How relevant is demographic change to disciplinary issues in public schools?

“Classrooms today look much different than they did even just a couple decades ago. The number of students of color enrolled in public schools … has increased, and they’re expected to be the majority of high school graduates by 2025.” This type of report is heard constantly nowadays. Racial diversity of student population certainly challenges school policies in terms of disciplinary issues. National data consistently show that racial minority students are more likely to be subjected to suspension and expulsion than their white peers. However, there is a paucity of literature on how the demographic change of student population is relevant to school disciplinary issues in public education.

To help school leaders better understand how demographics impacts school discipline, we analyzed the 2011-12 SASS data and focused on the percentage of students of racial/ethnic minority groups in school. In this blog, we use the term “minorities” to refer to students who are of an ethnic minority group, but it should be noted that the number of minorities may be greater than White students in some schools. According to the data, 41 percent of public school principals reported that half or more than half of the student population in their schools were minorities.

What were the main disciplinary problems reported by the principals of schools with more minority students?

Figure 1 shows the main kinds of discipline issues as reported by principals, by percentage of minority students in their schools (color coded.) We applied stringent reporting criteria (e.g., only report an unweighted cell size with 62 cases or more), and found that principals of schools with more minority students (above 60%) reported a higher occurrence of the following disciplinary problems:

  • Student verbal abuse of teachers
  • Student acts of disrespect for teachers
  • Widespread disorder in classrooms
  • Physical conflicts among students
  • Vandalism
  • Student use of illegal drugs
  • Gang activities

Figure 1

Figure 1. Types of disciplinary problems by percentage of student in the school who are of a racial/ethnic minority.

(Note: *The average percentage of minority students in the group where principals reported no disciplinary problems is statistically significantly lower than the average percentage of minority students in the group where principals reported that the same problems happened daily, at least once a week, at least once a month, or occasion. Except for student bullying, all disciplinary problems show statistically significant between the two groups in the average percentage of minority students in the school.)

What do data say about suspension and expulsion?

According to the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data (U.S. Department of Education), about 2.7 million (between 5 and 6 percent) of all K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions during the 2015–16 school year. As shown in Figure 2, Black males represented 8 percent of enrolled students but accounted for 25 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension; Latino males represented 13 percent of student enrollment and 15 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. Consistent with these data, the results of our Poisson regressions show that in schools where half or more than half of the student population are minorities, the number of expelled students (B = 1.14, SE = 0.18, p < .001) and the number of suspensions (B = 0.53, SE = 0.10, p < .001) are significantly higher than in schools where minority students constitute less than half of the student population.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Percentage distribution of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions, by race and sex (Image from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf)

Limitations of the data

It should be noted that the data we studied do not warrant any assumption or inference as to whether minorities may be more prone to have more disciplinary problems or, conversely, whether principals apply different disciplinary standards to minorities. By virtue of sheer numbers, any group in the majority is expected to have a corresponding majority representation in disciplinary problems.

Additionally, in national surveys on education conditions, disciplinary infractions are defined and used by the U.S. Department of Education for indicators of school crime and safety issues. According to the data we analyzed, principals of schools with majority minority students (i.e., minority students comprise more than 60 percent of the school student population) reported that disciplinary problems happened more often. The data are self-reported, and it is impossible to determine whether principals applied various standards when handling the disciplinary issues of minority students.

To this effect, it should also be noted that, according to the data we analyzed, 43 percent of principals of majority minority schools are ethnic minorities themselves (including 23 percent Blacks, 15 percent Hispanics). Approximately 76 percent of Black principals and 81 percent of Hispanic principals work in majority minority schools. The average percentage of minority teachers is over 35 percent in majority minority schools. (By contrast, in schools where minority students comprise less than 60 percent of the student population, minority teachers only take up 6 percent, on average.)

Demographic change certainly has a ripple effect on school districts. Our analysis suggests that the sheer growth of minority students in public schools might be one of the elements that lead to the increase in racial disparity in school discipline. As multiple data analyses and projections forecast a dramatic increase in minority population, in the near future, both at large and in schools further, deeper study of how that increase will impact school discipline is clearly warranted.