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The Difference: Keeping Kids in Class and out of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Virginia Alvino

Being disciplined in schools can have major long term ramifications for boys of color.

Every kid first learns how to behave – at home. Sometimes with formal rules, sometimes by just observing others. But different styles and standards are brought together when all those kids enter the same classroom. Combine that with cultural diversity, and classroom management becomes a big challenge.

Historically, institutions have often used punishment or removal of students who break rules or disrupt the environment. According to researchers, schools are still relying heavily on methods of exclusion, like suspensions and expulsions.

Indiana ranks among the worst states for kids of color being suspended more than their white counterparts.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino learned more about a disciplinary system that works to keep all kids in the classroom more, and one school district who says they’re seeing success in its implementation.


School’s back in session, but on this Friday afternoon teachers and administrators in New Haven are the ones sitting in class.

“Today we basically focused on how to stop problems from escalating into big problems, and we talked about interventions,” says AdrianGatewood, dean for East Allen County Schools. Teams from every school in his district are receiving the next level of training in PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. It’s a research and data driven disciplinary system that focuses on prevention and keeping kids in the classroom.

To Gatewood, the system makes a lot of sense.

“I think this is a great advantage for minority students," he says, "because we actually are focusing on working with kids and not just sending them to the office and having somebody else deal with it, when it’s not a major problem.” :

Research shows that most referrals aren’t for serious infractions like weapons, drugs, or assaults.

Dr. Russell Skiba says “they’re really much more at the level of non-compliance, disrespect, even loitering, dress code.” Skiba is a professor at Indiana University and director of their Equity Project, which researches school discipline.

“We can’t simply say stop using suspension and expulsion because there’s a reason they’re being used," he says, "we don’t really know what else to do in a lot of cases.” 

That’s why the Equity Project helps train educators in PBIS, so they have options. Skiba says currently, certain groups are disproportionately disciplined – like boys of color who are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts, to be suspended.

And once a student is disciplined, the effects can snowball.

He says the term for that, the school-to-prison pipeline, has been used for a while.

“Recent research has really shown that that is a very real phenomena," says Skiba, "that students who are suspended are at a greater risk of school disengagement, at a greater risk of being retained, of not graduating on time, or dropping out, and eventually of increased contact with the juvenile justice system.” 

So what’s to blame? Skiba says a lot of people think it’s socioeconomic differences. In Fort Wayne, black students often come from less educated, more impoverished homes.

“So maybe it’s just poor kids of color coming in not understanding the rules, and so those kids are more likely to be suspended, it’s a shame. In fact there’s no evidence," Skiba says, "that the disparities in discipline are simply due to differences in behavior or poverty.”

There are variables that schools can control. For example, the principal’s perspective on school discipline can be the strongest predictor of racial disparity.

Ed Mendoza is the Director of Student Services for East Allen, and says the nationwide trend of students of color being over-disciplined has been seen in his schools as well. That’s why they turned to PBIS four years ago.

“Teaching students how to behave and then expecting them to do that by either having interventions or rewarding students," says Mendoza, "we will see that children will adapt and change to the expectation that is taught to them.” 

He says for students, PBIS reconciles what is expected of them at home, with what’s expected of them at school.

Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News
Teams from every school in East Allen County Schools wrap up their latest daylong training session in PBIS.

There are still some big challenges, however. Mendoza says he’s seen lots of a-ha moments for teachers who see why the system can work.Mendoza says “teachers who come and remember how things used to be, well they need to adapt to change, and change sometimes is a little bit more difficult.” 

A lot of disparity may also come from lack of relatability. Mendoza says the diversity of his district’s staff does not reflect the diversity of students.

Still, Mendoza says, for his schools PBIS seems to be working.

“We’re not only seeing improvements in behavior," says Mendoza, "we’re seeing improvements in academics, and they sort of go hand in hand. We’ve been tracking data for the last three years and every year we’ve seen significant changes.” 

But despite some improvement, there’s still one factor that contributes to disparity and is hard to identify. The research calls it implicit bias, but a lot still isn’t known about how race and racial relations play into the discipline gap.

I asked Ed Mendoza if East Allen County Schools’ teachers and administrators felt like they could talk about it.

"I think so," he says. "I think that we don’t hold back anything and we don’t hide anything. We look at the numbers and we look at our situation and we have to confront the reality of it. I don’t think anybody’s hiding from them. I think sometimes what happens is I don’t really know what to do. The problem is larger than myself, the problem is larger than my classroom, the problem is larger than my school.”

“This is not accusations of racism against the schools,” says Russell Skiba of IU's Equity Project. “Issues of disparity are in a way built into our structures they’ve been part of our history for four hundred years.” 

In short, change like this is hard.

Skiba says districts need to have a plan, be self-critical, and have open conversations, which can often be difficult, awkward, and painful.

“On the other hand," adds Skiba, "I think it’s been very good news in the last couple years to see there are things schools can do when they reflect on their own practices, to bring these disparities to an end.”

But, Skiba says, that only happens with patience, dedication, and time.

This is the latest installment in WBOI's yearlong project, "The Difference."

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