Equity & Diversity

Disparate Impact in School Discipline: What Does the Public Think?

By Evie Blad — August 19, 2015 3 min read
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Do teachers, parents, and the general public support district and federal efforts to make discipline more even-handed?

A poll released this week by Education Next found high rates of opposition in all categories of respondents as well as high rates of respondents who neither support nor oppose such measures.

The poll provided no background or definitions on the subject. It asked a nationally representative sample of 4,000 respondents if they support or oppose “school district policies that prevent schools from expelling or suspending black and Hispanic students at higher rates than other students.” The second question was the same, swapping out “district policies” for “federal policies.”

A higher percentage of white and Hispanic respondents said they were completely opposed or somewhat opposed to federal policies than to local policies. African-American respondents were far more likely to support such policies than their peers in other races, showing more support for federal policies than local ones. I’ve organized the results in graphs below.

local discipline policies | Create infographics

federal discipline policies | Create infographics

Schools have sought to tackle “disparate impact” of discipline policies.

So what policies is the poll referring to? It doesn’t provide specific details, and I could imagine some respondents might answer differently if they were asked about more specific steps districts have taken to reel in higher rates of suspension and expulsion for black students, who are most frequently subject to exclusionary discipline in U.S. classrooms, rather than broad, unspecific policies.

Some districts, such as Minneapolis, have responded by reviewing all suspensions to ensure that they are appropriate and that policies are consistently applied. Others have eliminated the ability to suspend students for vague infractions like “defiance” that may be applied subjectively by teachers with implicit bias against students in certain racial or ethnic groups.

Such efforts have picked up steam since January 2014, when the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released first-of-its kind guidance that urged schools to cut back on exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions.

In addition, that guidance put districts on notice that they may be in violation of federal civil rights laws if their disciplinary policies have a “disparate impact,” leading to higher rates of discipline among students of certain racial or ethnic groups, whether or not those policies were written in an intentionally discriminatory manner.

Some conservative critics have said the federal “disparate impact” guidance may inspire schools to set “quotas” for school discipline.

In an article discussing the poll results, Education Next said the poll results show disagreement with “policies requiring similar suspension rates across all racial groups.”

“In the Fall 2014 issue of Education Next, Richard Epstein, a professor at the New York University School of Law, criticized the action of the two departments, averring that it ‘forces school districts to comply with a substantive rule of dubious legal validity and practical soundness,’ ” that article says. “But in June 2015, the Supreme Court, in a Texas housing case, bolstered the departments’ position by holding that statistical evidence of ‘disparate impact’ across racial groups could indeed be used as evidence that a government policy was discriminatory.”

It’s natural to disagree with such policies if you view them as a mandate to ignore otherwise punishable behavior from some students. But many districts who have tackled such disparities say they do so on the front end, by reworking policies and by training teachers to ensure they are applied fairly.

I’m curious if the poll results would be any different if respondents were provided additional background information or examples before answering. What do you think? Do you support these policies? Do you think the federal “disparate impact” guidance is appropriate?

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