Professional Learning

Inequities in Student Discipline: What To Do About Them

May 20, 2014 Updated April 25, 2014

Sixty years after Brown versus the Board of Education officially ended segregation in our nation's public schools, the U.S. Department of Education released new data showing that our country continues to struggle with significant disparities in many aspects of public education. One example: student discipline.

The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) from the 2011-2012 school year, which includes data from all 97,000 of the nation's public schools*, found that students of certain racial or ethnic groups and students with disabilities are disciplined at far higher rates than their peers -- and that these discrepancies are evident as early as preschool. Consider: African-American students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 42 percent of preschool students suspended once, and 48 percent of preschool students suspended more than once. These statistics are appalling even if you accept the notion that there are circumstances in which it is appropriate to suspend preschool students (and the argument could be made that there are not).

Overall, the CRDC data show that African-American students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students -- across the nation, 16.4 percent of African-American students are suspended, compared to 4.6 percent of white students. While boys are much more likely to be suspended than girls, African-American girls are suspended at a higher rate (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.

American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled. And students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as their peers without disabilities to receive an out of school suspension (with boys and girls of color with disabilities even more likely than their peers with disabilities to receive an out of school suspension).

Punishments such as suspension and expulsion that exclude students from school in essence deprive them of an education. They put students at a much greater risk of repeating a grade, dropping out of school and being involved with the juvenile justice system (and eventually the criminal justice system). So the fact that certain groups of students disproportionately receive such punishments has significant consequences for society as a whole.

What Do We Do About It?

If students are misbehaving, shouldn't they be disciplined? Yes, but while there are violent and disruptive actions that might necessitate removal from a school, most suspensions are the result of minor infractions that are part of a zero tolerance disciplinary system. And unconsciously, educators are enforcing these policies more harshly on students of color. As a recent article in NEAToday points out, research suggests that white students are more likely suspended for "observable" offenses, like fighting or drug possession, while African-American students are more likely to be suspended for minor, nonviolent offenses such as disrespect, which are less objective.

To truly address the issue of discipline disparities, schools and communities have to be willing to have hard conversations about the (possibly unconscious) discrimination that may exist in their environment. In addition, schools can look to move beyond exclusionary discipline policies to "restorative practices."

What Are Restorative Practices?

A new toolkit from the Advancement Project, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and National Opportunity to Learn Campaign offers educators an introduction to restorative approaches to addressing conflict in schools. As defined in the toolkit, restorative practices are processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing. Such practices allow those who have committed wrong to take responsibility for their behavior while remaining in the school setting and can address the issues underlying the behavior, in contrast to discipline that simply reacts to misbehavior. These practices are most effective when integrated into the fabric of the school, creating a caring and supportive culture that acts as both a prevention mechanism and a way to respond to inappropriate behavior.

The toolkit identifies a number of types of restorative practices, including:

Restorative justice: an evidence-based practice that focuses on repairing relationships that have been injured, offering the victim the opportunity to share how he or she was harmed and the wrongdoer the opportunity to share how he or she will work to resolve the harm caused.

Community service: allowing individuals to restore harm they may have committed by providing a meaningful service that contributes to their individual improvement.

Circle process: providing a safe space in which people can speak and listen to one another, allowing both students and educators to be heard and offer their own perspectives (this technique can be used proactively to develop relationships and build community, or reactively to respond to conflicts, wrongdoing and other problems).

Preventative and post-conflict resolution programs: teaching students problem-solving and self-control, equipping them with the skills to handle conflict when it occurs and address the root causes of it to prevent future incidents.

Peer mediation: a model shown to reduce discipline referrals, violence and suspension rates while allowing youth to take a leadership role in increasing peace in their school.

There are also many informal restorative practices that educators can use to help create a positive environment, including using affective statements to communicate feelings, proactively engaging with students and families, holding lunchtime table talks and more.

Restorative practices offer a positive way forward for both wrongdoers and victims. They also help build relationships between students and their peers and educators, helping improve the climate of a school and engage students in it, which both improves academic performance and decreases discipline issues. And by eliminating the use of exclusionary practices for minor, nonviolent offenses, they can help address the inequities in school discipline that can contribute to other inequities in our society.

*Access the Civil Rights Data Collection information for your school or district, visit.

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