The unfinished business of school discipline

Educators are doing something right inside our public school buildings. While it’s not often reported, indicators of disciplinary problems have been showing steady declines in recent decades, including for such serious infractions as gang activity, physical threats of violence, and weapons carried on school property. But it’s too early to start high-fiving. A new study further reveals that the overall picture is hiding disturbing and persistent inequities in how discipline is administered.

First, let’s look at what’s moving in the right direction:

  • Between 2000 and 2016, the percentage of public schools reporting at least weekly incidents of bullying fell from 29.3 to 11.9%. Over the same time period, schools also saw declines in student verbal abuse of teachers (12.5 to 4.8%); student to student sexual harassment (4.0 to 1.0%); and gang activity (18.7 to 10.4%).
  • Since 1993, the percentage of high school students who reported being in a physical fight at school decreased by half (16 to 8%); students who said they had carried a weapon (defined as a gun, knife or club) in school fell from 12 to 4%.
  • Schools are reporting fewer “serious disciplinary actions“ against students for fighting, insubordination, and possession or distribution of illegal drugs or weapons. In 2005-06, nearly half — 48.1% — of public schools had on at least one occasion removed a student for five days or more. That percentage dropped to 37.2% in 2015-16.
  • The number of students who have been subject to such disciplinary actions has fallen even more dramatically, from 3.9 million in 2005-06 to about 600,000 in 2015-16.

Unfortunately, not all students were equal beneficiaries of these improvements. The non-partisan U.S. Government Accountability Office examined how school discipline practices affect black students, boys, and students with disabilities compared to their classmates. Its report was developed at the request of Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and was released in March of this year.

The authors analyzed the most recent data (2013-14) from the Office of Civil Rights in order to compare the proportion of disciplinary actions received by different student groups compared to their representation in the overall student population. Here’s what they found:

  • Whether the punishment is out-of-school or in-school suspension, referral to law enforcement, expulsion, corporal punishment, or school-related arrest, black students are far more likely to be on the receiving end than any other racial or ethnic group. For example, black students were over-represented in out-of-school suspensions by 23.2 percentage points, meaning that while black students comprised 15.5% of the overall school population they accounted for 38.7% of suspensions. In comparison, white students were under-represented by 17.8 points.
  • Disparities start early. At one half of 1%, suspensions are still relatively rare in public pre-schools. Even so, black students and boys are more likely to suspended than any other student group.
  • Likewise, students with disabilities are over-represented among disciplined students by double digits.

The GAO authors reviewed current research for insights into why these disparities exist. Their findings should challenge anyone who may be tempted to assume that the data merely reflects that black students, boys, and students with disabilities are somehow more disruptive than other groups. Rather, they write: “Studies we reviewed suggest that implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious associations about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex. Teachers and staff sometimes have discretion to make case-by-case decisions about whether to discipline, and the form of discipline to impose in response to student behaviors, such as disobedience, defiance, and classroom disruption. Studies show that these decisions can result in certain groups of students being more harshly disciplined. Further, the studies found that the types of offenses that black children were disciplined for were largely based on school officials’ interpretations of behavior.”

Such bias may or may not explain the disparities in every district. But it does exist, as GAO uncovered. School leaders should be alert to how discipline is applied in their district, beginning with a look at the data, and be prepared to ask deeper questions to seek explanations if some student groups are disciplined more than others. The first step in recovery is recognizing you have a problem. Once you do, you can move on to complete the unfinished business of assuring your disciplinary practices are fair, effective and equitable.