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Disrupting the school to prison pipeline: One teacher's mission (#91)

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Jean Latting
November 10, 2023
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Dave's novel approach toward disrupting the school to prison pipeline and his ability to understand multiple cultures brings him to this interview.

Highlights from this week’s interview

Jean interviews Dave DeJohn, a teacher at Jack Yates High School, a predominantly Black high school in Houston. Dave is an Audio/Visual Production teacher at Yates, an Adjunct Professor at Houston Community College, and a doctoral student at the University of Houston. After a stint in the Navy, he has worked extensively in audio/visual arts, including a 3-year project in Kuwait. His novel approach toward disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline and his ability to understand multiple cultures brings him to this interview.

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What is the school to prison pipeline

Jean: Hello, everybody. Have you heard of the school to prison pipeline, that Black kids receive harsher discipline in schools than White kids?…are more likely to be suspended, and more likely to end up in prison, as a result? I want you all to imagine this guy, a White man who has a passion for African American children, ensuring they can be the best they can be and the education they get is the best it can be.

Dave, how did you get into this?


A White man's journey into the African American school experience

Dave: I grew up in an all-White school, attended Lamar High School with just a few African Americans, then spent a year at Jack Yates High School, where all of the students and most of the teachers are Black. I made some good friends. Their families provided a lot of support and I was entirely comfortable there. Then I married a Black woman, joined the military, and became fully committed to the African American world.

I became aware that I could make things happen, where she could not. That’s when I became fully aware of my White privilege.


Jean: You were with this Black family, in these Black neighborhoods, how did it feel to be the only White person?


Dave: That's kind of a tough one. The uncomfortable parts happened when I was younger. Over time, when I'm around African Americans, there's a comfort that I don't have when I'm around Whites. I don't know when that shifted.


Jean: I'm gathering is that's where your home base is, with the African American community.


Dave: A student told me recently, “I told my mom that inward he is Black.”


Jean: Why did you choose the educational field, media, and then Yates.


Dave: When I was younger I looked like I was 16 when I was 26. I would go into companies and advise them on safety, and a lot of people didn't listen to me.

We had this video camera at the company that nobody was using. So, I started making these little training videos. And all of a sudden, they were taking off. I realized that I'm probably better at making films and people listening to them than listening to me.

I made a movie that was sort of based on how I felt my family had turned on me when I was younger. And it was a downer. At the end of that, after being married for 18 years, we went through a divorce. A lot of it had to do with that film.

I went to a therapist who said, “Can you write a story that's happy?” And so, guess what the happy story was? When I became the first White drummer at Yates High School.

After I wrote a script called “Beat of a different drum” I started looking for classmates, and I found Mignon. The drummers used to say, “Mignon, watch this White boy moonwalk,” and I'd try to moonwalk. I wasn't very good and she'd laugh.

I wrote to her, asking, “Do you remember me?” She wrote back and said, “Who would forget you? You're that White guy that thought you were cool.” Eventually, I came to Houston and we got married.

Mignon encouraged me to teach. The first year I taught in an all-White school. Then out of nowhere, I get a call from Galena Park ISD. They asked me to come show some films of the game. I told them I want to work with marginalized populations. And they said, “All of our students are Hispanic.”

After that I decided to get my master's degree and move up in education, that's why we went to the Middle East.


Comparing multiple cultures

Jean: You have now described teaching four groups of kids, four cultures. White culture, Black culture, Hispanic culture, Muslim culture. Compare and contrast.


Dave: The White students were very in my face, “Look at me. I want to be the best.” Also I had parents that would come up and say, “Would you like a booster club?” And all of a sudden, we have a booster club, and we're bringing in money for field trips and all that other stuff.

At Galena Park, the Hispanic culture, there were more White teachers at the school than anything else. And there was this belief that the families didn't care. We would have open house, families wouldn't come.

What I found interesting was when I did have a reach out to Hispanics, they cared more about their kids than in the White school.


Jean: You are doing something so that the Hispanic teachers like you, the Kuwaitis like you, the African Americans like you. You are penetrating these cultures everywhere you go. Can you say what it is that you're doing?

[Jean asks Dave to bring in his wife, Mignon, to the conversation.]


Mignon: Hi Dr Latting.


Jean: What is it that Dave and probably you have, that he's able to win over people in such different cultures?


Mignon: It's a genuine authenticity and trying to understand someone else's situation first. It's not about him and what he wants to say or what he thinks they should say or do.

There's a thing when he meets new people that he says all the time, “So, what's your story?” And in asking that question, he immediately is learning something about that person and what their story is. And when he's in the classroom, he’s the same way with students. They just have genuine conversation and at some point, they don't even see that he's White.


Jean: I want to move on to Dave's research. Thank you, Mignon, for your insights.

[Mignon leaves and Jean resumes talking to Dave.]

What’s the first the big question?


Dave: If we know that African American students are disproportionately disciplined, what kinds of behaviors can we learn from teachers who don't let this happen?

We as teachers are excellent at differentiating instruction for different students. We know that this student is better at reading stuff, this one's better at pictures.

When we get a special needs student, we’ll have instructions, the student can't sit in one place for 20 minutes, or this person has trouble seeing certain colors.

But with discipline, we won't do that, every student is going to be treated the same. And as soon as the student does something that's disrespectful, or disrupts the class, we're ready to challenge that student. The scariest thing to me is that the research is clear that if a Black student gets suspended, the chances of them going to prison skyrocket, whereas a White student, no change.

And it's up to us as educators, no matter what color of educator you are, to know that if I send that African American student out, the chances of their life being ruined goes way up. So, it better be about something that’s serious, right? And if it's about oh, they called you a name. Well, get over it.

90% of all public-school teachers in this country are White. So if the majority of them have some kind of inherent bias, and they can't handle an African American student. The think if I, as a White teacher, start giving more breaks to African American students because I don't want them to go into school to prison pipeline, what are we doing for my White students?

There's this idea that somehow that is a fair thing. So many of our educators mix up equality and equity. And they can't think that for two seconds, that yes, I'm going to let this student slide because let's talk about fairness.

Is it fair that historically, African American students get disciplined more than White students?


Jean: I've read the research where they compared what's regarded as aggression in the White culture, Latino culture, and Black culture. Is it easier to trigger aggression — to be viewed as aggressive — in a Black culture than it is in Latino culture than it is in a White culture? That means we would get triggered faster and we would regard an insult as faster. This also regards what you said about saving face.


Dave: When students feel like they belong in that classroom, and they feel like they're doing something that's significant, there's no need to discipline them. And that's where I'm hoping my research is going.


Jean: Your research is that there is a way to create a cultural atmosphere, a climate in your classroom, where kids can learn, be accountable to each other, hold each other accountable, and do the right thing.


Dave: In my classroom, all the students are African American. What happens when I'm a teacher, where five of my students are African American, and that disrespect starts happening?

There's a book, The Formula, by Dr. Campbell-Rhone, where she writes, “Our kids are different, but they're lovable and they need love, they need encouragement.” What I'm asking those who teach African American students is recognize that it's your responsibility to make sure that African American students never go to the office.

The difference between equality and equity


Jean: Define the difference between equity and equality.


Dave: Equality means everyone gets the same, everyone's treated the same. Equity means I'm going to look to see where a certain group or certain students are not getting what everyone else is getting, and I'm going to do a little extra to bring them to the level where everyone is equal.

Dave DeJohn headshot

R. Dave DeJohn, MFA

Dave is an Audio/Video Production teacher at Jack Yates High School and Adjunct Professor at Houston Community College. He describes himself on LinkedIn as a “Creative Problem Solver. Change Agent. Emotional Storytelling by Media. BIG ideas, PROVEN results. Champion of social justice and student outcomes!”

Connect with Dave:


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Can you think of an example of practicing equality instead of equity? How would you do it differently?
  2. Think about your concept of aggression. Are you able to adapt it to other ethnic groups?

Leading Consciously skills
covered in this blog:

  • Bridging Differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
    • Check for stereotyping tendencies, unconscious bias, and blind spots in your behavior, especially as a dominant group member
    • Sustain chronic unease toward exclusionary behaviors
    • As a dominant group member, provide support to nondominant group members
    • As a nondominant, ferret out tendency toward internalized oppression or viewing dominants as beyond your ability to influence
    • As a nondominant, recognize dominants’ potential blind spots about the impact of their behavior

#ChronicUnease   #Dominant/NondominantDynamics  #EqualityvsEquity   #WhatsYourStory

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

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