Sensemaking as a Framework for Understanding How Middle School Assistant Principals as Social Justice Leaders Adjudicate Discipline Referrals to Disrupt the Racial Discipline Gap



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Background: Black students are disproportionately suspended, expelled, or placed in alternative school settings during their preschool through 12th grade years (Booker & Mitchell, 2011; Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010; Tajalli & Garba, 2014). Black students, specifically black males receive office discipline referrals more often and for infractions that are more subjective in nature than their white counterparts. The “space” between when teachers submit office discipline referrals and when students are subsequently excluded from the learning environment lacks exploration. APs, the authoritative campus figures responsible for receiving, analyzing, investigating and making disciplinary decisions are literary mysteries (Marshall, 1992). Purpose: The importance of this study was predicated on the need to reduce the well-documented number of black males disproportionately excluded from the learning environment and to combat the negative cumulative effects of these unbalanced practices. By examining and discussing the sensemaking processes (Weick, 1995), utilized by APs when making disciplinary decisions, a gap in literature has been addressed providing a reference point for future researchers, as well as tools to improve the professional practice of school practitioners and social justice advocates. Methods: This study observed an exploratory, qualitative approach delivered through a multi-case study design (Yin, 2014), which examined the phenomenon of AP sensemaking when adjudicating office discipline referrals. The participants within the study were secondary APs who shared similar experiences as urban secondary school administrators, yet their experiential backgrounds differed. The primary focus was to develop understanding of the cognitive processes employed by APs when making decisions on office discipline referrals for the purposes of reducing the racial discipline gap and informing the practice of school leaders. In addition to an in-depth interview, participants used an on-line journal to detail their most memorable disciplinary experience each week for a total of four weeks. To conclude, a focus group was held with participants. Results: The key findings of the study indicated the social justice orientation of the AP drove their discipline approach, APs contended with the challenge of coaching culturally incompetent teachers, and there were multiple variables that informed the decision making of APs. Additionally, APs with social justice dispositions sought a high level of discernment regarding office discipline referral facts and desired to make judgements that were in the best interest of students. Lastly, key findings revealed APs contended with the emotional adversity that accompanied making exclusionary discipline decisions and combated criticism received from both teachers and parents. Conclusion: This research produced findings to support how social justice APs made sense of and disrupted the racial discipline gap, made sense of office discipline referrals, and navigated the emotional aspects related to making disciplinary decisions. The results point towards a need for social justice leaders that actively shape their environment through action, informed decision-making, refined investigative methods, maintaining an emotional balance and combating criticism with a focus on student growth.



Racial Discipline Gap, Assistant principals, Sensemaking, Black students, Black males, Exclusionary discipline, Office Discipline Referral, Social justice, Leadership