Studies Continue to Show Disparate Discipline

Last Updated: September 26, 2012

This article appeared in the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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The evidence continues to mount that when schools use harsh and exclusionary discipline practices, they are much more likely to target those practices to specific student groups. Several recently released major reports examine the data in different ways but draw very similar conclusions. The use of exclusionary discipline is very prevalent, despite a body of research that it is not an effective education practice and does not improve safety or academic outcomes for students.

Schott Foundation "Urgency of Now" Report

The Schott Foundation has issued its annual report on the educational status of males of color, frequently dubbed the “Black Boys Report.” This year’s data shows slight improvement, but the report notes that at that current rate, affected groups of students wouldn’t catch graduation rates of white males for fifty more years.

Schott researchers used U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data statistics. They found that only 52% of Black males and 58% of Latino males in 9th grade will graduate four years later. This statistic is in stark contrast to the on-time graduation rate of 78% for white 9th graders.

The report contains a number of informative graphics to illustrate where the problem is most acute. In “states of emergency,” the graduation rates for Black male students are less than 50%. These states are New Mexico, Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Florida, Delaware, South Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska, Iowa, the District of Columbia, and New York. “States of Emergency” for Latino males are Georgia, Delaware, Mississippi, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and New York.

“We have a responsibility to provide future generations of Americans with the education and the skills needed to thrive in communities, the job market and the global economy. Yet, too many Black and Latino young boys and men are being pushed out and locked out of the U.S. education system or find themselves unable to compete in a 21st Century economy upon graduating,” said John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. “These graduation rates are not indicative of a character flaw in the young men, but rather evidence of an unconscionable level of willful neglect, unequal resource allocation by federal, state and local entities and the indifference of too many elected and community leaders. It’s time for a support-based reform movement.”

The report includes a number of policy and practice recommendations. These include addressing the disparate discipline that contribute to academic failure; providing students who are performing below grade level with “Personal Opportunity Plans” to provide more resources; expanded learning time; increased opportunities for a well-rounded education including the arts, music, physical education, robotics, foreign language, and apprenticeships. It says that states and cities should conduct a redlining analysis of school funding, both between and within districts. And it calls for the development of support-based reform plans that provide equitable resource distribution to implement sound community school models.

Schott also supports the Solutions Not Suspensions initiative featured above.

Notable, the report faults the emphasis on standardized testing in schools as a contributor to these trends, calling policies standardizing all classrooms and all teaching “attention deficit policies.” The report notes: “Parents want student supports, not just more standards.”

UCLA Civil Rights Project report

In August (2012), Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillespie of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA released their findings on suspension rates in “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.” The report confirms yet again that minority students and students with disabilities are suspended at far higher rates than their non-disabled or non-minority peers.

The study used data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection survey and analyzed the risk of out-of-school suspension for every racial and ethnic group in nearly half of the nation’s schools.

The authors point out that out-of-school suspension is no longer a last-resort disciplinary measure. In the 2009-2010 school year, more than 3 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended. That’s enough, the authors estimate, to fill every seat at every major league baseball park and professional football stadium in the country.

The numbers are not only huge, but also dramatically disparate. One out of every six (17%) Black students nationally has been suspended, compared to one in 20 (5%) of white students. For students of all racial groups with disabilities, 13% are suspended each year. The students most likely to be suspended are Black students with disabilities. One out of every four is suspended at least once each year. This is 16 percentage points higher than the rate for white students with disabilities.

The rates also vary dramatically between states. For example, North Dakota suspended only 2.2% of all students, while South Carolina suspended 12.7% of its students. The report includes spreadsheets with extensive state and district level information.

Connecticut and Maryland are cited as states that have made legal changes in order to reduce suspension and expulsion and implement positive behavior techniques in schools. Losen and Gillespie note that a number of districts have very low rates of suspension, raising the question of what practices make a difference.

“Opportunities Suspended” summarizes other studies and theories related to high use of suspension. School-level policies and practices, particularly the attitude of administrators toward the discipline technique, made a difference. Schools with high levels of poverty and racial isolation appear more likely to use harsh discipline policies. And, as widely documented, low-income and minority students have much less access to teachers with the best instruction and classroom management skills, putting them at higher risk for discipline problems and other challenges in school.

Losen and Gillespie also summarize a number of alternative approaches to the frequent use of exclusionary discipline, including Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Restorative Justice, and specific training for teachers on best practices in classroom management and working with groups of diverse learners.

California Statewide Discipline Survey

California administrators are very concerned about the high and disparate rates of discipline and say the state’s school funding crisis is a significant part of the problem, according to a  survey conducted by the non-profit group, Edsource.

Edsource surveyed school administrators to learn more about how discipline policies were actually being implemented in schools and districts. Several bills dealing with discipline policy reform are pending in the state legislature.

Edsource sent the surveys to school administrators in charge of school discipline in districts with enrollment of 1,000 students or more. The responses represented 4.1 million students, about two-thirds of all California students.

Survey responses indicated that principals additional funding to hire more counselors and additional support staff would help address disciplinary problems. They also cited costs as a reason they are not able to utilize in-school or alternative placements. In addition, the administrators said they needed clearer definitions of some of the most vaguely-written offenses, such as “willful defiance” and “disruption of school activities.”

Governor Jerry Brown has signed several discipline related bills that may address some of the concerns reflected in the survey. One new law gives principals and superintendents more discretion to use alternatives to suspension or expulsion; another makes minor changes to zero tolerance laws by giving school administrators more flexibility to decide whether to use alternative punishments in lieu of expulsion in specific situations; a third will prohibit schools from refusing to enroll or readmit students because they were in the juvenile justice system. However, Brown vetoed a bill that would have limited the use of “willful defiance.

EdSource is a newer name for the nonprofit, initially called the California Coalition for Fair School Finance. When established in 1977, its purpose was to explain the impact of the Serrano v. Priest court decision intended to eliminate discrepancies in school funding based on property wealth.

Solutions Not Suspensions

In addition to recent reports, a grassroots initiative of students, educators, parents, and community leaders, joined by a number of partners and allies, have launched a national call for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions. The initiative advocates for more constructive disciplinary policies that benefit students, classrooms, and communities.

The website,, will serve as a clearinghouse for information on effective alternatives to suspension and give supporters an opportunity to add their voice to the call for a moratorium.

Suspensions Not Solutions is supported by the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which released a set of model school discipline policies that provide guidelines to help districts and schools implement the moratorium and phase in positive alternatives. The initiative has also been endorsed by the Schott Foundation’s Opportunity to Learn Campaign and the American Federation of Teachers.

Leaders have noted evidence that exclusionary disciplinary action deepens the achievement gap, contributes to high dropout rates, and increases the likelihood of student arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system.

Communities and individuals interested in helping establish a local moratorium on suspensions and implementing positive behavior alternatives can access information and key contacts on the website.

Read more:

Read the Schott Foundation study here:

Read the Opportunities Suspended report here:

Read the California discipline survey study here:

Solutions Not Suspensions website:

Read about the California legislation here:

Read more from the September 2012 Rural Policy Matters.