School & District Management

Discipline Practices Fall Hardest on Minorities and Students With Disabilities

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 13, 2014 3 min read
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The disparate rates at which schools suspend and expel African-American students and those with disabilities drive up the dropout risks for these already academically vulnerable students and help propel them into the juvenile justice system, according to a new set of reports that take a sweeping look at discipline practices across the nation’s public schools.

Likewise, Latino students, girls of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students also are disproportionately kicked out of classrooms for bad behavior, concludes the report by the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, a group of 26 experts from the fields of social science, education, and civil rights.

The collaborative released its findings today—along with a series of solution-oriented briefing papers—after reviewing dozens of research studies on the discipline practices in public schools and data collected by the U.S. Department of Education on suspension and expulsion rates for the 2009-10 school year. A recent study that drew on three national surveys found that the odds of black students being suspended was 1.78 times that of white students, while the odds for Latinos to be suspended were 2.23 times that for whites, the report says.

“Discipline has become a management strategy for schools pressured by financial constraints, high concentrations of struggling students, substantial numbers of transient teachers/long-term substitutes, and severe accountability mandates,” the report states.

The differences in rates of discipline among groups of students can’t be explained by higher rates of misbehavior or poverty, said Russell Skiba, the director of the collaborative project and a professor at Indiana University. He said that the evidence is clear that even after controlling for types of behavior and poverty, students of color were removed from school for similar or milder offenses compared to their white peers.

But there are proven interventions and evidence-based practices that schools can adopt to drastically reduce discipline rates and improve school climate for students, experts from the collaborative say.

In a media call with reporters, a school official from Baltimore said that poring over the details of school-level discipline and academic data helped shift some principals attitudes about how best to deal with misbehaving students.

“We showed them that students who were suspended did far worse on tests than those who were chronically absent,” said Karen Webber-Ndour, the executive director for the Office of Student Support and Safety in the Baltimore city schools. “That was a wake-up call to the system.”

Close examination of the data also revealed where conflicts that led to suspensions were coming from most of the time. In some schools, it was the cafeteria, Webber-Ndour said, “so we deployed more personnel to the cafeteria.”

The massive compilation of data and reports from the collaborative is the latest in a mounting campaign to bring attention to the discipline practices in public schools that many believe have created an environment that disproportionately pushes students of color and students with disabilities out of classrooms.

Late last month, President Barack Obama announced a new range of initiatives called “My Brother’s Keeper” that are aimed at helping improve the lives of black and Latino boys and will include efforts to improve school discipline practices. And in January, the Obama administration published a guidance for districts on how school leaders can ensure that their discipline policies and practices do not discriminate against any student groups and urged districts to use alternatives to suspension and expulsion practices that remove students from the classroom.

More than 3 million students in grades K-12 were suspended out of school during the 2009-10 academic year, according to the federal data collection. The collaborative says the numbers of suspensions were half that in the 1970s and it blames the rise in exclusionary discipline practices in part on school leaders “overwhelmed with money and testing demands” who have turned to “easy” solutions, or leaders who believe getting rid of so-called bad kids will improve their school’s environment.

The collaborative was launched in 2011 through The Equity Project at Indiana University, with support from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations. (Atlantic Philanthropies is part of a group of funders that support Education Week‘s coverage of school climate, student behavior, and engagement.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.