School discipline: Understanding the current debate

On Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a full-day briefing on school discipline policy. The hearing comes at a moment of increasing tension in the debate surrounding racial disparities in the use of exclusionary discipline, like suspensions. While a 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter outlined the duty of districts to ensure that suspensions and expulsions do not disproportionately impact students of color, opponents of the Obama-era guidance may have gained an ear in the Trump administration. Recently, officials from the Department of Education have been reportedly meeting with critics of the policy. As this debate ramps up, we examine the facts on school discipline, which students are most impacted by suspensions, and what can be done about it.

Racial disparities in suspension have been well-documented. In K-12 education, black students comprise about 16% of enrollment, but 34% of students suspended at least once. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reported in 2016 that this disproportionate representation means that black students are 3.8 times as likely as white students to receive at least one out of school suspension. This pattern holds true even at the preschool level: black children make up about 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of black preschoolers have experienced one or more suspensions. Research also suggests that black students may receive harsher punishments and be suspended for more days than white students – even when involved in the same incident. Similar disparities exist for low-income students and those with disabilities. In particular, children with disabilities have been found to be suspended at twice the rate of their peers. Critics of the Obama administration’s 2014 school discipline guidance suggest that these rates do not take into account behavioral history, and that the policy creates racial quotas for suspension. However, regardless of prior student behavior, the vast over-representation of students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities among those impacted by exclusionary discipline should be cause for alarm.

Even one suspension may have a serious negative impact on student achievement. Removing students from the classroom for any reason results in lost learning, making it difficult for a student to catch up to the class upon his or her return. The learning impact of just a few days out of class may be significant: a 2014 study found that missing three or more days of school in the month leading up to the National Assessment of Educational Progress was associated with reading achievement scores more than one full grade level behind peers who did not miss class. Similar gaps were found in mathematics. Students who miss school due to exclusionary discipline, then, face a second hurdle when they return to class: catching up with their classmates who benefited from additional days of instruction during the suspension.

We know that suspensions disproportionately impact students of color, low-income students, and those with disabilities, and that these suspensions may have a significant impact on student learning. How, then, can we ensure that this discipline disparity does not perpetuate or exacerbate existing achievement gaps? Research-backed programs like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Safe and Responsive Schools (SRS) aim to improve the overall school climate and implement interventions for problematic behavior. Other methods, like Response to Intervention (RTI), directly target student behavior and adjust punishments to meet students’ individual situations. The 2014 guidance on school discipline emphasized the importance of these sorts of restorative justice policies, a position that may now be under reconsideration by the Department of Education. Implemented correctly, these approaches may significantly reduce suspensions for all students and alleviate behavior problems throughout a school.

Critics argue that not every school has been able to implement an effective behavior program centered on restorative justice, and that limiting suspensions puts teachers in these schools in a difficult position. Certainly, the number one priority in all classrooms should be safety. Teachers whose students struggle with serious disciplinary challenges may face difficult situations in which one student puts the rest of the class at risk. Additionally, even one violent or disruptive student may negatively impact the learning of the whole class. Teachers need options for student discipline, including training in approaches that seek to mitigate, rather than punish, student misbehavior. Approaches like PBIS, SRS, and RTI that aim to improve the school culture and provide targeted interventions to behavior challenges provide teachers with a discipline structure that encourages both fair distribution of discipline and equal access to learning. While increasing teachers’ reliance on exclusionary discipline will continue to negatively and disproportionately impact students of color, restorative justice policies may help combat the racial disparity in school discipline and keep all students learning.