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Disparities in Discipline: An Interview with Jayanti Owens

Woman with dark curly hair, white shirt, smiling, books in the background
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Jayanti Owens is the Mary Tefft and John Hazen White, Sr. Assistant Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Her research focuses on the intersections of social stratification, education, race/ethnicity, organizations, and social demography. In particular, she studies how individuals in positions of power—such as teachers, parents, and workplace managers—alter punishments and rewards based on individuals’ identities. Professor Owens’ work has been published in Social Forces, Sociology of Education, Social Science & Medicine, and Journal of Health and Social Behavior, among others. Beyond Brown, Professor Owens has worked at organizations including the Urban Institute, Mathematica Policy Research, and the U.S. House of Representatives. Professor Owens is currently researching race and school discipline and the causes and consequences of children’s Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses. She holds a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Joint Ph.D. in sociology and demography from Princeton University.

Haley Joyce:  Your current research focuses on social disparities in children’s behavioral problems. Could you introduce the “puzzles” this research addresses?

Jayanti Owens: One of the big puzzles that exists around race and children’s behaviors is racial inequities in school discipline, which is one of the areas I focus on. Certain media outlets, such as those run by conservative policy makers and think tanks, often push forward the idea that in order to ensure a safe learning environment for all children, schools must enforce punitive punishments and practices (such as suspension, expulsion, police surveillance, etc.). Additionally, these schools feel that if there are a small number of kids who are “troublemakers,” then those children will interfere with the learning opportunities for all students, justifying the rationale behind these disciplinary measures. My research shows that, in reality, differences in behavioral problems between Black and white students or between LatinX and white students is actually an effect of the racial disparities in school discipline. Also, one of the biggest reasons we have racial disparities in school discipline is because Black and Latino kids are more likely to get suspended for misbehavior that is identical to those of their white counterparts, which suggests racial bias and/or racial discrimination at play.  So, a large part of this work is in coming to understand the extent to which specific mechanisms of racial bias are contributing to racial disparities.

HJ: Does the type of institution (e.g., public vs. private, parochial vs. secular, etc.) factor into the disciplinary trends discovered?

JO: While my work does not focus specifically on examining the impact of public versus private or other schools, there is a broad body of research in sociology and the social sciences that suggests the context of schools has a large impact on how student behavior is received. For example, there are schools called “no excuses charter schools” that often have zero tolerance policies [zero tolerance policies are school discipline policies that set forth predetermined severe punishments for students’ “misbehavior”]. These schools utilize suspensions or expulsions as a policy response to misbehavior much more frequently. Some of my work demonstrates that the racial and socioeconomic composition of schools also impacts how behavior is received. Specifically, an individual enrolled in an affluent white school is more likely to be perceived as being less deserving of blame when they misbehave than is an individual enrolled in a poor minority school who commits the same misbehavior. So, while my research is not specifically focused on the type of school, such as whether it’s charter, public, private, or magnet, it does display that the context of the school makes a big difference. 

HJ: During a 2016 presentation at The University of California, Berkeley you discussed the clear linkage between familial changes and boys’ behavioral ratings within schools. What possible solutions did your work uncover?

JO: My research finds that the variation in disciplinary responses is partly a function of the extent to which the parents and family of the child intervene with the school on the child’s behalf. However, we know that not all parents are able to intervene in their kids’ school for a variety of reasons. On average, parents of color don’t possess this sense of entitlement about their rights to intervene in their child’s school to make the school the way that it should be. Within sociology, there is literature that suggests that middle and upper class white families are much more likely to intervene in their child’s school to seek out exceptions to rules and other advantages for their kids; whereas children of color are less likely to have their parents interfere. 

HJ: Another area of your research focuses on the effect of diagnosing certain identity groups with ADHD. Did you find socioeconomic status or race to be a factor in misdiagnosed ADHD trends? 

JO: While behavioral disorders like ADHD are very real conditions for millions of children, for some children the need for diagnosis can be socially constructed. For example, if a white student is misbehaving frequently, parents and teachers are often encouraged to find a basis in a medical diagnosis like ADHD.” This is in part because doing so allows adults to view the diagnosis as something that’s outside of the child’s control. This removes student accountability because their disobedience is attributed to an underlying condition. On the other hand, when a Black or LatinX student misbehaves, they are much less likely to be viewed as acting out as a result of an underlying medical condition. Instead, their wrongdoing is often perceived as being linked to a fundamental deficiency. And by attributing the source of behavior problems differently, schools perpetuate a bifurcated system of responding to students of color versus white students.

HJ: Does your research explore how stigmatized individuals alter their behavior in response to the stereotypical expectations put forward with these reward-punishment systems?  

JO: Research has shown that there are many terrible, disheartening tropes surrounding students of color—for example, that they’re troublemakers or loud and threatening. Similar to the idea of double consciousness is this “self-fulfilling prophecy”: if an individual is repeatedly told negative things about them, they will eventually begin to believe and manifest these presumed qualities. In order to break the cycle of stereotyping, you have to give teachers and other individuals in positions of power a new way to think about kids of color. This essentially means that we  replace these negative stereotypes with a broader and more accurate understanding of the genuine source of misbehavior. 

If America trains teachers to consciously think about the reasons students misbehave, then teachers will be less likely to refer kids to the principal’s office. No longer would teachers overwhelmingly believe that a child is misbehaving because they want to be disrespectful or do not enjoy learning; rather, teachers could recognize, for example, that a child is experiencing trauma outside of school. This, in turn, provides institutions with the motivation to employ other non-punitive methods to respond to student misbehavior. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.