2 uncomfortable truths a video experiment reveals about school discipline

A Yale education researcher recruited teenage actors to "misbehave" in a video that was evaluated by more than 1,300 teachers.

Does “student misbehavior” mean the same thing to all teachers and administrators? Does the definition depend on the student who is misbehaving? More specifically, is there a link between the student’s race or ethnicity and the discipline they receive?

Answering those troubling questions was the goal of a Yale University education researcher who recruited teenage boys to “misbehave” in videos that were randomly evaluated by more than 1,300 teachers from about 300 middle and high schools. Jayanti Owens, an assistant professor in the university’s School of Management, recorded separate videos of a white, Black and Latino actor performing identical misbehaviors: slamming a door twice, texting repeatedly during a test, and throwing a pencil into a garbage can and crumpling a test booklet.

The teachers were prompted to write a description of the student’s behavior and decide whether to send the boy to the principal’s office.

“Some schools take a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to discipline,” Owens said in her report for the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. “At an extreme, they treat anything that could be construed as misbehavior as such and address it in a punitive manner, including by removing the misbehaving student from the classroom learning environment or from the school altogether.”

Student misbehavior mishandled?

Black boys are 300% more likely and Latino boys are 30% more likely to be expelled or suspended than are white students. Owens explains that many researchers believe this is because a.) Black and Latino students are punished more often and more harshly for comparable behaviors and b.) many Black and Latino students attend majority-minority or economically disadvantaged schools where discipline is generally more punitive.

Here’s a look at the two key findings from Owens’ student misbehavior experiment:

1. Differential treatment by race: Teachers were about 7 percentage points more likely to say they would send the Black student to the principal’s office than the white student. Higher levels of blame were one reason for the gap, meaning teachers used significantly more “blameworthiness language” to describe the behavior of Black boys compared to what they wrote about white or Latino boys. “Even though both the Black and white students were behaving in the exact same way, the teachers perceived the Black students as behaving more negatively,” Owens pointed out.


More from DA: 3 districts, superintendents part ways as other leaders switch places


2. Between-school differences: Teachers in the experiment did not discipline Latino teens more harshly than white students. Owens believes the schools that Black and Latino students attend are another important explanation for the discrepancies. Latino and Black teens “typically attend schools where everyone is punished more often and more harshly, regardless of students’ race or ethnicity,” she asserts. “It seems that in general, schools with a high ratio of Black and Latino boys have more punitive climates.”

Majority-minority schools are also more likely to have installed security cameras and to station police officers in the buildings. “Increased security means that more students will get caught breaking school policies, even if the students themselves break policies with the same frequency as students who attend less-surveilled schools,” she adds.

Where do we go from here?

Owens recommends that administrators make the following policy changes:

  • Change the criteria required for a referral to the principal’s office.
  • Offer “empathy interventions,” which have been shown to reduce both suspension rates and racial disparities. For example, teachers should consider why a student might misbehave—such as conflict at home or hunger.
  • Implement coaching programs that guide teachers in adopting culturally responsive classroom management practices.
  • Emphasize restorative justice techniques, such as mediation, over harsher punishment.
  • Assess whether potential hires favor restorative justice over punitive approaches to determine if their philosophy aligns with district culture.

Ultimately, the interventions that transform school culture most broadly will be the approaches that are most effective at eliminating discipline disparities. “Such cultural transformations will create the school contexts that reduce the need for referrals in the first place—such as by increasing student-teacher trust and teacher cultural competence and empathy, and,” Owens concludes, “by putting into place the structures that support teachers in accomplishing their aims without removing students from the classroom.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is the managing editor of District Administration and a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

Most Popular