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A Mixed Methods Study Exploring the Nature of Black Adolescents’ Unfair Treatment by School Staff: Implications for Adolescents’ Trust in Adults

Abstract

Background

Black adolescents commonly experience unfair treatment from teachers and other school staff that can undermine Black adolescents’ engagement in school and their perceptions of adults as trustworthy.

Objective

This study aimed to address the overarching research question: “How do unfair experiences with school staff manifest and impact Black adolescents?”.

Method

This study used a mixed methods approach guided by two sub-questions. Our qualitative strand of inquiry used interview data from 25 Black adolescents, their parents, and another familial adult (75 total interviews) to explore the sub-question: “How do unfair experiences with school staff unfold?” Our quantitative strand analyzed survey data from 216 Black adolescents to address the sub-question: “Is a specific type of unfair experience, teacher racial discrimination, associated with Black adolescents having fewer natural mentors (supportive non-parental adults from adolescents’ everyday lives) via lower trust toward adults?”.

Results

Analyses of interview data suggested experiencing specific types of unfair treatment— (a) being singled out, (b) observing favoritism, (c) feeling belittled, and (d) unwarranted or overly harsh punishment—was followed by students disengaging from class, schoolwork, or teachers. Analyses of survey data indicated unfair treatment in the form of teacher racial discrimination was negatively associated with the quantity of natural mentors via lower perceptions of adults as trustworthy.

Conclusions

Collectively, our findings suggest unfair treatment by school staff may set in motion a domino effect that negatively influences Black students’ engagement with school and undermines their connection with supportive adults.

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Data Availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code Availability

This is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the participants who shared their experiences with us. We are also grateful to Kushani Shah for assisting with qualitative data mining and formatting and to Nara Bilal for assisting with data analysis. The research in this article was funded by a William T. Grant Foundation Scholar Award to the last author. The writing of this manuscript was supported by a William T. Grant Scholar Foundation Mentoring Award to the first and last authors.

Funding

This work was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation (Noelle M. Hurd, P.I.).

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Correspondence to Aisha N. Griffith.

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University of Virginia’s Institutional Review Board approved the procedures for this study.

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Informed consent and youth assent were obtained from participants in the study prior to their participation.

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Griffith, A.N., Leggett, C., Billingsley, J.T. et al. A Mixed Methods Study Exploring the Nature of Black Adolescents’ Unfair Treatment by School Staff: Implications for Adolescents’ Trust in Adults. Child Youth Care Forum (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-021-09669-3

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Keywords

  • Black adolescents
  • Middle schools
  • High schools
  • Unfair treatment
  • Youth-adult relationships
  • Trust