chalk talk

How this Memphis student-turned-professor is seeking to address racial stereotyping in school discipline

Jason Okonofua still feels a deep sense of injustice when he remembers the one time he was arrested while growing up in Memphis.

Jason Okonofua (Photo by Yasmin Anwar/UC Berkeley)

Two decades ago as a student at Ridgeway High School, Okonofua was caught in school with an inappropriate flyer handed to him by a classmate. His principal told him he would be suspended — a punishment that Okonofua took issue with.

“I was on the math team, honors classes, within the upper track of the school,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe suspension was the answer. So I told her I’d stay in that office until we came up with a different plan. That’s when she told me I’d be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace.’”

Okonofua spent a few hours in juvenile detention before being released without being charged, due to his good grades and track record. But he’s carried that experience with him ever since.

Today, Okonofua is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has dedicated his career to tackling the school troublemaker stereotype that leads to over-disciplining students, especially black males.

With the backing of Google, Okonofua is developing an online intervention for 20 middle schools in several soon-to-be-announced Southern states. The goal is to motivate teachers to check their biases against African-American students before meting out punishment. A similar intervention tool that he developed has reduced suspensions in three school districts in California.

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Okonofua about his Memphis childhood and how it’s impacted his work. Here are the highlights, condensed for brevity:

What was your school experience in Memphis?

Because of family situations, I moved from school to school throughout the city. I went to eight schools total throughout my childhood in Memphis. My last school was Ridgeway High School.

In 10th grade, I stood out because I was one of the only black students taking AP/honors classes. The Memphis Rotary Foundation had a program to send Memphis students over the summer to elite prep schools, which were usually on the East Coast. I got recommended and ended up at St. George’s School in Rhode Island. By the end of that summer, St. George’s was interested in me coming back as a full-time student based on my academics and athleticism. Memphis schools had wired fences around the schools and metal detectors. This school was a walk away from the ocean and on this idyllic hill. It was a world away from what I knew. I chose to finish out school there.

You say you saw a lot of over-disciplining black boys while in Memphis. Tell us about that.

Well, I was suspended four times, and all for subjective reasons. I wasn’t in fights, didn’t have drugs or guns. I was being “disrespectful” or “insubordinate” in the eyes my teacher or principal. Instead of explaining to me why I was coming off as disrespectful, they just suspended me. That’s a common story for African-American students. Once you’re disciplined once, then you’re labeled as a “troublemaker.” There are certain groups of students that keep getting suspended over and over again, and research tells us higher suspension rates lead to a greater likelihood of students being suspended again or dropping out. For many students, including myself, a suspension wasn’t the answer. And research also tells us the kids that typically fit into the category of “troublemakers” are black students.

It’s also important to think about school environment when it comes to this issue. One of the schools I went to was East Middle School, which was then on the same campus as East High School. It was an overwhelmingly black school in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. There were metal detectors at the front door to greet us every morning. At Colonial Middle School, another school I went to in East Memphis, there weren’t metal detectors. There was landscaping and fresh paint. Now, what’s the difference between students at East and students at Colonial Middle? See, there’s a stigma direct toward racially marginalized, low-income students.

Tell us about the work you’re doing today.

Before I came to UC-Berkeley, I was at Stanford studying teacher-student relationships, and how bias and stereotyping can shape the way we perceive and respond to things. Our research, which focused on the teacher perspective, found that teachers wanted to discipline black students more severely than non-black students. We found that the root of that stereotype is that these teachers were perceiving black students to be more of “troublemakers.” I led an intervention study for teachers, which led to reduced suspensions in three school districts.

Now, I’m working on an intervention tool — with the help of Google — that could be implemented in multiple states for at least 100 teachers. The intervention essentially asks teachers questions online and points them to articles about student development and stories from children’s perspectives. The goal is to humanize the child and really hit home why empathy is important when interacting with students.

This experience is meant to be a psychological thing as opposed to a policy thing. School districts try policies, like banning principals from suspending kids for certain behaviors. But changing policies don’t always change the cultures of schools. Once a teacher reorients the way they view a child, they respond differently when that child acts out. Instead of sending a student straight to the office, the teacher is able to address behavior in a more empathetic way, and make the child feel respected. In turn, this maintains the integrity of the teacher-student relationship and decreases the rate of the student acting out again.

My work in no way tries to point a finger at teachers. They are not actively trying to harm students. But implicit bias is the culprit. How can we offset the effects of the bias? We’re all exposed to stereotypes when we watch TV or interact with others. The biggest objective of my work is this: If there is bias, how can we stop that from affecting the way people interact?

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.