School Climate & Safety

As States Fall Short on Tracking Discipline, Concerns for Equity Grow

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 04, 2021 4 min read
Image of a student sitting outside of a doorway.
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For teachers in virtual and hybrid classrooms, rowdy students can be silenced with a mute button. But there’s little consensus—and less oversight—on where to draw the line between managing behavior and excluding students from learning.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last month that when reporting discipline data for civil rights purposes, schools and districts must report incidents both on campus and in virtual classrooms, and punishments that exclude students from their virtual learning should count as suspensions or expulsions.

But that still leaves a lot of class discipline open to interpretation, and with both behavior rules and accountability monitoring in flux this year, experts worry racial and other disparities in education could worsen.

“We just don’t have a mechanism for post-COVID kinds of discipline,” said Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles. “I think we’re gonna see a lot of kids who are going to be excluded from school because they’re violating either masking or social distancing requirements ... or you might see more escalation from the kids who are more challenging and who have experienced trauma.”

In a series of high-profile incidents since the pandemic began, students of color in Colorado and Louisiana were suspended for having toy guns visible on camera during video calls, while other students in Florida and Michigan faced truancy fines and even referral to juvenile justice for missing virtual assignments.

Districts have new definitions but little data

A majority of states have not released new data on exclusionary discipline since before the pandemic, with most explicitly noting that their 2019-20 school year data doesn’t include information on discipline after schools physically closed in March 2020. Procedures have varied from state to state in how districts have to report discipline in virtual and hybrid learning environments. Federal civil rights data on discipline are only collected every other year; the planned 2019-20 civil rights data collection are being collected during this school year instead.

“The priority for schools has been setting up online learning, making sure that teachers have the tools that they need, so … you’re seeing that across the board, discipline was not the priority,” said Jenn Bell-Ellwanger, the president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, which tracks state and district data use. “There are probably assumptions baked in there too, that we don’t even know what discipline looks like during this time. There is a lack of data. We’re seeing that across the board.”

For example, an audit this spring found that the District of Columbia’s discipline data reporting doesn’t include consistent definitions, quality control, or coverage of all of the schools and elements required. The district changed its discipline rules to account for virtual and hybrid schooling during the pandemic, but has not yet released new data on whether those changes have improved or worsened the district’s pre-existing discipline gaps. In 2019-20, Black students were four times as likely as white students to be suspended out of school, after controlling for other student demographics, according to the audit.

“At the same time [Washington, D.C., public schools] is issuing new virtual discipline policies and telling families what would be the trigger for putting your student in in-school suspension virtually, … our [jurisdiction] just stopped collecting that [discipline] information last year,” said Erin Roth, director of education research for the Office of the D.C. Auditor.

Similarly, a coalition of children’s advocacy groups in New York has called for a moratorium on any exclusionary discipline during the pandemic, because any lost learning time could have a disproportionate effect on students whose instruction is already disrupted by periodic school closures, quarantines, and moves into and out of remote learning.

“I worry about the extent of documented exclusion in remote learning,” said Richard Walsh, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at New York University who has studied post-COVID discipline. “Traditionally, discipline in in-person learning would have an office referral, but in the virtual classroom, teachers’ classroom management is harder to define. Suppose a teacher has a virtual classroom and mutes someone on Zoom but they remain part of the class; is that exclusion? If a student has to go to a side [virtual] room staffed with a behavioral interventionalist, but they are excluded from the classroom, is that still exclusion even if there is supervised instruction? There are so many questions about the nature of exclusion.”

Teachers need training on virtual discipline

Some groups have been working to provide guidance during the pandemic. In Illinois, for example, a 2014 state law required districts to provide annual discipline data, specifically disaggregated by racial groups. But in the years leading up to the pandemic, researchers and local reporters found racial disparities in discipline widened even as overall numbers of suspensions and expulsions went down.

So this school year, the Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, part of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, came up with guidance for districts to develop and monitor equitable discipline practices during the pandemic. In addition to calling for a ban or significant reduction of suspensions and expulsions, the guidance called for administrators to:

  • Revise disciplinary policies with an eye to restorative justice and trauma-informed discipline interventions.
  • Develop clear, consistent “community agreements” for online class practices.
  • Expand resources for mental health and emotional supports.
  • Help students adjust to new pandemic challenges, such as masking and social distancing, and not exclude students for missing these rules.

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