Berkeley Psychologist Looks to End Bias in School Discipline

Jason Okonofua, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley has developed an online intervention program that allows school teachers to examine their implicit racial bias before handing out punishment for students in need of discipline. As a young child in Memphis, Dr. Okonofua was suspended from school four times and expelled once.

Okonofua’s empathy intervention will be tried out in a pilot project this fall that will target more than 100 teachers in more than 20 middle schools in several southern U.S. states, inspiring them to rethink knee-jerk punitive measures. The intervention involves reading student testimonials about their relationships with teachers.

“Teachers are more likely to see black children as troublemakers, and kids who have more suspensions are less likely to go to college and enter top-tier workplaces,” Dr. Okonofua said. “My goal is to reverse the downward life trajectory that starts with suspensions and expulsions.”

“By focusing on educators,” Dr. Okonofua adds, “we can help them become aware of their unconscious biases and learn how they can adjust their teaching practices to support diverse students’ learning.”

The son of a Nigerian-born economist and an African American nurse, Dr. Okonofua is a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he majored in African American studies and psychology. He holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

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