Counseling Today, Dignity, Development & Diversity

Addressing the problem of racism in school settings

Michael D’Andrea and Judy Daniels July 2, 2007

Although the complex problem of racism is often minimized in the minds of many persons, particularly among many White persons in our contemporary society, periodic and blatant manifestations of this problem remind us that this pervasive social pathology continues to exist in our nation. The recent racist and sexist comments made by radio host Don Imus, and the national discussion that ensued from this event, provided a painful reminder of some of the ways racism and sexism are still overtly manifested by persons in public positions.

While receiving much less attention from the mainstream media than the Imus controversy, another racial problem of much greater significance occurred last December. That’s when six Black students at Jena High School in central Louisiana were arrested after a school fight in which a White student was beaten, suffering a concussion and multiple bruises. The six Black students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy and face up to 100 years in prison without parole. The fight took place amid mounting racial tensions after a Black student sat under a tree in the schoolyard where only White students usually sat. The next day, three nooses were hanging from the tree.

Mychal Bell was the first of the “Jena Six” to go on trial. He was convicted just over a month ago of aggravated battery and conspiracy. He faces up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 31.

Because this monthly column is designed to address a broad range of issues related to multicultural-social justice counseling, we have outlined a comprehensive approach to dealing with the complex problem of racism in school settings, using the situation at Jena High School as a focus of our attention. Before we begin, it is important to highlight a couple of points.

First, most multicultural-social justice counseling advocates emphasize the importance of implementing comprehensive counseling and advocacy services in school settings that are aimed at preventing the sort of ugly problems that occurred at Jena High School. Despite the best efforts of counselors committed to a comprehensive and preventive approach to school guidance and counseling, conflicts will predictably occur that require crisis counseling as well as secondary prevention interventions. Such would be the case in addressing the racial problems at Jena High School.

Second, a comprehensive approach to promoting acceptance and respect for cultural-racial differences, as well as dealing with crises when they arise, includes the implementation of multiple service strategies. With this in mind, four distinct service domains are described below. Counselors are encouraged to consider each of these service domains when developing comprehensive school-based interventions to deal with multicultural challenges in general and the types of racial problems that occur at schools around the nation.

Direct student/client services

Individual and group counseling are among the services counselors typically provide to students in school settings. These services are usually aimed at helping students who are experiencing various types of difficulties in their lives. The problems at Jena High School and other schools encountering similar forms of racial tensions predictably heighten and confuse emotional reactions and interpersonal tensions. When students exhibit negative reactions to such overt racial conflicts, counselors are expected to provide individual or small group counseling. These settings enable youth to explore their thoughts and feelings related to these conflicts and learn new ways to respond to the racial problems that exist in their schools.

To provide these direct student services effectively and ethically, school counselors need to acquire the Multicultural Counseling Competencies developed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development in 1992 and formally endorsed by the American Counseling Association in 2003. One area of competence that is particularly important for counselors providing direct counseling services within culturally diverse school settings involves becoming knowledgeable about the racial/cultural identity development models that have emerged in the profession during the past 25 years. With this knowledge in mind, counselors are better able to tailor individual and small group counseling services that complement the racial/cultural developmental level and perspectives of the students they counsel.

Indirect student/client services

Students are not the only persons adversely affected by racial conflicts in the school setting. As was the case at Jena High School, teachers, administrators and other staff persons can also experience a broad range of negative reactions, heightened emotional experiences and general confusion as to what they can do to restore harmony and peace in their classrooms and schools after racial conflicts occur. The manner in which these persons respond to racial conflicts at their schools can have a positive or negative effect on students. Knowing that, counselors would do well to offer consultation services to teachers, administrators and other staff interested in learning how they can respond in the aftermath of racial conflicts when interacting with students in classrooms or elsewhere in the school setting. This includes consulting with teachers about how they might address students’ reactions to racial conflicts in their classrooms after administrators or law enforcement personnel have spoken to the incidents.

Counselors should also consult with school administrators about the types of actions that need to be implemented to restore harmony and peace in their schools. These efforts need to explore various actions that might be taken immediately following racial conflicts as well as longer term strategies intended to serve preventive purposes well into the future.

Indirect school/community services

Among the issues counselors are encouraged to address with administrators in the aftermath of racial conflicts in school settings are:

  • Examining existing school policies related to the promotion of respect for human diversity
  • Exploring how such policies might be more effectively implemented by all persons in the school
  • Discussing the types of new policies, programs and services that could be implemented to prevent future conflicts from occurring as a result of cultural or racial differences among students
  • Advocating for the effective implementation of these new policies, programs and services
  • Direct school/community services
  • To ensure the long-term and lasting recovery of schools that experience racial conflicts, counselors need to move from consulting with administrators and teachers to implementing new multicultural educational strategies into the school curriculum. Some of the key elements recommended in planning and implementing such interventions involve:
  • Gaining a strong commitment for the ongoing implementation of these curriculum-based strategies by both administrators and teachers
  • Helping students learn about the between-group and within-group differences commonly manifested among persons from diverse groups and backgrounds, both in society in general and within the school setting in particular
  • Incorporating prejudice prevention education programs that have been tested and found effective when used among elementary, intermediate/middle and high school students
  • Utilizing classroom-based moral development education strategies that use moral dilemma discussions focused on local multicultural issues and contemporary racial conflicts reported in the mass media
  • Involving persons in the community who come from different cultural/
  • racial groups in the planning and implementation of ongoing multicultural, prejudice prevention and moral development education programs

The unfortunate racial conflicts that have occurred at Jena High School and other schools across the United States clearly have had an adverse impact on students as well as teachers, administrators, counselors and other members of the greater community. While it is worth repeating that primary prevention strategies are the best tools to use to avoid such incidents from occurring, it is hoped that the recommendations outlined in this month’s column will be useful if counselors face similar incidents in their own school settings.

These steps are representative of the practical services culturally competent counselors can provide to promote human dignity and development in our schools and communities.

Authors’ note: Interested readers can learn more about the Jena High School situation and offer support for the six Black students who are involved in serious legal action by writing to:

The Jena 6 Defense Committee
P.O. Box 2798
Jena, LA 71342