School Climate & Safety Opinion

Unequal School Discipline Strategies Set the Stage for Lifelong Discrimination

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 24, 2018 5 min read
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This is the first of a two part blog post by guest blogger Amanda Ronan*, an Austin-based educator and author. Today’s includes the statistics that support the dangers of inequitable school discipline strategies. The second will be the effects of inequitable school discipline stragegies and will follow next week.

The Stats

The zero tolerance policies that began in the 1980s and really took off in the 1990s were meant to level the playing field for all students. Students who were considered dangerous or disruptive were removed from the learning environment. They were suspended or expelled, allowing the rest of the class to continue being dutiful, well-behaved learners. The policies were expected to make discipline a consistent process across schools, districts, and states. The punishments were the same, no matter what the crime, no matter what the circumstances. No matter who the perpetrator.

But now, several decades later, we know how well those policies are workingout: the extreme reactions to minor infractions unfairly penalize students, especially those who were already being underserved.

Some students have been severely punished for trivial rule infractions, such as bringing nail clipper to class or having a butter knife in a locker.

Some students have been wrongly accused and punished for events they didn’t take part in or were not at fault for, such as being jumped by bullies.

And, these are just instances of the policy actually being used without discrimination, as it was written. The real failing of zero tolerance policies have been their overuse with students of color.

Discriminatory Discipline Data

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011-2012, 3.5 million students received punishments of in-school suspension, 3.45 were suspended outside of school, and 130,000 were expelled. That’s out of a total of 49 million. That means that in one year, more 7% of American students were taken out of class for extended punishment. And then there’s the nearly 70,000 students in 2013-2014 who were arrested as a result of school policies and discipline practices.

But let’s dive deeper into those stats. Take a look at this infographic that summarizes how this type of discipline is doled out.

Note: All of this data is supplied by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The organization collects information and statistics around school discipline and publishes data snapshots.

Source: USC Rossier’s online masters in school counseling program.

In the United States, where students of color make up 49.6% of the student population, they account for 64.9% of the student population receiving one out-of-school suspension and 71.1% of students with more than one out-of-school suspension. They also account for 71.3% of the school expulsions and 66.6% of school arrests.

Within these already alarming statistics are even more unsettling ones. African American or Black students account for 15.5% of the total population, and yet, in all discipline categories, they represent 30% or more of the students. American-Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately disciplined. Making up just 1% of the student population, they receive 2% of the out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions.

Students with special needs are also targeted by these policies-they receive out-of-school suspension punishments at a rate of 13%, just about double that of the total population (6%). They also account for nearly one-quarter of the students arrests made each year, despite only making up 12% of the overall population. And finally, one in four boys of color with a disability and one in five girls of color with a disability (excluding Latino and Asian-American students) receive at least one out-of-school suspension.

Ensuring Fair Discipline

In response to these alarming statistics, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division released federal policy guidance to address discriminatory practices. Specifically, these guidelines ensure that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, especially those titles that ban discrimination based on race in federally funded programs, is being honored while discipline issues are being addressed. This federal guidance outlines effective alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices, as well as makes suggestions for increasing awareness of harmful nature of the practices.

As a school leader, you probably don’t need federal guidelines to tell you whether these practices are negatively impacting your school and your students. School climate is under your jurisdiction, so you know what’s bubbling up in your environment. The hardest part of changing school climate, though, is knowing where to start. You may find that your administrative coursework didn’t prepare you for these issues and you want to find away to shore up your practitioner and research skills..

In your quest to ensure improve your school climate and disciplinary practices, be sure to rely on outside sources, like the National Center on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments. They offer an Action Planning Guide to to help school teams look at the causes of unequal discipline practices. The guide offers tools for looking at your school data, determining the roots of disparities, and creating an action plan to start making changes.

Gather a team of caring teachers to take on this learning process with you. Assume your role as the person who works with students and teachers to make school discipline work for the school. Show your school community that fair discipline policies and practices are possible and will keep the school safe and the students learning.

*Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based educator and author. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since then, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to homeschooling moms, writing blogs, long-form articles, curricula, and educational guides. In addition, she is the author of the YA series, My Brother is a Robot, and an ebook for teachers, A Fresh Look at Formative Assessment.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.