Cultural gap may lead to more discipline for African-American students

Renae Azziz

Numerous studies have revealed that African-American students are more likely than their white peers to face referrals to the office, suspension, expulsion or other forms of discipline at school.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Renae Azziz, founder and director of Virtuoso Education Consulting, which provides professional development training to teachers and school district leaders.

Azziz, a school psychologist who helps districts resolve disproportionality in discipline, says in many cases it’s a clash of cultures, and not necessarily racism, that leads to disproportionate punishment for minority students.

“Teachers need to understand that sometimes what they see as misbehavior is not viewed the same way by African-American students,” Azziz says. “It’s just that in these cases the educators come from different cultures than their students. The teachers need to increase their knowledge about those differences and improve their skills for handling the situations.”


Azziz says there are a number of promising strategies to reduce disproportionality in discipline.

  • Develop supportive relationships among and within school staff and students through the implementation of restorative-justice frameworks, which use conflict resolution and open dialogue. Restorative justice focuses students on the ramifications of their actions so that they take ownership of those actions and learn from their poor decisions.
  • Engage in culturally relevant and responsive instructions and interactions to make the curriculum engaging for all.
  • Change disciplinary codes of conduct to align with positive school climates through the implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) that are culturally responsive.
  • Commit to ongoing professional development for teachers, focused on developing their awareness, knowledge and skills related to culture.


African-American students often have more negative views of their schools than white students because they perceive them as being less fair and consistent with discipline. That this perception exists, Azziz says, reinforces the idea that educators need to be culturally responsive so that the school environment meets the needs of students from all cultural backgrounds.

It’s not that schools have failed to make an effort to address problems with discipline. For two decades, PBIS has been implemented across the nation in an effort to decrease suspensions and expulsions, Azziz says. That worked — sort of.

Data indicates PBIS does reduce the overall rates for those disciplinary actions, but there’s a caveat. Minority students, especially African Americans, still get most of the punishments.

“That tells me that PBIS is not as effective for African-American students as it is for other ethnic groups,” Azziz says. “So why is that?”

The answer may lie in those cultural differences.

Here’s an example: Teachers who expect students to raise their hands before responding in class often send African-American students to the office for repeatedly talking out.

But many of those students see classroom discussions as more informal, Azziz says.

“Some students, particularly African-American students, show that they are listening and engaged by blurting out their thoughts instead of raising their hands,” Azziz says. “This is a communication-response style called back-channeling and it’s often seen in the African-American culture.”

Teachers who understand that back-channeling is a cultural pattern of behavior can better teach the students when that behavior is appropriate in the classroom and when they need to raise their hands, she says.

“When teachers don’t know about this communications style,” Azziz says, “all they see is a student who disrupted their class and it becomes a top reason for discipline referrals.”

Source’s background

Before starting Virtuoso Education Consulting, Azziz practiced as a school psychologist in Indiana. She also worked on grants funded by the Indiana Department of Education supporting Indiana’s Initiatives on Response to Intervention, Culturally Responsive PBIS, and Minority Disproportion-ality in Special Education. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed her to the Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services.

This column’s author, Ginny Grimsley, is the national print campaign manager for News and Experts, based in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Contact her at (901) 727-443-7115, Ext. 207, or email her at Follow her on Twitter as @PrintcessGinny.