Student Well-Being Q&A

The Nation’s Top School Counselor Is Slashing Discipline Disparities. Here’s How

By Arianna Prothero — March 10, 2020 6 min read
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Laura Ross, a counselor at Five Forks Middle School in Lawrenceville, Ga., worked in a men’s prison before she moved into counseling middle school kids.

As a counselor to inmates, she saw firsthand the cascading effects of young men of color who’d become disconnected from school and wound up in the criminal justice and prison systems.

Ross, who was recently named as the counselor of the year for 2020 by the American School Counselor Association, has invested a lot of effort at Five Forks on tackling discipline disparities between white students and black and Latino students. That work—and the declining rates of discipline that have resulted—brought her the national recognition.

Here are the numbers Ross was confronting at the start of the 2018-19 school year when she made it her goal to bring down discipline referrals for black and Latino boys:

  • 28 percent of Five Forks’ students are black, but they made up 39 percent of the discipline referrals.
  • 18 percent are Latino, but they were 23 percent of discipline referrals.
  • 31 percent of students are white, they accounted for only 25 percent of all discipline referrals.
  • 50 percent of all students are boys, while they accounted for 75 percent of all discipline referrals.

“It’s not unlike a lot of the rest of the country,” Ross said. “We’re seeing that our black and brown students are viewed differently. They get a harsher punishment, or they receive a referral when someone who was not black or Latino would not have gotten one.”

Looking at those numbers, Ross knew something had to change.

Education Week spoke with Ross about how she brought down the discipline referral rates for black and Latino boys at Five Forks Middle. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

EdWeek: What did you find when you started looking at why students were being disciplined disproportionately?

Ross: We have a diverse student population, our staff is not as diverse, we are growing in that area. Our principal is really trying to make sure we have more staff that reflect our student body.

We had for a while noticed this trend in our discipline, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the other counselor and I, and worked with students in our small groups. And so I’ve had [small support] groups for several years that had black and Latino males in them and really worked with them from a strength-based perspective, what is that they do well, how do we transfer that to areas where maybe they need more growth, where they need to be supported, but not really seeing much change [in discipline referral numbers].

We knew it can’t just be ... students as the problem. We knew we had to work with our staff and really understanding what it’s like to work with people who are different from you, look different from you, come from different backgrounds.

We really had to talk about this more with our teachers—really look at and share the discipline data: here’s what it looks like, here’s how it is skewed. We can’t say, ‘well these are all bad kids.’

We did some whole group, whole staff training about implicit bias—just being aware of what our biases are and how that can impact our students and how we interact with them. And then doing a small group staff development that went throughout the year with teachers who volunteered to sign up. [We] did a book study, ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain’ by Zaretta Hammond, and ... what it can look like when a kid doesn’t feel safe and supported in the classroom and what that does in their brain and how that then impacts their learning in the classroom.

Then we did some sharing out with our other teachers who weren’t in the group as well. And I would send out emails about every other week giving [our teachers] strategies.

EdWeek: What was the staff response? I mean, when you go to the teachers and say, listen our discipline data is very skewed, here are the cold, hard numbers, we need to change how you’re doing this, how did they respond to that?

Ross: I think two things were helpful. One, we have always talked about what we can do to help connect with our students, and this is just another, even more powerful way to connect. And then using myself as an example because people can get kind of nervous and defensive sometimes, and I understand that. And I want them to understand that it’s all of us and that I’m included in that group too, so we’re all still improving ourselves. I don’t think it’s something that ends. You just keep learning and improving.

EdWeek: You used to work as a counselor at an adult men’s correctional facility. Why was it important to you to bring down those discipline referrals at your school and was that related at all to your experiences in your previous job?

Ross: Absolutely. I became a school counselor because of the work I did in the correctional facility. I learned so much from the guys who were on my caseload about their disconnect from school and their disconnect from the adults in their schools. And just really, in their minds, really knowing to themselves that they didn’t belong in school, and that there were adults who didn’t think they belonged in school and had sort of written them off as the bad kids.

I know that if you’re a student who is constantly receiving discipline referrals, and you’re just hearing negative, negative, negative, that becomes a label that you believe in yourself, that you’re not a good kid, and you take on that negative label and it creates that disconnect from the school.

I want to make sure that we are always trying to connect with our students. And even when something happens and there is a need for consequence and disciplinary action, that we’re also going back and re-mending all of those relationships and building empathy on both sides so that our students, even though, yes, they did something wrong, there’s a consequence for it, that doesn’t define them. That’s not the end of that relationship with that teacher who wrote the referral. There is still more for them to connect to and more ways for them to learn and grow and not take on those negative labels.

So, it’s very important that we’re just paying attention to these referrals and making sure that: is this something that deserves a referral and a consequence, am I being biased in anyway? Have I made these connections with a student that are going to help them see that they are more than just this discipline code or referral that they’ve gotten?

EdWeek: Sounds like working at a correctional facility showed you the need for this kind of reform, did you learn anything specific working there that has helped you in your new role?

Ross: The thing that I really learned just came from the conversations—my case load was mainly gang members. All their stories were all so very similar. They wanted to belong, they wanted to feel important, they wanted to feel like they mattered, and they didn’t find that in a school, they found it in a gang.

EdWeek: You set a goal of decreasing referrals for black and Latino students by 15 percent, but you surpassed that goal, right?

Ross: They went down 32 percent. We were like, ‘oh wow,’ we were excited. It meant that what we were doing to include everyone, not just students, but talking to staff, talking to stakeholders, is what we needed to do to really make a difference.

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Photo courtesy of American School Counselor Association

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

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