School Counselors Have Implicit Bias. Some Are Ready to Address It.

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During his sixth year as a school counselor, Derek Francis faced a situation that would change his career.

It was 2017, and the Minnesota high school where he worked—which also happened to be the high school he attended as a teenager—was in turmoil over a video circulating on social media. In it, one of the school’s star volleyball players said the n-word on a bus ride to a game.

At the time, Francis was the only Black counselor in the district, which serves about 40,000 students. And the volleyball player, who was white, just so happened to be in his caseload.

Francis recalls his colleagues suggesting they lay low and let the administration handle the situation, but he disagreed. “I’m like, ‘We’ve gotta say something. Kids are going nuts,’” he recalls. “They were protesting. They wanted to talk about it.”

He decided to sit down with the girl and her parents, and said it was “one of the best challenges of his life,” because it pushed him to offer her grace—again and again as he met with her in the weeks that followed.

Ultimately, Francis left the district. But the experience has stayed with him. He took a counseling job at Minneapolis Public Schools, and was later named manager of counseling services, where he leads staff professional development around racial equity.

For the last three years, Francis has devoted his career to helping counselors address racism in schools. After seeing how uncomfortable issues of race made his colleagues at his previous school, and how much those incidents—and the silence that followed—hurt students of color, he knew that the work he really needed to be doing was around anti-racism and implicit bias.

He was leading monthly professional development in Minneapolis and doing trainings with other districts and state-level organizations even before last year—“before it was cute,” as he puts it. But ever since the killings last spring of unarmed Black people—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others—his time and expertise have been in particularly high demand. Those deaths, coupled with the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color, sparked nationwide protests, raised awareness about systemic racism and microaggressions, and prompted soul-searching and introspection.

Among the individuals and institutions that pledged to be more inclusive, that looked inward and asked themselves whether they are part of the problem and what they can do about it, are educators, school districts and professional education associations. And in Francis they find someone ready and willing to talk about these issues, free of judgment and in frank terms.

“I’m always having to talk about race,” says Francis, noting that when you’re 6’5 and Black, it comes with the territory. “Helping people talk about biases, microaggressions—that’s the kind of PD I do.”

For counselors, it’s useful work. In many districts, school counselors serve as gatekeepers, recommending high-performing students for more rigorous coursework and shepherding older students through the college application process—signaling to them which colleges are attainable and which are more aspirational, for example. They are also, in many schools, responsible for addressing sensitive incidents that risk dividing a community or alienating some students and staff within it, as was the case at Francis’ former school.

School counselors are tasked with caring for “all” students, but just as the U.S. has not always lived up to its promise that “all men are created equal,” and in spite of their best intentions, counselors sometimes fall short of their mission. The difference now, perhaps, is that many are aware of it.

Recently, among the 40,000-member American School Counselor Association, questions have been circulating about what counselors can do differently to support all students and how they can be more intentional allies. Those conversations and others have ignited work that continues today, in pockets across the country. Some districts have led anti-racist training. Others are learning about microaggressions—those subtle, often unintentional words or actions that further marginalize people from underserved groups. Still others are forming culturally responsive book clubs, conducting equity audits of their policies and creating space for staff to come together and talk openly about race and racism.

A National Look at Anti-Racism Efforts

Nationally, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) is trying to do better.

“We have had many conversations since last summer, as a profession,” says Jill Cook, the association’s executive director. ASCA has formed a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) task force, hired a DEI consultant and held five DEI town halls, Cook said. They’ve also launched a DEI training free to anyone, including non-members and non-counselors, and keep up-to-date a web page of anti-racist resources for counselors, including links to articles, podcasts, guidelines and past trainings.

Cook says she’d “love to be able to say” these issues were on group members’ minds before the pandemic and the police killings, given how important racial justice and equity are to counselors’ work. But, she says, “Last summer certainly forced us to look more carefully at it through a different lens. … Our goal in this work is to make sure we are very thoughtfully and regularly and intellectually considering all of this in all of the work we do.”

One obvious barrier for the profession is its whiteness. In October 2020, ASCA sent out its annual “State of the Profession” survey, the results of which were published in January. Of the 7,000 respondents, 77 percent identified as white, 10 percent as Black or African American, 5 percent as Latino, 3 percent as two or more races and 1 percent as Asian.

“Our profession is not diverse,” Cook acknowledges. “We’re doing a little better than education as a whole, but not equivalent to what the population looks like.”

The survey also asked school counselors about their day-to-day challenges. Given that the survey was distributed in the throes of the pandemic, many of their answers focus on remote learning. But 30 percent of counselors said that “incorporating anti-racism practices/pedagogy/curriculum in the school counseling program” was a challenge, and 25 percent said the same about “addressing school/district policies that result in institutional discrimination.”

Challenges aside, counselors are beginning to make changes. According to the survey, 42 percent of respondents say they’re now monitoring in-person behavior and virtual chats looking for racist behavior. A smaller, but still notable, percent say they’re providing one-on-one counseling, addressing racism in classroom lessons, or using hard data to identify blind spots, such as which students are subjected to harsh discipline or, conversely, recommended for rigorous coursework.

As for school-wide efforts to promote DEI, 36 percent said their schools had done nothing. That number stood out to Cook, who noted that she’s heard anecdotally from counselors who have tried to focus more attention on the issue.

“They’ve asked principals, districts, school boards and been told no,” she says.

But in the majority of schools, changes have been made. A third now require DEI training for staff, over a quarter are incorporating it into their curricula, and others are hiring specialists in the field or making policy changs.

“School counselors, who I really think are the heart and soul of a school—or can be—are working hard on this and want to do right by kiddos,” Cook says.

Addressing Bias on the Ground

Those survey results nod to some of the hard work and honest conversations that have taken place among school counseling staff in recent months.

Gwinnett County School District had its counselors, nurses and social workers go through an eight-week training series hosted by the Georgia Conflict Center, where staff learned about cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity and microaggressions. The series, which began in August, just wrapped up in March.

The staff spent a lot of time on the topic of microaggressions. Tinisha Parker, executive director of student services at Gwinnett, who oversees nearly 400 counselors, says the conversations that arose from the training were constructive and “cathartic.” Many people shared their experiences, talking about missteps they’d made or witnessed in their roles.

They discussed the message it sends when a white counselor comments on how nice a Black student’s hair looks only on the day she straightens it. What does that tell the student about her natural hair and what qualifies as “pretty”? What does that tell her about how she appears when she’s wearing her braids? They discussed the suggestion behind a counselor asking a Black student if they have a father in the home. Why would that be the counselor’s assumption? How might that be hurtful to the students, regardless of his or her answer?

Parker, who is Black, says she has made mistakes from time to time too.

At one point in her career, she would go through an exercise with students where they’d each claim a “spirit animal.”

“I learned, from sitting and talking with Native American counselors, that that was offensive to them. Spirit animals are sacred,” Parker says. “Ever since I learned that, I don’t speak about spirit animals.”

She adds: “You’re never going to always get it right. But if you’re honest and earnest, you make sure that if you offend, you immediately apologize and say, ‘What was it that hurt you? I didn’t intend it. How can I make sure I don’t do it again?’ That’s where the learning happens, and that’s where the grace is extended and we get better at communicating.”

In her department, which she describes as “extremely diverse,” there is an expectation that everyone will be “authentic and transparent,” she says, and that they will be patient with and forgive one another when they mess up.

“We all make mistakes, and we’ll make more mistakes. But if we are dutiful,” she says, “we will be better going forward.”

Francis, in a separate conversation, emphasizes the same point. Everyone has biases and blind spots, he says—it’s a product of our surroundings, our cultures and our upbringings. The important thing is we put in the work and do the training to recognize those blind spots and watch out for them.

Growing up in a conservative Christian home, Francis says he has to check his biases toward LGBTQ students. And there are exchanges from his old school—times where he messed up—that he still remembers.

He used to go down the attendance list in class and ask every student whose name sounded Hispanic, “Do your parents speak English?” until a student finally called him on it.

“He said, ‘I speak perfect English,’” Francis recalls. “And in that moment, I could have been defensive, but I said, ‘You’re right. I apologize for that.’ I just had to use my own humility and say, ‘I messed up bad.’”

Another time, he was helping a girl register for classes and recommended for her courses on cooking, sewing and child care occupation. She asked him why he’d skipped over sports and welding—both of which she was interested in taking. He felt terrible.

“I call that out because we’ve all done it,” Francis says. “I know without a shadow of a doubt that we’ve all done it.”

Francis is lucky, he says, that he’s had students willing to address it with him directly. That’s not always the case. When students are hurt but don’t say anything, they leave the counselor’s office or class feeling uncomfortable, hoping never to come back. And, he says, they talk. They tell their friends.

That’s why it’s important for counselors to recognize their own mistakes and own it on the spot, he adds.

“When people of color have been hurt around race and racism, the one thing a person can offer us is … to talk about what you did. That takes guts,” Francis says. “A lot of people feel embarrassed, worry about being shamed or called a ‘Karen.’ But I always open up about mistakes I’ve made.”

Counselors need training to recognize their own biases, he says, but they also have to be prepared to talk with students and staff about incidents that may impact school.

In the training sessions he leads, Francis has participants act out real, school-based incidents involving racism and other manifestations of bias.

“We’re working on addressing, and being in a position to address, racism as it happens,” he explains. “If someone says something racist in your classroom, what do you do? I let them role-play, give them a script.”

He uses case studies, breaks the groups into pairs and asks them to talk through their response. How would they support students? How would they communicate the situation to families? “They get a feel for it,” Francis says. “The training kind of slows it down.”

He may not be able to prevent the next microaggression or hateful comment that occurs, but at the very least, Francis says, counselors will be prepared to step up and address whatever difficult situations come their way.

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