How Implicit Bias Showed Up in La. School Discipline Legislation


The recent defeat of a school discipline bill in the Louisiana legislature was a lesson in how implicit bias plays out not just in our classrooms but in the statehouse as well.  We already know that children of color are disparately impacted by suspensions and some studies conclude that implicit bias is likely a reason for the disparity. Implicit bias is when positive or negative attitudes affect our decisions and actions when we don’t even realize it. These biases occur unconsciously and can override our conscious stated beliefs and commitments. For example, a teacher will want to treat all students equally, but because of her implicit bias towards white students, she might give a white student less harsh discipline for the same misbehavior of a black student. She does this unknowingly and unconsciously.

So, it should not have been surprising to see this same dynamic at play last month in the Louisiana Senate in regards to a bill attempting to address school discipline. After all, a recent study found that the more poor Blacks and Hispanics support a policy, the less likely the policy is to be enacted. SB 465 would have stemmed the school-to-prison pipeline by giving teachers additional options as alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice practices and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

The Senate committee members all agreed SB 465 was a good bill. In fact, three of them—Senators Appel, Morrish, and Wadsworth—had voted for a previous version of the bill, SB 67, that had passed through both the Senate and House in 2011. SB 67 was vetoed by then Governor Jindal. Last week, SB 465 had the support of the teachers associations, nearly twenty organizations, and a petition signed by over a hundred signatures. Over thirty parents and young people showed up and put in green cards.  Two experts testified on PBIS and restorative practices along with a parent and a student. With the exception of one expert, all of the supporters, including Senator Wesley Bishop from New Orleans who sponsored the bill, were people of color. Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, and Equity in All Places were the main organizations pushing the bill.

So what was the reason for not passing a piece of legislation that would stem the school-to-prison pipeline and help 70,000 students who are suspended annually in Louisiana? There were only three people, notably, three White people, who testified against the legislation and two more who put in cards against it. They were representatives of the school boards and superintendents, as well as an advocacy group founded by Betsy DeVos. What was it they said that was convincing enough to weigh against such an outpouring of support?  Their reason was that the Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline (ACSBD), a two-year old body of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) with very few advocates of color, plans to address the problem in 2019.

This was the reason, despite the fact that FFLIC and other advocates have been working on this issue and legislation for more than fifteen years. The 2011 legislation, which was replicated in the original SB 465, was largely the product of FFLIC’s hard work and advocacy at that time. Yet, when the ACSBD was created, FFLIC was not given a seat. So, in effect, the Senate Committee gave ‘ownership’ of the entire discipline code to the ACSBD in anticipation of a bill that might happen, but certainly is not guaranteed to happen, next year.

This really isn’t so different than the white teacher giving the white kid a break while giving the black kid harsher penalties. This is how implicit bias works. Imagine if all those parents and youth who had come in support of SB 465 had been white: the Senator, the organization representatives, the expert testimony, the parent, the student and the thirty supporters. Their opinions would have been given more weight against the opponents.  The advocates would have been given more credibility and received the credit they deserved for the decades of work they had put into the bill. Instead, the Senate Committee gutted SB 465 down to just one recommendation to add FFLIC, Urban League, Metamorphosis, Louisiana School Psychologist Association, and Louisiana School Counselors Association to BESE’s Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline. Essentially, the bill will now allow a few advocates of color into the room.  But it doesn’t take away the sting of the message that was sent by the legislators, even if they sent it unknowingly and unconsciously. Though it was heartbreaking and angering, it was not surprising. It was a reminder of what children of color face in the classroom everyday. It was also a reason to not give up on this work and to continue to fight, and fight hard, for those children who are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system.

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