Special Issue – July 2020 Newsletter on Race and Justice

Posted on Jul 12, 2021 in News & Events
Special Issue – July 2020 Newsletter on Race and Justice


In May, the world was shocked by video footage of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, being killed by the Minneapolis police. As someone who comes from a long history of decorated New York City Police Department officers, and as someone who wanted to be a police officer, I was outraged and ashamed by the conduct of the very officers sworn to protect George Floyd. On the heels of other incidents — the murder of an unarmed Black man (Ahmaud Arbery) in Georgia (by White citizens, not police), while going for an evening jog, and an unarmed Black female (Breonna Taylor) in Louisville, Kentucky, shot in a crossfire exchange by police after a “no-knock warrant” invasion into the wrong house, and other non-fatal incidents with police and with ordinary citizens (e.g., the birdwatcher in New York City) — the Floyd murder set off protests and civil unrest across the United States and, indeed, the world.

Although policing is understandably being scrutinized, given the gravity of decisions officers make, it is not the only institution being examined. We would be shortsighted to think that systemic racism was just a police or justice issue — it is a pervasive issue that deeply permeates our society. The issue of systemic racism has been further underscored by the Covid-19 pandemic, as data indicate that Black, Latinx, and Native American persons are at much higher risk for hospitalization and death. Government agencies, including those at the local and state levels, as well as corporations and nonprofits everywhere are examining their own actions and cultures. WestEd is also undergoing its own self-examination as expressed in a recent statement by our Chief Executive Officer, Glen Harvey.

For our Justice & Prevention Research Center (JPRC) team, we are looking at how we can individually and collectively make a difference. Our focus, at least for our collective efforts, should address at least three areas:

Broadening our team’s diversity. The JPRC currently sits within a larger Health & Justice Program at WestEd. While the work that we do so vitally touches on communities of Black and Brown persons, our team is comprised of less than 10 percent Black and Brown staff. I have never talked with anyone, either within or outside WestEd, who would argue that this constitutes fair, equitable, or desirable representation. So, we must expand our methods for attracting talent and ensuring that bias is not entering into our recruitment, screening, or hiring phases. This perspective extends to our partnerships with subcontractors, consultants, temporary employee engagements, advisers, keynote speakers, and discussants. We will continue our commitment, as well, to the American Evaluation Association’s Graduate Evaluation Diversity Initiative, which places interns at host sites for organizations like WestEd.

Changing the way in which we approach our work. Our team at the JPRC works very hard to reduce biases that can confound our interpretation of findings or diminish the integrity of our work, but other biases that are just as important can impact research. We will continue to work hard to include stakeholder voices in our studies, especially youth voices. For example, in our evaluation of the Healthy U app for sexual health with juveniles in custody with the Oregon Youth Authority, we collaborated with our partner, Efficacity, to incorporate justice-involved youth perspectives in the development process. We now need to codify the principles of how we will conduct our studies moving forward so that we more intentionally and explicitly work to reduce potential biases.

Conducting studies that are relevant to addressing inequality and injustice. Increasingly, there are opportunities to contribute knowledge to understanding racial disparities and to testing interventions designed to address such disparities, across fields like justice, education, and public health. Our work cannot be just about informing efforts to reduce crime and violence; equally important must be creating knowledge and facilitating its use in addressing injustice. We are committed to conducting the kind of studies that would do so. For example, our work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses, in part, on understanding how health equity is being achieved by projects funded by the Foundation. We need to intensify our efforts to do the kind of research that can help inform efforts to defeat injustice and inequity across the fields we work in.

In this JPRC Update, we summarize some of our work that is relevant to a few issues raised since the police killing of George Floyd and this unprecedented time of intensive focus on racial equity and justice. These issues include how people of different racial and ethnic groups perceive police, calls to remove or scale back law enforcement being deployed in schools, efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline and the discipline gap between Black and White students, and efforts to change the way we approach our evaluation studies (Equitable Evaluation). Also, we include news of a forthcoming webinar on how to support students who are grappling with the demand for racial justice and with the Covid-19 pandemic.

As always, we welcome your collaboration and partnership in pursuit of knowledge and evidence that will help inform decision-making to make people’s lives better. We also welcome discussions with persons of traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups about employment and consultancy opportunities. Do not hesitate to contact me at apetros@wested.org and join us on Twitter: @PetrosinoJPRC.

Perceptions of Police by Different Racial and Ethnic Groups

It has become clear that Black and Brown citizens perceive and experience policing differently than White persons, in particular. This difference is highlighted by both personal reflections and an empirical study, as detailed below.

Reflections on race and policing by an interracial couple of researchers

Drs. Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino and Anthony Petrosino, an interracial couple who have been conducting criminological research for over three decades, co-authored a blog article for WestEd that discusses their perceptions of policing from their unique perspectives. They discuss their evolving perceptions from their earliest recollections of police in elementary school to their reactions to the killing of George Floyd.

Do youth perceptions of police in California vary by race and ethnicity?

How do students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds perceive police, both in the community and in their schools? Our Health & Justice team at WestEd conducted analyses of data from a large sample of high school students in eight diverse, low‐income communities, who completed the California Healthy Kids Survey in the 2017/18 school year. This brief highlights that, overall, compared to their White peers, students of color, especially Black students, had less positive perceptions of police in both contexts, although this disparity was smaller in relation to students’ perceptions about police in their school.

Police in Schools

The intensive examination of the role of municipal police in the community following the killing of George Floyd and other incidents has extended to reexamining school-based law enforcement. Several jurisdictions have grappled with whether to remove, modify, or continue their school-based law enforcement relationships as the 2020/21 academic school year approaches. The JPRC has been involved in several projects relevant to school-based law enforcement.

In a recent project conducted for the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, the JPRC prepared a short brief on existing research and participated in a public hearing on school safety and police in schools. The California School Boards Association provided a summary of the event. The hearing was a follow-up to the Superintendent’s media briefing in which he described his partnership with WestEd. This work was supported and overseen by WestEd’s Region 15 Comprehensive Center, which serves California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

In 2018, the JPRC published a brief that summarizes findings from several reviews of research on the effects of school-based law enforcement. In short, the evidence to date is still premature but does not yet support a positive effect on school safety. One potential unintended consequence of increased police presence in schools is that the number of youth receiving exclusionary punishments — such as out-of-school suspension, expulsion, or referral to juvenile justice — also increases. A more rigorous systematic review is being completed by the JPRC. A protocol (or plan) for the review has been published, and we anticipate the final review to be published later this year and disseminated in a future JPRC Update. This work builds on an earlier, JPRC-led review on this topic. There are some rigorous studies currently underway that should, when completed, greatly improve the knowledge base on school-based law enforcement. These studies include one led by the Texas State University School Safety Center, and one led by the JPRC, funded by the National Institute of Justice, to examine a research-based model for implementing school policing in Texas. You can learn more about the JPRC study here. Also, in November 2014, the JPRC hosted a webinar on school-based law enforcement, summarizing its work up to that time.

Understanding and Reducing Disparity in Exclusionary School Discipline

The focus on racial justice has increased attention to deep disparities in fields such as education. A critical area for such focus is in schools’ use of exclusionary discipline practices such as out-of-school suspension and expulsion. Black and Brown students experience such exclusionary discipline at substantially higher rates, relative to White students, in many jurisdictions. The JPRC has been involved in several efforts to better understand this disparity and to examine one of the more popular approaches for addressing it, restorative justice.

JPRC researchers collaborated with the UCLA Project on Civil Rights and Analytica, Inc., to develop a guide on the topic of exclusionary discipline practices, which have been found to be related to negative outcomes for students and disproportionately applied to racial/ethnic minorities and students with disabilities. The guide, designed to help school and district leaders use data to better inform their use of disciplinary actions, was developed for REL-NEI at Education Development Center and funded by the Institute of Education Sciences. The guide is available online along with a clarification note on the “composition index” material. The importance of reliable data systems to track disciplinary actions was further emphasized in WestEd’s policy brief, Building a Foundation for School Discipline Reform: Action Steps for States to Improve the Collection and Use of School Discipline Data. The brief presents key steps that state education agencies can take to improve how they collect, publicly report, and use school discipline data.

During 2013–2016, the JPRC was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to summarize what is known about restorative justice as one possible approach to handling offenses in schools, including research and current practices at that time. In the school setting, restorative justice often serves as an alternative to traditional discipline, particularly exclusionary disciplinary actions such as suspension or expulsion. Most recently, our JPRC team published a new article in Contemporary School Psychology that summarizes the most recent two decades of quantitative research. The researchers found that within the limited rigorous research, restorative justice programs can improve school climates and student behavior and discipline outcomes; however, the results are mixed for a range of other outcomes, and more rigorous research is needed.

Equitable Evaluation: Addressing Racial and Other Biases in How We Work

One approach to evaluation that is gaining considerable attention is called “equitable evaluation.” It is an approach that addresses the dynamics and practices that have historically undervalued the voices, knowledge, expertise, capacity, and experiences of all evaluation participants and stakeholders, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups. A growing number of foundations are emphasizing equitable evaluation in their work, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF). The AECF asked the JPRC to reflect on current and past research and evaluation studies and how the principles of equitable evaluation are represented in our practice and, if not represented, what changes in our approach could be made to incorporate more equitable evaluation principles. The resulting report is entitled Reflections on Applying Principles of Equitable Evaluation.