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Complicity in Conduct: A Call to White Hearing Officers



By: Amanda Mesirow

Ijeoma Oluo (2019) writes, “These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn't care, to suddenly be asked by those who've ignored them for so long, ‘What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?'” The times are not “here again;” they have never left. White conduct hearing officers must engage in antiracist work—not just efforts—to combat the racism empirically proven to exist in our systems and on our campuses. In a combination of a review of the literature, personal reflections on professional experiences, and tangible to-do items for those interested in engaging in antiracist work, this blog will not center the white experience; rather, it charges white hearing officers and conduct professionals to make efforts to make the change without relying on colleagues of color for advice, guidance, strength, and emotional or physical energy. 


Let us begin with an important question: Why is a white hearing officer writing a blog about Black Lives Matter? There are many responses to that, and here is mine: white people need to do the antiracist work towards justice in student conduct. To rely on our Black colleagues is to ignore our complicity in the racist roots of higher education and the judicial system (Giroux, 2014; Housee, 2018; McCoy & Rodricks, 2015; Park, 2018; Porter, 1997). White people must recognize and challenge their own fragility (DiAngelo, 2018) and engage, meaningfully, in reviewing our processes—from referral to appeal—and how they impact our Black, Indigneous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students.

Additionally, as Ijeoma Oluo (2019) writes, “These are very stressful times for people of color who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn't care, to suddenly be asked by those who've ignored them for so long, ‘What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?'” The times are not “here again:” they have never left. White conduct hearing officers must engage in antiracist work—not just efforts—to combat the racism empirically proven to exist in our systems and on our campuses.

Allow me a personal response, as well, to the question before we move on. As a Jew, I am not white. However, I am conditionally white (seen as white until it is known I am not) and therefore have and experience white privilege. How does this inform how students see me? What follows are some particularly illustrative examples from throughout my career. I heard a case involving a group of Black students who were referred for disruption in a campus office. The students felt they had been discriminated against by staff. In the hearing, I began by telling them that they were going to be listened to, they were going to be respected, and they were going to have an opportunity to share their response. Our conversation went on for well over an hour and included dialogue about racism in education. Near the end, one of the students said to me, “Are you Black?” I said, “No, I am not.” Another student said, “Yeah. Yeah you are…” and gestured towards my skin and hair, “…I can see the melanin in you.” Another student said, “You must be.” In other cases, I have met with Arab students who try out Arabic phrases on me to see if I understand them, or ask directly, “What is your home country?” I have had Mexican DACA students ask me if my family is documented or not. However…

I have also had white students say to me, “Well you know how they are.” I have had white faculty or staff refer students to me and try to see if I will join them in conversation involving stereotypes. For most of my life, I have been perceived as white, and benefited from white privilege (and the doubtful “honor” as being seen as a collaborator with racist white people). But I bring these stories up to highlight a significant problem: when I treated students of color and marginalized students well, they assumed I was one of “them”—to the point of disbelief when I explained my identity. When I am approached by white individuals or meet with them, they assume I am one of them—regardless of how I treat them, and sometimes until I speak on behalf of the marginalized.

What implications do these kinds of incidents have for hearing officers? For students? For faculty and staff? For our campuses? For our world? And what can we do? Attempting to discuss those questions is the purpose of this blog.

Our work as white hearing officers

The history of race and bias in higher education, and the impact on students of color, is well-documented (Green, McKenzie, & Rose; 2016; Giroux, 2010; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2009; Stead, 2016). Institutions of higher education were built in white-centered history, for white students, teaching white-centered pedagogy and disciplining with white-centered systems of justice (Museus et al., 2015; Pulliam, Sasso, Paone, & Maldonado, 2016; Richardson, Heidbrink, Muhammad, & Bryant-Edwards, 2016). Students of color therefore face systemic racism in the classroom and on campus, including in the disciplinary, or conduct, process (Porter, 1997).  

For our quantitatively-minded friends, let's next look at some statistics. Despite the seemingly obvious intersection of these concerns—discipline and racism—very little research has been completed on racial disparity in the higher education conduct system (Arao, 2017). Higher education institutions are required to report statistics related to violent crimes, sexual misconduct, and alcohol and drug violations (Clery Center, 2019) but, they are not required by any federal law to disclose data related to racial and ethnic statistics in the conduct process. K-12 public schools are required to do this (Barbadoro, 2017).  Therefore, research exists on disparities in the K-12 system, and it appears that there is a strong possibility that the issues in K-12 continue when students reach college (Nicholson-Crotty, Birchmeier, & Valentine, 2009; Raffaele-Mendez, Knoff, & Ferron, 2002; Skiba et al., 2011). Existing studies on racial disparity in discipline paint a sobering picture. 

Researchers Raffaele-Mendez, Knoff, and Ferron (2002) found that Black students were suspended almost four times as much as white students—12.5% of Black students had been suspended once, while this was true for only 3.08% of white students. This was only in elementary school (Raffaele-Mendez et al., 2002). In middle school, the number climbs to almost half of Black males with only a quarter of white males experiencing suspension. In high school, over a third of Black males were suspended compared to less than a quarter of white male students (Raffaele-Mendez et al., 2002).  Skiba (et.al., 2011), in a qualitative study of racial disparity in over 300 schools, found similar outcomes. This study went even farther with their data to show that not only are Black students more likely to be suspended (rate of 2.19 in elementary schools to 3.78 by middle school) than white students, but also they are more likely to receive severe consequences—suspension or expulsion—for the same behavior as their white peers (Skiba et al., 2011). To further emphasize the disparities found, the researchers first ran the data where the consequence is linked only to the violation; they then ran a model where race is added (Skiba et al., 2011). For every data set, race is found to be a significant predictor of the severity of the consequence (Skiba et al., 2011). As higher education professionals, we should also consider the ongoing consequences. Black students with suspensions on high school transcripts, or disciplinary records obtained by schools to which they are applying, may not even have the opportunity to begin at college, let alone graduate. Of course, the disadvantages to not having a college degree are well documented and contribute to the systemic cycle of violence and poverty.

Turning the Workplace to a Wokeplace: What Can We Do?

    First, we can stop, as white people, appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) words like “woke.” Next, we can engage in the following antiracist actions. We must be proactive in our antiracist work, not just wait for discrimination to occur (spoiler alert: it always will).

Review your entire process.

Step-by-step, go through your process and find where there is the possibility for and probability of bias. Are your policies written in such a way that one demographic is more likely to be referred than another? Do your trainings include information about discrimination and conduct, or do they only focus on how and why to refer? Review your sanctions. Are they assignments that do not fit the experience of BIPOC students; are they instead based in white discourse (Applebaum, 2005)? 

Consider the experiences of students once they are referred to your process. One of the programs I am proudest of implementing is our Assigned Advisor program. As we know, some students are able to afford an attorney, or they have parents who are able to take time off of work, who are familiar with the English language, who went to college, etc. These students, when they choose to have such an advisor, have a clear advantage. Therefore, I developed a new policy: students who wish to have an advisor but who cannot provide one are assigned a trained advisor from the college. Advisors work with the student before, during, and after their hearing to ensure they understand the process, feel supported, and are connected with campus resources throughout and after the process. 

Review how your office trains and communicates with referral agents (faculty, staff, police).

Our office provides training for faculty and staff about how to manage classroom and campus disruptions (we are a non-residential campus). Included in these presentations is the concept of viewing students from an “at-promise” perspective rather than an “at-risk” perspective, and avoiding deficit-informed thinking (Porter, 1997). We discuss our students—how they are not homogenous, how they are coming to campus with various levels of academic, financial, and emotional support, and how they may have different views of and experiences with authority, particularly in predominantly white spaces. These conversations are imperative to a proactive, antiracist approach on campus. We discuss the racism inherent in popular academic phrases such as “achievement gap” and “grit” and “growth mindset.” White hearing officers, make no mistake: these concepts from the dominating culture are directly related to our work in conduct. When we meet with students, are we meeting with them under a white-informed sense of moral responsibility (Applebaum, 2005)? Are we seeking out the right, white answers based on color-blindness, meritocracy, and individual choice (Applebaum, 2005) or are we doing the work to inform ourselves of the Critical Race Theory tenets of counter-narrative, lived experience, and the permanence of racism (McCoy & Rodricks, 2015)? 

On my current campus, the presentation also includes one of the eight expectations from our president: “Individuals in our organization must understand that the use of power, control, and ego must be avoided” (Moraine Valley, 2014). I think of this phrase every single time I sit down with a student, and especially every time I decide a sanction. The amount of power we have as white people is staggering; the amount we have as white hearing officers is like cradling dynamite. With a flourish of our pen or the click of a mouse, we can forever change a student's academic—and life—journey. That level of responsibility must come with a constant awareness of what it means to do antiracist work and incorporation of antiracist values into that work.

Review your performance as a white hearing officer.

    Porter's (1997) book, titled Kill Them Before They Grow: Misdiagnosis of African American Boys in American Classrooms, outlines the types of white (women) teachers that are most harmful to Black children, especially boys. These types, I feel, also translate well to white hearing officers, and I encourage us all to read Porter's work. The “Touchy-Feely White Female” educator, the “Plantation Mistress” educator, the “Missionary” educator, and the “Theoretician” all interact with Black students in different, harmful, and discriminatory ways (Porter, 1997). This does not mean that there are no antiracist or effective white educators. Porter (1997) discusses, instead, that these are the primary and most dangerous types of educator, particularly because three of the four have “good” intentions that end up actually hurting social justice efforts (Applebaum, 2005). 

    Porter (1997) also provides hope—white educators can be taught to actually form a social justice-based classroom (and campus experience). The “People Person” white educator believes all children can learn, is willing to involve the student's family, and is open-minded to African-centered ideas and methods (Porter, 1997). This educator can also re-educate peers to see Black students in a positive, rather than stereotypical and negative, light (Porter, 1997). Part of our work, as white hearing officers, should be to examine practices and especially sanctions that are not solely white-informed, and that take into account cultural intelligence (not just “competence”). We must also take the next step and be willing to educate our white peers and, yes, supervisors on antiracist work in conduct. 

As we educate ourselves about important topics like the new Title IX regulations, make room for educating yourself and others about antiracist practices, policies, sanctions, and more. Join in (or start) a campaign to introduce legislation, or at least a professional practice, to assess your conduct system through demographic data such as gender, ethnicity, and race. Include this information in annual reports and talk with your colleagues and supervisors about what the data means for your campus. Track not only how many BIPOC students are referred, but also who is doing the referring. Look at learning outcomes compared with sanctioning, and look at recidivism in your system compared to retention on your campus. Be willing to face your own complicity. 

Becoming an Ally

    Let's return to the question of why a white hearing officer is writing this blog. You will notice that I did not include the word “ally” in any of my responses to that question. That is because I do not call myself an ally except in the company of specific individuals or organizations who have honored me with that description. To the Black student coming into my office for a hearing, I am not an ally. To the Black person I pass on the street, I am not an ally. To the BIPOC individuals who face daily, systemic racism, I am not an ally. Therefore, I am careful to only use the term in situations where it has been applied. It is not a term we, as white people, can or should apply to ourselves. 

    I also appreciate the word “comrade” and apply it in those same situations. A comrade is someone who fights with you—someone who is engaged, fully, in the battle. A comrade sits with you and plans. A comrade is part of the revolution. White hearing officers can be allies, we can be comrades, but first we must face the fact that we are white, that we have privilege, and we should be using that privilege to further our pursuit of justice. 

    Adapted from an ASCA presentation I developed for the 2019 Conference are ways to actively work towards comradeship in the conduct workplace. These behaviors apply to interactions with students, faculty, and staff. 

  • Listen. Don't interrupt.

  • Challenge when a white person takes credit for a BIPOC person's ideas: “Isn't that what (name) just said?”

  • Learn how to pronounce people's names. 

  • Learn what “intersectionality” actually means (hint: it is not being white and being left-handed). 

  • Take the “RBG” approach to committee assignments: “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.” No one thought anything of it when there were nine men. So how many BIPOC people on a committee are “enough”?

  • Be responsible for acknowledging and changing your own white fragility and that of white colleagues.

  • Include BIPOC voices and perspectives without relying wholly on colleagues of color for advice, guidance, strength, and emotional or physical energy.

  • Listen. Don't interrupt.

  • Know that every single BIPOC individual with whom you interact has experienced racism.

  • Confront other white people.

  • Listen. Don't interrupt.

  • Discuss these steps with others, create your own, and implement them.

  • Advocate for antiracism every single day, because BIPOC people have to join that fight simply by choosing to get out of bed every morning.

Martin-Ferguson, et.al. (2018) cite Lopez-Phillips & Trageser (2008): “Few individuals on the college campus have the conduct officer's positional power to significantly change a student's reality” (p. 157).  While all faculty and staff have the power (and responsibility) to influence a student's academic journey, the conduct officer has the unique power and responsibility to bring fairness, justice, and social responsibility to the necessary process of accountability and adjudication.  They have this power because they also have the power to irrevocably impact the student's connection and access to their campus, and perhaps to higher education at all. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The “threat to justice” in higher education is that if we have students on our campus who cannot complete an education, who do not feel safe, who do not feel valued, we are using that power to perpetuate intolerable injustice.

 

References

Applebaum, B. (2005). In the name of morality: moral responsibility, whiteness and social justice education. Journal of Moral Education, 34(3).  pp. 277-290.

Arao, B. (2017). Exploring the experiences of Black men as respondents in university student conduct processes. Unpublished manuscript.

Barbadoro, A. (2017). The socioemotional impact of disparate student discipline: An examination of racial bias and out-of-school suspensions. Unpublished manuscript.

Clery center. (2019). Retrieved from https://clerycenter.org/policy-resources/the-clery-act/

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism (Reprint ed.). Beacon.

Giroux, S. S. (2010). Between race and reason: Violence, intellectual responsibility, and the university to come. Stanford University Press.

Green, A. L., McKenzie, J. M., & Rose, C. A. (2016). Absence of color: How higher education preparation programs are sustaining racism. In V. Stead (Ed.), RIP Jim Crow: Fighting racism through higher education policy, curriculum, and cultural interventions (pp. 63-76). Peter Lang Publishing.

Housee, S. (2018). Speaking out against racism in the university space. UCL Institute of Education Press.

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (2009). Toward a critical race theory of education. In A. Darder, M. P. Baltodano & R. D. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (pp. 182). Routledge.

Martin-Ferguson, M., Lendof, D. M., & Balfour-Simpson, D. (2018). Connecting conduct and social justice. In J. Hudson, A. Acosta & R. C. Holmes (Eds.), Conduct and community: A residence life practitioner's guide (pp. 144-168). Association of College and University Housing Officers International.

McCoy, D. L., & Rodricks, D. J. (2015). Critical race theory in higher education: 20 years of theoretical and research innovations (3rd ed.). Wiley Periodicals.

Moraine Valley Community College. (2018). Eight Expectations for Employees. www.morainevalley.edu 

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Racism and racial equity in higher education (1st ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals.

Nicholson-Crotty, S., Birchmeier, Z., & Valentine, D. (2009). Exploring the impact of school discipline on racial disproportion in the juvenile justice system. Social Science Quarterly, 90(4), pp. 1004-1018. 

Olio, I. (2019). So you want to talk about race. Seal Press.

Park, J. J. (2018). Race on campus: Debunking myths with data. Harvard Education Press.

Porter, M. (1997). Kill them before they grow: Misdiagnosis of African American boys in american classrooms. African American Images.

Pulliam, N., Sasso, P., Paone, T. R., & Maldonado, J. M. (2016). Reducing systemic racism: Movements toward change in higher education. In V. Stead (Ed.), RIP Jim Crow: Fighting racism through higher education policy, curriculum, and cultural interventions (pp. 129-145). Peter Lang Publishing.

Raffaele-Mendez, L. M., Knoff, H. M., & Ferron, J. M. (2002). School demographic variables and out-of-school suspension rates: A quantitative and qualitative analysis of a large, ethnically diverse school district. Psychology in the Schools, 39(3), pp. 259-277. 

Richardson, W., Heidbrink, L., Muhammad, A. L. S., & Bryant-Edwards, T. (2016). Black learning matters: Experiences of exclusion and lessons for inclusion of students of color in higher education. In V. Stead (Ed.), RIP Jim Crow: Fighting racism through higher education policy, curriculum, and cultural interventions (pp. 321-334). Peter Lang Publishing.

Skiba, R., Horner, R., Chung, C. G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 1(40), 85-107. 

Stead, V. (Ed.). (2016). RIP Jim Crow: Fighting racism through higher education policy, curriculum, and cultural interventions. Peter Lang Publishing.

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