Jason Okonofua still feels a deep sense of injustice when he remembers the one time he was arrested while growing up in Memphis.

Jason Okonofua (Photo by Yasmin Anwar/UC Berkeley)

Two decades ago as a student at Ridgeway High School, Okonofua was caught in school with an inappropriate flyer handed to him by a classmate. His principal told him he would be suspended — a punishment that Okonofua took issue with.

“I was on the math team, honors classes, within the upper track of the school,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe suspension was the answer. So I told her I’d stay in that office until we came up with a different plan. That’s when she told me I’d be arrested for ‘disturbing the peace.’”

Okonofua spent a few hours in juvenile detention before being released without being charged, due to his good grades and track record. But he’s carried that experience with him ever since.

Today, Okonofua is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has dedicated his career to tackling the school troublemaker stereotype that leads to over-disciplining students, especially black males.

With the backing of Google, Okonofua is developing an online intervention for 20 middle schools in several soon-to-be-announced Southern states. The goal is to motivate teachers to check their biases against African-American students before meting out punishment. A similar intervention tool that he developed has reduced suspensions in three school districts in California.

Chalkbeat recently spoke with Okonofua about his Memphis childhood and how it’s impacted his work. Here are the highlights, condensed for brevity:

What was your school experience in Memphis?

Because of family situations, I moved from school to school throughout the city. I went to eight schools total throughout my childhood in Memphis. My last school was Ridgeway High School.

In 10th grade, I stood out because I was one of the only black students taking AP/honors classes. The Memphis Rotary Foundation had a program to send Memphis students over the summer to elite prep schools, which were usually on the East Coast. I got recommended and ended up at St. George’s School in Rhode Island. By the end of that summer, St. George’s was interested in me coming back as a full-time student based on my academics and athleticism. Memphis schools had wired fences around the schools and metal detectors. This school was a walk away from the ocean and on this idyllic hill. It was a world away from what I knew. I chose to finish out school there.

You say you saw a lot of over-disciplining black boys while in Memphis. Tell us about that.

Well, I was suspended four times, and all for subjective reasons. I wasn’t in fights, didn’t have drugs or guns. I was being “disrespectful” or “insubordinate” in the eyes my teacher or principal. Instead of explaining to me why I was coming off as disrespectful, they just suspended me. That’s a common story for African-American students. Once you’re disciplined once, then you’re labeled as a “troublemaker.” There are certain groups of students that keep getting suspended over and over again, and research tells us higher suspension rates lead to a greater likelihood of students being suspended again or dropping out. For many students, including myself, a suspension wasn’t the answer. And research also tells us the kids that typically fit into the category of “troublemakers” are black students.

It’s also important to think about school environment when it comes to this issue. One of the schools I went to was East Middle School, which was then on the same campus as East High School. It was an overwhelmingly black school in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood. There were metal detectors at the front door to greet us every morning. At Colonial Middle School, another school I went to in East Memphis, there weren’t metal detectors. There was landscaping and fresh paint. Now, what’s the difference between students at East and students at Colonial Middle? See, there’s a stigma direct toward racially marginalized, low-income students.

Tell us about the work you’re doing today.

Before I came to UC-Berkeley, I was at Stanford studying teacher-student relationships, and how bias and stereotyping can shape the way we perceive and respond to things. Our research, which focused on the teacher perspective, found that teachers wanted to discipline black students more severely than non-black students. We found that the root of that stereotype is that these teachers were perceiving black students to be more of “troublemakers.” I led an intervention study for teachers, which led to reduced suspensions in three school districts.

Now, I’m working on an intervention tool — with the help of Google — that could be implemented in multiple states for at least 100 teachers. The intervention essentially asks teachers questions online and points them to articles about student development and stories from children’s perspectives. The goal is to humanize the child and really hit home why empathy is important when interacting with students.

This experience is meant to be a psychological thing as opposed to a policy thing. School districts try policies, like banning principals from suspending kids for certain behaviors. But changing policies don’t always change the cultures of schools. Once a teacher reorients the way they view a child, they respond differently when that child acts out. Instead of sending a student straight to the office, the teacher is able to address behavior in a more empathetic way, and make the child feel respected. In turn, this maintains the integrity of the teacher-student relationship and decreases the rate of the student acting out again.

My work in no way tries to point a finger at teachers. They are not actively trying to harm students. But implicit bias is the culprit. How can we offset the effects of the bias? We’re all exposed to stereotypes when we watch TV or interact with others. The biggest objective of my work is this: If there is bias, how can we stop that from affecting the way people interact?

Editor’s note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat with suggestions for future subjects to tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.