School Climate & Safety

Discipline Gaps—and Ways to Close Them—Get Researchers’ Attention

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 24, 2018 6 min read
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New York

Researchers and civil rights experts from across the country highlighted potential ways to build more equitable systems for students who are disproportionately disciplined at school, in a series of findings presented last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here.

The study topic has become increasingly urgent. While many states and districts are working to discipline students more fairly, few have made significant progress in doing so.

“So far, we’ve found no intervention has evidence of significantly reducing disproportionate discipline and bias, … and this problem has been around 50, 60 years,” said Michael Pullman, a research associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, who studies interventions intended to reduce racial disparities in schools. “There hasn’t been a sense of, what do you do about this; being aware of it isn’t enough. It’s really led to some random acts of intervention.”

In the past five years, the research arms of both the federal Departments of Education and Justice have invested in new research programs aimed at improving school safety and reducing discipline disparities, according to Nadine Frederique, a social-science analyst at the National Institute of Justice’s office of research and evaluation. Education systems’ push to address discipline disparities accelerated after the Education and Justice departments jointly issued guidance under President Barack Obama’s administration suggesting policies that lead to disproportionate discipline for one racial group could violate civil rights laws. (U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has since suggested she wants to roll back that guidance.)

“By 2015, 22 states and [the District of Columbia] revised laws limiting the use of exclusionary [discipline] practices,” noted Chris Curran, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

He said Maryland became “an early mover” in this area following a lawsuit over racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. The state changed its discipline policy, using a five-tier framework for gauging the severity of a student’s behavior and finding appropriate responses.

Curran and Maida Finch of Salisbury University examined the discipline codes of the state’s 20 districts in 2013-14, just before the state guidance, and in 2015-16, a year after the new guidance.

Five Options

The researchers found that after the state changed its discipline policy, school districts added more than five options to respond to the average offense for students of all races, with the most new options offered for serious offenses, such as property destruction, arson, and drug-related behaviors. School administrators became significantly more likely, for example, to refer special education students to their student-support team or have misbehaving students enter into a “behavior contract” rather than suspend them out of school.

“Changes in what we put in schools’ codes of conduct can have very real effects on students,” Curran said. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, a fight automatically goes to a suspension because that’s the only option listed there,’ they may have four or five options to respond.”

The researchers also found that the changes cut across school demographics: Districts with majority-white and majority-black and -Hispanic students were equally likely to provide more options for dealing with student misbehavior.

A separate study previewed at the conference zeroed in on disparities in discipline meted out to students with disabilities.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Project, and the Houston Institute for Race and Justice analyzed federal data on out-of-school suspensions for special education students, who historically have experienced exclusionary discipline at disproportionate rates.

While under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students should not face that sort of discipline for behaviors associated with their disability, they can still be suspended for up to 10 days without additional due process.

“All those ‘less than 10 days’ can add up to be a big difference,” said Daniel Losen, the director of the UCLA civil rights center, who led the study. “For kids with disabilities, they are getting a lot more in terms of supports and service when they are in school, … so when they are missing school because they are suspended, they lose more.”

Looking at national data, Losen found that while students of all races with disabilities showed higher rates of discipline than those for nondisabled students, some massive gaps remained between white and black students in the total number of days lost to suspension. In both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, black students with disabilities lost roughly three times as much instruction from discipline as their white peers did. In 2015-16, for every 100 students with special needs, the amount of lost school from suspensions was 121 days on average for black students, compared with 43 days of school lost for white students with disabilities.

“In Nevada, you have 153 days more missed instruction if you are black and have a disability than if you are white and have a disability,” Losen said. “This is not necessarily legal proof of discrimination, but when we see numbers like this, there is something broken here.”

Identifying Successful Districts

Like his conference colleagues, Losen is trying to find and learn from schools and districts with more equitable discipline practices.

He and Russell Skiba, the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University Bloomington, analyzed federal civil rights data on 6,000 districts to identify those that had showed more equitable discipline, while also improving academic achievement for minority students and the school population overall.

Each district selected had to have: a significant population of poor and minority students, high school graduation rates above 60 percent, and no schools identified as low-achieving under their state’s accountability system. The district also had to have out-of-school suspension rates for black students, low-income students, and those with disabilities below 5 percent in elementary school and below 10 percent in middle and high school—both significantly below national averages. The researchers selected three districts for in-depth case studies.

In those three districts, all of which significantly lowered suspension rates while maintaining good test scores, “the focus was on the well-being of the kids and achieving strong academic outcomes, and the discipline [reform] was embedded in that.”

The researchers found that all three worked closely with their teachers’ unions and provided time, training, and resources to teachers on alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice or positive behavioral interventions and supports. The districts also made clear changes to their board policies and regularly used data to identify and address discipline and academic gaps in schools.

In a separate study, a Florida district partnered with researchers from the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA to figure out why racial disparities remained even after it halved the overall rates of suspensions and expulsions.

R. Nicole Johnson-Ahorlu, the director for education and juvenile-justice research at the center, found discipline involved a series of staff decisions about whether misbehavior had occurred and whether and how the school responded.

“It’s a process of decisions, and if those decisions can be confounded in any way by prejudices, biases, or anything else, we want to be thinking about it,” she said.

The team identified three issues that can raise the risk of conscious or unconscious bias in school discipline:

• Ambiguity: when a rule or situation is open to multiple interpretations.

• Discretion: when staff or administrators have significant freedom to decide how to respond.

• Accountability structure: when the district relies on the disciplined student or his parents to complain to identify inequitable school discipline, rather than identifying problematic patterns in its own data.

The center and the district are now exploring how differences in the ways students experience school, the social climate in different buildings, and other factors can also affect discipline rates.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as Discipline Gaps—and Ways to Close Them—Get Scrutiny


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