed.

Building Cultural Bridges

Many African American families and communities believe that schools are hostile environments for their children, especially their males. As evidence, they describe school practices by which African American males are disproportionately affected--special education, remedial class, alternative school placement, retention, suspension, and expulsion. Thus, parents and families may develop conspiracy theories ''This is a list of conspiracy theories; it contains alleged conspiracies that are not accepted by mainstream academics. For a discussion of conspiracy theories in general, see conspiracy theory.  about the schooling of their children and distrust motives of school personnel (Kunjufu, 1983).

To address these issues and reduce the rates at which African American children are excluded from schools, the relationships among schools, families, and communities must be restored. For too long, African American parents and families have lacked a voice in their children's education. Parental expertise regarding their own children has not been solicited in any but superficial ways. Myriad opportunities exist for schools to engage parents, families, and community members in meaningful roles that will serve to strengthen those relationships while increasing the effectiveness of academic and social instruction.

While spending a year as a participant-observer in a predominantly African American fifth-grade elementary classroom taught by a first-year white teacher, this author observed ways in which that teacher took advantage of family and community resources to build and strengthen relationships with individuals who previously mistrusted school personnel. Admittedly having limited knowledge of African American culture African American culture or Black culture, in the United States, includes the various cultural traditions of African American communities. It is both part of, and distinct from American culture. The U.S.  and heritage, the teacher invited an African American storyteller from the community to explain the principles of Kwanzaa, an African American celebration, to her class. When the storyteller demonstrated the principle of "collective responsibility," he had students pair up and stand back-to-back with their arms locked. He said, "It simply means I got your back--you got my back."

Those students, who at times had difficulty getting along and appeared to violate most of the classroom's traditional behavioral codes, were enthralled en·thrall  
tr.v. en·thralled, en·thrall·ing, en·thralls
1. To hold spellbound; captivate: The magic show enthralled the audience.

2. To enslave.
 with that demonstration. The teacher incorporated that principle into her classroom code of expected behavior and the students could frequently be overheard reminding each other that, "I got your back--you got my back." That fifth-grade teacher simply acknowledged the expertise of a community member and enlisted his support in developing behavioral codes that were more meaningful to the students than the typical expectations (e.g., keep hands, feet, and objects to self; respect others; raise hand before speaking) that go unheeded by many students.


In sum, school discipline practices disproportionately exclude African American students, especially males, from opportunities to learn. Schools can address this phenomenon by examining their discipline data, their discipline policies, and their instructional practices. School personnel can reengineer attitudes and beliefs held about African American children and families and acknowledge and incorporate those students' and families' unique talents and expertise. Moreover, meaningful and effective management strategies can be developed and implemented when school personnel begin to understand behaviors and communication systems that may be unique to African Americans. Reducing the cultural discontinuity students experience in school settings is a culturally responsive approach to preventing school exclusion and improving the success of African American children and youth.


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BRENDA L. TOWNSEND (CEC (Central Electronic Complex) The set of hardware that defines a mainframe, which includes the CPU(s), memory, channels, controllers and power supplies included in the box. Some CECs, such as IBM's Multiprise 2000 and 3000, include data storage devices as well.  #176), Associate Professor, Department of Special Education, University of South Florida

, Tampa.

Please address correspondence to Brenda L. Townsend, University of South Florida, Department of Special Education, EDU 162, Tampa, FL 33620.


Manuscript received May 1999; manuscript accepted June 1999.
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Date:Mar 22, 2000
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