Five Equity Practices for Principals - ASCD
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June 29, 2021

Five Equity Practices for Principals

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How can we learn from the mistakes of fellow administrators? Let’s explore an equity-related case study that made it to court.  

The Case Study

After transferring to Stissing Mountain High School in 2005 to start his freshman year, Anthony Zeno—a dark-skinned student who identified as half-white, half-Latino—was subjected to racial slurs, threats, and harassment from fellow students at this predominantly white school in Pine Plains, New York. For example, Anthony was punched on one occasion by a classmate. On another occasion, a student threatened to throw a chair at Anthony, while calling him the N-word and shouting “Go back to where you came from!” In the years preceding Anthony’s arrival, the school had reported no bias-related incidents, according to court records.

When Mrs. Zeno notified the school of the first incident, the principal, apparently having no training in racial equity, reportedly warned her that: “This is a small town, and you don’t want to start burning your bridges.” Though his mother eventually elevated the complaint to the superintendent and the school board, she received no response. As the incidents continued, perpetrating students were warned and, in some cases, suspended; however, their behaviors continued.

During Anthony’s second year at Stissing Mountain, the harassment worsened. The school hired a consultant to provide information to students, staff, and parents on bullying and harassment. However, like many “race-neutral” approaches, the program failed to substantively address the school’s racially hostile environment, also the originating issue. In Anthony’s third year, the school hired another consultant to train faculty and staff on racial diversity and stereotypes, which included conducting student focus groups and completing surveys. However, the actual training portion never happened for teachers and leaders. The race-based harassment continued unabated into Anthony’s senior year.

The Lesson

For some of us, Anthony’s story may sound like an extreme case. Others are keenly aware that when principals fail to proactively address equity issues head-on, the school climate can quickly become racially volatile, providing little firm footing for leaders to regain equilibrium. This is one reason principals should develop a basic understanding of how race plays a part of our country’s rich history and our own educational experiences. Research confirms that principals who write a racial autobiography, for example, are more culturally responsive and attentive to building relationships in support of an inclusive climate.

The current political dust-up around critical race theory is yet another reason principals have to develop an understanding of race and be prepared to navigate a sea of resistance to stay on course. Conscious principals can confidently argue that they are staying on mission to protect all students amid claims that they might be “indoctrinating” students or “promoting one race or sex above another.”

As poet Emily Dickinson admonishes, “The sailor cannot see the North—but knows the needle can.” I believe one such needle that principals can utilize is Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership (ASCD, 2021), a new book I coauthored with Sharon Radd, Gretchen Givens Generett, and George Theoharis.

The book encourages leaders to pause and reflect on how inequity is historical, structural, institutionalized, and individual—and how it is impacts their daily work. Had Anthony’s principal established an equity vision before he met with Mrs. Zeno, he would have recognized that despite schools being places of great opportunity, they are also centers of inequity for many students of color.

An enlightened principal would have responded to Mrs. Zeno by showing appreciation for the courage it took her to come forward. Anthony’s principal could have articulated that he was very concerned and that he did not tolerate such behaviors, thereby assuring Mrs. Zeno that he would investigate the incidents. Next, he could have educated himself on best practices in responding to issues of race and opened honest conversations with his leadership team. He could have offered a workshop on bullying and harassment that included racial discrimination as a component during that first year, instead of providing a generic session later on. Additionally, he could have ensured that staff received immediate and relevant equity training.

Five Practices to Keep in Mind

As students return from a pandemic-torn year, there are some things that leaders need to keep in mind to avoid similar mistakes. Black and Latinx students, who are overrepresented in terms of those living in poverty, will likely face food and housing insecurity. This reality will be compounded by lingering effects of the pandemic and an increase in mental health issues. Thus, these vulnerable students will have social and emotional needs that are heightened by interlocking systemic inequities. Savvy principals will prioritize equity by adopting a transformative approach, as Practice I in the book suggests, by learning to think and act in different ways to change these historic patterns. They will make time to be reflective and self-aware.

Practice II reminds principals to do the emotional and intellectual work of equity leadership. Anthony’s principal may have been uncomfortable addressing race with his students and staff and some leaders are even afraid to do so. Effective principals, however, understand that they cannot trade their students’ safety for the outside community’s comfort. Vulnerable students especially need their principals to be strong advocates for them.

Equity is hard work. Practice III provides suggestions for principals on building a cohesive and effective equity leadership team. This team will support principals as they execute their vision for equity and work hard to bring as many people on board as possible. Practice IV emphasizes the need to build equity-focused systems by collecting and analyzing data as a collaborative process that is led by the principal. Finally, Practice V reminds leaders of the importance of sustaining equity for the long haul, reiterating the important routines principals can and should repeat as they look back and plan forward. For example, principals will need to continue planning for change and (re)building coalitions by deepening relationships and cultivating new ones.

The Courage to Be Disliked

You might be wondering, what happened to Anthony? Ultimately, a jury found the school district’s response to the Zenos family wanting and described the district’s actions as “half-hearted measures” that failed to improve the climate. The Zenos family won a settlement of $1 million plus attorney’s fees.

The aim of sharing this case is not to patently criticize the principal at the time but to learn from his missteps. Hindsight is 20/20 and savvy principals know that any bad decision can land them in hot water. While we cannot please everybody (nor should we try), equity work is about achieving justice, fighting for the marginalized, and making the system better—not about being well-liked. For those reasons and many more, equity work that matters will surely ruffle the feathers of the biggest beneficiaries of the current system.

Editor’s note: Find additional resources on equity and cultural competency in ASCD’s “Preparing for Fall” resource guide. 

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