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Finding Vigilance: Centering Ourselves in Equity-Oriented Systemic Change of Discipline Systems

In the U.S., discipline policies—in both creation and enforcement—result in re-segregated learning environments [1], the inequitable penalization of marginalized students [2], and limited access to learning [3] for historically marginalized students. Research demonstrates harsh discipline has significant financial costs on our economy [4] and shows the nefarious ways the prison industrial complex incentivizes [5] and dehumanizes [6] people. Given these dynamics, there is a question I have begun to urgently ask myself.

This question encompasses rather than minimizes the realities of US discipline policies disproportionally affecting students on the margins broadly, including students from working-class backgrounds, [7], students of color [8], students of color with dis/abilities [9], and gender non-conforming students [10]. This question also attempts to fiercely surface, rather than make invisible, my complicitness in participating in harsh discipline practices—writing frequent office referrals as a classroom teacher and signing notice of expulsion letters as an administrator— but also reflecting on my belief, at the time, that the power of control, enforcement, and authority was my right as an educator and in the best interest of the students I served. The question I ask has evolved from: what can I do? To: what must I do? What must I do to contribute towards transformative systemic change towards equity [11]?As I reflect on what I have learned from the Midwest & Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP Center) and pulling from a great wealth and network of equity scholarship, the following asset-based systemic shifts to discipline systems (i.e. policies, programs, practices, and people) [12] are instructive:

  • Discipline Systems Should Be More Supportive, Rather than Punitive aiming to restore students to harmony in the learning community; stimulating intrinsic motivation for collaboratively generated behaviors, such as collectively, with students, making decisions about conduct and the subsequent supports needed to serve ALL students; empowering rather than controlling students [12, 13, 14].
  • Discipline Systems Should Be More Responsive, Rather than Enforcing Standardized Mandates centering culturally responsive and sustaining practices; honoring varied styles of communication; shifting away from discipline to school culture; instituting differentiated, student-centered prevention, interventions, and supports. [12, 13, 14]. For example, the creation and implementation of Culturally Responsive Positive Behanvior Intervention Systems (CRPBIS) Learning Labs [15] provides a strategic and pragmatic structure to create more responsive conditions in the learning community.
  • Discipline Systems Should Be More Inclusive, Rather than Autocratic seeking and providing transparency about discipline and climate policies, procedures, and data; including multiple, diverse stakeholders in decision-making and centering student voice; co-creating expectations for behaviors by adults and students; making language accessible and in varied forms; finally, culturally responsive and sustaining professional learning and coaching for all school staff [12, 13, 14].

Furthermore, supporting the asset-based systemic shifts above, coupled with the requisite considerations below have also been helpful:

  • Critically Examine Assumptions of Neutrality in Discipline – The discipline policies I enforce as an educator are not neutral. They are nested within a larger sociohistoric and sociopolitical context of power and privilege [16].
  • Critically Examine Justifications of Harsh Discipline – Conflating sameness with equality [17] in terms of discipline enforcement (i.e. “All students are given the same chances to abide by codes of conduct…,” “We must enforce these rules. One day students are going to have to follow rules at their jobs, and be productive citizens and abide by rules as adults…”) is a common script; however, continues to harm students on the margins and perpetuates oppressive conditions that silence and erase [18] their lived experiences and perspectives, including how they experience their learning community [19]. Particularly, in ways that disproportionality and more harshly punish them [20].
  • Critically Examine the Way We Think About Students & Families Most Adversely Affected by Harsh Discipline – We must move away from the blaming and/or situation the onus of harsh discipline practices on historically marginalized students and families [21] and seek to make authentic connections which center on how we as educators can do and be better.
  • Critically Examine if Current Interventions, Supports, and Structures are Sustaining of Difference – We must understand that any system of interventions (e.g. MTSS), structures (MTSS Team), strategies (e.g. Time Out Pass) or supports (e.g. Mentors, Counselor), must always center the rich assets, perspectives, and histories of ALL in our learning community; further that the many cultures that thrive within our learning communities are never fixed or static [15].


[1] Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. L. (2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The urban review34(4), 317-342.

[2] Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., 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 Review40(1), 85.

[3] Townsend, B. L. (2000). The disproportionate discipline of African American learners: Reducing school suspensions and expulsions. Exceptional children66(3), 381-391.

[4] Rumberger, R.W., & Losen. D.J. (2017). The high cost of harsh discipline and its disparate impact. In The Civil Rights Project Online. Retrieved from:

[5] Hirschfield, P. J. (2008). Preparing for prison? The criminalization of school discipline in the USA. Theoretical Criminology12(1), 79-101.

[6] Freire, P. (2014). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

[7] Morris, E. W. (2005). “Tuck in that shirt!” Race, class, gender, and discipline in an urban school. Sociological Perspectives48(1), 25-48.

[8] Howard, T. C. (2008). Who really cares? The disenfranchisement of African American males in preK-12 schools: A critical race theory perspective. Teachers College Record110(5), 954-985.

[9] Tefera, A., Thorius, K. K., & Artiles, A. J. (2014). Teacher influences in the racialization of disabilities. Handbook of urban education, 256-270.

[10] Mitchum, P., & Moodie-Mills, A. C. (2014). Beyond bullying: How hostile school climate perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline for LGBT youth. Washington: Center for American Progress.

[11] Transformative Systemic Change—Pursuing shifts toward equity at all levels by redistributing quality educational opportunities for all students, recognizing and valuing all students’ differences, and cultivating spaces for families and students to meaningfully participate in the decisions that affect their learning trajectories (Fraser, 1997, 2008; Waitoller & Artiles, 2010; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013, p. 28).

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus: Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. New York: Routledge.

Fraser, N. (2008). Abnormal justice. Critical Inquiry, 34, 393-422.

Waitoller, F. R., Artiles, A. J., & Cheney, D. A. (2010). The miner’s canary: A review of overrepresentation research and explanations. Journal of Special Education, 44, 29-49.

Waitoller, F.R., & Kozleski, E.B. (2013). Understanding and dismantling barriers for partnerships for inclusive education: A cultural historical activity theory perspective. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 9, 23-42.

[12] Warren, C., & Kyser, T.S. (2015). Ensuring civil rights in education: Planning for alternatives to zero tolerance policies. EquiLaern Webinar. The Great Lakes Equity Center. Retrieved from:

[13] Bal, A. (2018). Culturally responsive positive behavioral interventions and supports: A process-oriented framework for systemic transformation. Review of Education, Pedgagogy, and Cultural Studies, 1-31

[14] King, K.A., Harris-Murri, N.J., & Artiles, A.J. (2006). Proactive Culturally Responsive Discipline. In National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) Online. Retrieved from

[15] Bal, A., Thorius, K. K., & Kozleski, E. (2012). Culturally responsive positive behavioral support matters. Tempe, AZ: The Equity Alliance

[16] Skager, R. (2013). Beyond zero tolerance: A reality-based approach to drug education and school discipline. In Drug Policy Online. Retrieved from:

[17 ]Coomer, M.N., Jackson, R.G., Kyser, T.S., Skelton, S.M., & Thorius, K.A.K. (2017).

Reframing the achievement gap: Ensuring all students benefit from equitable access to learning. Equity Dispatch. Midwest & Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP EAC). Retrieved from:

[18] Fordham, S. (2010). Passin’ for Black: Race, identity, and bone memory in postracial America. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 4-30.

[19] Pearce, Nick., Coomer, M.N., Dagli, C., Skelton, S.M., & Thorius, K.A.K. (2017).Empowering students to become agents of social change. Equity Dispatch. Midwest & Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP EAC). Retrieved from:

[20] Annamma, S., Morrison, D., & Jackson, D. (2014). Disproportionality fills in the gaps: Connections between achievement, discipline and special education in the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Berkeley Review of Education5(1).

[21] Office for Civil Rights, OCR (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection Report, March 2012. Office for Civil Rights, US Department of Education, Washington, DC.

[22] Diamond, J. (2008). Focusing on student learning. In M. Pollock (Ed.) Everyday antiracism: Getting real about race in school (pp. 254-256). New York, NY: The New Press.

Author biography

Dr. Kyser is the Associate Director for Engagement and Partnerships at the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center (MAP Center) within the Great Lakes Equity Center. In this role, Dr. Kyser leads the coordination of technical assistance support and collaboration with the MAP Center’s service provision team to plan, direct, and manage supports and professional learning experiences offered to state and local education agencies throughout the MAP Center’s thirteen-state region. Prior to joining the MAP Center, Dr. Kyser served as a Language Arts Inclusion teacher, Governance & Leadership Analyst for the City of Indianapolis, and as Chief of Staff for Tindley Accelerated Schools. Dr. Kyser has received executive training at Harvard, Stanford, and Indiana Universities. She is a graduate of Culver Girls Academy of the Culver Academies. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Education, a Master of Arts in English, and a Ph.D. of Philosophy in Urban Education Studies from Indiana University.

Dr. Kyser’s work, ideas, and research are focused on policy implementation in urban school communities—how individuals interact around and through policy; further, how interactions converge and impact neighbors, educators, parents/caregivers, and students. Specifically, exploring the ecologies (Weaver-Hightower, 2008) between city and school with particular concentrations in three areas: 1) how marginalized students and groups of students are represented and framed by dominant narratives (Harry, Rueda, & Kalyanpur, 1999) in policy implementation, 2) community stakeholders’ learning via transformative professional learning (Macey & Radd, 2013) towards equity, and 3) critical collaborative problem solving.

Keywords: discipline, discipline systems, equity, equity alliance, equity alliance blog, Equity Assistance Center, inclusion, Kyser, school discipline, systemic change