‘Taking a knee’ against unconscious bias - from the December issue of ASBJ

I have a Sunday morning ritual that consists of enjoying a great breakfast while watching NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A few weeks ago, during this ritual, I received a phone call from a local newspaper reporter who covers high school sports. I have great respect for Greg. He not only covers the play-by-play action, but also views high school sports as a microcosm of life. As a result, he often covers aspects of students’ lives and the social issues that impact them. 

Greg was looking for perspective on a neighboring community’s football game in which a few players chose to kneel during the national anthem. I reminded him of the Supreme Court’s position that students don’t relinquish their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, provided their expression of these rights doesn’t disrupt the educational process. I also mentioned that times like these present opportunities for school boards to assess the extent to which their curricula inspire patriotism, and at the same time, work to remove barriers to learning and achievement. 

Having such a conversation, whether it’s with a reporter or a colleague, is the easy part. Executing a vision, on the other hand, is where the challenge lies. 

Regardless of whether we care to admit it, unconscious or inherent bias affects how we view the world. And that includes how we—school boards and educators-—perceive students’ performance and behavior in the classroom and on the sports field. 

School districts routinely adopt policies that prohibit discrimination on a whole host of levels and so it can be easy to assume that biases are accounted for in policy and decision- making. It’s important to recognize that it’s not a question of whether or not you have an unconscious bias. It’s a question of how much you allow that bias to affect your perceptions and decision-making.

When YouTube launched its video upload app for iOS, about 5 percent to 10 percent of the videos were uploaded upside down. In time, Google realized that its development team was exclusively right-handed, and had created an app that worked perfectly for the right-handed population. The app failed miserably when the video was made by rotating a phone 180 degrees to the right, as typically is done by a left-handed person.

Certainly, Google didn’t intend to overlook the left-handed population. It had, however, inadvertently assembled a team whose unconscious bias was having never used the phone with their left hand.

How can we better understand students’ feelings and thoughts and recognize our own unconscious biases? How can we enhance our understanding of children and families who live in poverty or who feel much of their world is biased against them? How can we rekindle a spirit of hope and patriotism?

Discuss biases at your next school board meeting—both conscious and unconscious. Determine which voices and perspectives are absent from your board’s dialogue and identify biases that allow blind spots in program and policy decisions. Then take it a step further and plan on how to fill that void. 

Only with conscious action can we address unconscious bias. Only then will we realize the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where all our children “will be judged … by the content of their character.”

- written by Kevin E. Ciak ( ), NSBA’s 2017-18 president and president of New Jersey’s Sayreville School Board. Follow Ciak on Twitter @Kevin_NSBA. Check out more in ASBJ online at





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