Author’s note: School name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

We knew we had a problem at Field Middle School. Black male students were referred for discipline three times as often as their non-Black peers. This kind of disparity plagues schools across the country, and scholars and practitioners alike are seeking solutions. In this article, we share and reflect on one solution we attempted at our school. Jake Giessman, who is white, is the school’s assistant principal. Jane Hubley, who is white, is the school’s social worker. Jerome Bennett, who is Black African American, has served intermittently as an equity consultant to Field Middle School.

While our school’s staff is mostly white, white students make up only half of our student body. Over a quarter of our students are Black—almost entirely first- and second-generation refugees and asylum-seekers from across the African continent. And although Black immigrants to the United States have a reputation of having higher social status and better educational outcomes than other Black Americans, their disciplinary outcomes—at least at our school—suggest that systemic racism reads them as Black first and immigrant second.

To better understand the problem in our setting, we ran three focus groups to gather stakeholder perceptions. The first focus group involved a staff and faculty sample. This all-white group of adults was skeptical that discipline was best predicted by race, but if it were, they thought that might best be explained by cultural misunderstandings between white staff and faculty and Black students. The two student focus groups—both composed of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) male students—attributed the problem more bluntly to racial bias. This presented a decision point: Accept either the adults’ or the students’ explanation for the problem, then intervene accordingly. The overall good intentions of staff and faculty notwithstanding, the reality of white fragility portended backlash against an intervention that directly targeted racial bias among adults. With strong reservations from Hubley and Bennett, we nominally accepted the adult explanation and designed an intervention that sought to bridge cultural differences.

We engaged the “gentlemen”—a support and affinity group for boys of color that Hubley had founded several years earlier. The group holds a controversial place in our school community and has been at the center of often-difficult dialogues about racial justice. For the intervention, Bennett guided the gentlemen, their families, and selected allies in a three-month process of crafting a Gentlemen’s Code—a statement of behavioral values that the students felt captured their culture and aspirations (see sidebar below). We hoped that this code might function as a set of more culturally responsive behavioral norms than existing school expectations.

We used posters and presentations to familiarize the school community with the code. After another three months, we analyzed discipline data and conducted follow-up interviews. We found that the gentlemen in the group were proud of the code and cited it among themselves occasionally. Teachers did not utilize the code explicitly in conversations with students, reporting uncertainty about how to do so appropriately. The gentlemen expressed uniformly positive perceptions of their group both before and after the intervention. Teachers had mixed perceptions of the gentlemen before and after, with a slight trend toward better and more nuanced perceptions after. Disciplinary referrals for gentlemen decreased, but only slightly. In sum, the impact seemed minimal.

We each offer a reflection on why the impact seemed minimal—with the hope that these reflections can inform others who are attempting similar work.

Hubley: Provider of Safe Space

I never liked the idea of a Gentlemen’s Code. I felt pressure, though, to define the work of the gentlemen. While I was comfortable with the chaos of the group evolving organically over time, that did not seem to suffice for the adult community. For the boys and me, creating the Gentlemen’s Code was a way to get some leverage with the adults—a way for the larger community to feel like they understood the group and its purpose. However, we knew that they would never really get it.

There was a further understanding among the boys—and articulated more clearly by their sister group, the Fierce Girls—that Field Middle School was not an anti-racist place. The culture put these boys and girls at a disadvantage from the beginning. They knew it, felt it, and reacted to it. They navigated it, knowing and feeling its harm to their beings.

The Gentlemen’s Code felt scripted to me; not authentic. One of their mentors from the community told me that the gentlemen already know what their code is. When they look into each other’s eyes, they share an understanding. There is no need for them to waste time getting clear or defining what is what. I believe my obligation to these boys is this: Get them space to be together, protect the space, honor it, feed it, and love it. I know it is not my space; it belongs to them.

Giessman: The System

While Hubley positions herself outside and against the system (carving out space for boys of color to have a refuge from everyday and systemic racism), as the assistant principal I am the system. I am caught between a faculty’s—and my own—racialized notion of a safe and orderly school and a moral imperative to disrupt that. Where Hubley has sought to protect the gentlemen from the school, I have sought to raise the gentlemen’s standing in the school through videos, photographs, and presentations about them. I have been marketing the gentlemen to white people in hopes that this would move white people’s consciousnesses. The Gentlemen’s Code was one more piece of that project. That I would gravitate toward this marketing strategy highlights both the deeply embedded negative social attitudes about students of color and my own fear of engaging in the real work. The real work would have been, as the gentlemen told us, for the adults to investigate and remediate their own biases.

Protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in the months after we concluded our project made it impossible for me to delude myself. The decision to avoid directly confronting bias for fear of white backlash was cowardly. I should not have placed the burden of intervention on the gentlemen or their families. If the gentlemen were to do the labor of articulating their values, the staff and faculty should have been taking on even greater and more urgent labors of reflection and anti-racist action. Perhaps more importantly, I should have been risking my standing among the faculty to model and lead that work.

Bennett: Promoting Equity Work

In the United States, we have 246 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow laws, and more than 100 years of opportunity gaps, resulting in systemic disparities reflected across all systems—including schools. Furthermore, as a society, we carry negative implicit attitudes about various sub-groups of people. These implicit biases commonly shared across race are ingrained in our subconscious and manifest in our actions. Despite all the good that schools and the people who work in them do, the fact is that schools perpetuate cycles of racial trauma. To eliminate discipline disparities, a school staff and faculty would need to truly understand the nuances of systemic racism and implicit bias and how they lead to differential treatment. They would then need to rebuild their schools as anti-racist institutions.

I want to highlight two specific missed opportunities in this project. First, as Giessman noted, the code was developed and debuted without an accompanying change process for adults. This may have actually opened the gentlemen up to more scrutiny by teachers. Indeed, the gentlemen reported instances when the code was used by faculty in a punitive manner, chastising gentlemen for not adhering to their stated values. Many staff and faculty also avoided referring to the code at all, citing uncertainty about how to incorporate it into their work with students.

Second, the project aimed for the Gentlemen’s Code to become part of the culture of the gentlemen. As Hubley suggests, the gentlemen already held those positive values. The real action step would have been to consider how the school could learn from the code and incorporate those values into schoolwide policy, practice, and norms. For instance, one phrase from the Gentlemen’s Code is “I own up to my mistakes and learn from them.” What would it mean if the entire school adopted this mantra? Could Field Middle School’s staff and faculty own that they perpetuate a racist infrastructure, learn from that, and make improvements?

A proactive approach to student engagement is foundational in fostering the types of school responsiveness necessary to foster resilience among their students and shift school culture. The Gentlemen’s Code engaged students meaningfully and was the beginning of a potential culture shift at Field Middle School, but school transformation is a process that has to involve everyone. Equity work requires everyone to think and act differently. If we want to interrupt cycles of trauma, if we want to disrupt inequitable social and racial arrangements, we cannot put that weight on those whom the system disadvantages the most.

The Result

To that end, we are taking concrete actions with staff and faculty and with policy and practice. Required and voluntary equity trainings and reading groups are expanding. We also engaged all stakeholders, with an emphasis on BIPOC stakeholders, in rewriting our schoolwide behavioral expectations so that they apply to adults as well as students. We have instituted a schoolwide policy originally piloted by the gentlemen: Students may request a specific adult or peer ally to join them when they have a behavioral conversation with a teacher or administrator. Think of it as having an observing ally to keep the teacher or administrator on their best behavior and the student supported. We have also retained a BIPOC ally of the school who is a trained restorative practices coordinator to receive complaints of racism and help investigate and mediate them.

Finally, as the person in charge of school discipline, the assistant principal is trying to raise his consciousness and take responsibility for his central role in either perpetuating or eliminating discipline disparities. None of this is easy or comfortable, but it’s time to honor what the gentlemen were telling us from the start: White adults in schools have serious work to do.

Jerome Bennett is an independent equity consultant. Jake Giessman is the assistant principal of a middle school in Portland, ME. Jane Hubley is the school social worker at the same middle school.

Sidebar: Building RanksTM Connections

Dimension: Equity

Diagnosing inequitable practices or structures. You can actively scrutinize your school practices for any instances in which practices have a negative influence on certain groups of students. The diagnostic process could include using data and conversations to examine formal school policies, deliberate levels or tracts for student learning, access to resources, and staff biases.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.

Sidebar: The Gentlemen’s Code

I am a Gentleman.
I fight for what is fair and right. I own up to my mistakes and learn from them. I lead by example and take care of those I lead.
I am kind… I am helpful… and I give my best in everything that I do.
I always show up for my fellow Gentlemen because we are family.
We are Gentlemen.
We support each other when we are not feeling the best.
We help each other stay focused and put in the extra work to get good grades.
We don’t fight with each other.
We know how to have fun.
Because we are Gentlemen.