Discipline Disparities Persist, Newest Federal Civil Rights Data Show

By Evie Blad — March 21, 2014 3 min read
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Students from certain demographic groups—including black students, boys, and students with disabilities—continued to be disciplined at higher rates than their peers in the 2011-12 school year, national data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection released Friday show.

The data paint the most comprehensive and up-to-date picture of racial disparities in school discipline available.

About every two years since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education has gathered data about the nation’s schools through the Civil Rights Data Collection. The information is gathered so that the department has the information it needs to enforce civil rights laws that provide for equal educational opportunities for students of different races, genders, disabilities, and English-speaking skills. This year’s data release is the first since 2000 reflecting information from all schools and districts, including all charter schools and juvenile justice facilities. (More on the data’s other findings here.)

While black students represented 16 percent of overall enrollment, they represented 32 percent of students suspended in school, 33 percent of students suspended out of school, and 34 percent of students who were expelled. Click on the graph below to see a larger version.

Black students were also overrepresented in students referred to law enforcement. While they represented 16 percent of overall enrollment, black students represented 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students who were subject to school-related arrests.

This year’s release also includes a new data point schools must report: the number of suspensions and expulsions in district-run preschool programs. Six percent of school districts with preschool programs reported disciplining at least one child with an out-of-school suspension. While preschool programs also showed disparate rates of discipline for black children, Latino children where fared better. Latinos represented 29 percent of students in the preschool data, but they only represented 25 percent of of out-of-school suspensions.

Advocates for changing school discipline practices have long said many current “zero tolerance” policies are written vaguely and often applied inconsistently, even among two students sanctioned for the same offense. That can lead to disparate impact among certain student groups and overly harsh punishment for non-violent behavior, they said.

Student advocates find hope in first-of-its-kind school discipline guidance released by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice in January. That guidance urges districts to rethink policies that lead to classroom removal for non-violent offenses. It also spells out districts’ obligations under federal civil rights laws to review and track the impact of disciplinary policies to ensure that they aren’t unfairly affecting certain student groups.

Higher rates of discipline for students in various racial and ethnic groups cannot be entirely explained away by the assumption of higher rates of misbehavior by those students, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the event.

Qasima Wideman, 18, a senior in North Carolina’s Wake County school district and a member of the N.C. HEAT student organization, said students are pushing for restorative practices, like peer mediation, “instead of suspension and punitive discipline policies that don’t address the actual issue that causes students to misbehave in the first place—if they are misbehaving.”

“Students don’t have to be treated as a problem that needs to be isolated and removed,” she said.

Update: The Department of Education said Friday afternoon that some of its original state-level discipline data was incorrect. I’ve updated the links below with the updated data.

Click here to download a snapshot of the data created by the Education Department that includes a state-by-state breakdown, charts, and more information about restraint and seclusion.

The complete data set is available at

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