Implicit bias

School Discipline Explained: Why It Harms Students of Color and How We Can Fix It

Over many decades, America’s disciplinary policies, from preschool to high school, have disproportionately affected marginalized students. This difference creates a “discipline gap.”

  • Black students account for 47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions, but represent only 19% of preschool enrollment. 
  • Later in schooling, Black male students accounted for 25% of students who received an out-of-school suspension, but represented only 8% of enrolled students. And Black female students accounted for 14% of those who were suspended, while representing only 8% of enrollment.
  • The gap holds true for Black students beyond out-of-school suspensions. 31% of Black students were referred to law enforcement or arrested in school, but only made up 15% of student enrollment.

Research suggests these differences may be due to subjective judgements and interactional elements of student-teacher encounters that result in a disciplinary referral. White students were more likely to be disciplined for clear violations of the code of conduct while Black students were more likely to be disciplined for more subjective reasons, such as disrespect.

To one degree or another, the discipline gap exists for other minority groups, too:

  • American Indian or Alaska Native, Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multiracial boys represent 15% of K-12 students, but 19% of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
  • LGBTQ+ youth are up to 3 times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment than their heterosexual peers.
  • 20% of secondary school students with disabilities were suspended in a single school year, compared to fewer than 10% of their peers without disabilities.

Given these realities, school policymakers and leaders face a central challenge in setting disciplinary policies: creating safe learning environments that equitably support all students.

Research on disciplinary practices indicates leaders must keep in mind three realities when addressing this challenge: 

1) Increasingly, strict discipline practices that contribute to the discipline gap are not supported by psychological science.

  • Out-of-school suspensions are a popular form of school discipline and a significant contributor to the discipline gap. 
  • And many out-of-school suspensions occur for minor infractions.
  • This trend eventually evolved into the rise of zero-tolerance discipline policies, which supposedly removed all subjectivity from questions of discipline. In 2015-16, 2.7 million American students were suspended out-of-school.

Despite their widespread use, these punitive practices have zero connection to psychologists’ advice for correcting students’ behavior. The American Psychological Association has denounced the long-term effects of zero tolerance policies on students’ development and learning. And the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that out-of-school suspension should only be used as a last resort.

Beyond these recommendations from leading institutions, data show that removing students from instruction does not improve either student behavior or school climate.

Suspensions are associated with negative student outcomes, including lower academic performance and higher dropout rates.

In New York City, one of the largest school districts in the U.S., students and teachers in schools with higher rates of suspension reported poorer measures of school climate than those in schools with lower rates of suspension.

Teachers and psychologists argue for a more nuanced, holistic approach to correcting negative behavior through positive reinforcement, especially for students who have experienced trauma. 

2) This disconnect from best practice reinforces structural inequities in our schools that hurt millions of students.

Beyond individual outcomes, the school discipline gap can also vacuum financial resources out of students’ schools since most school funding systems use average daily attendance to apportion funding. 

A vicious cycle ensues.

Schools with rising rates of out-of-school suspension and expulsion see lower average daily attendance, which means they receive less funding. These schools then have fewer resources to support all students, especially ones who act out or struggle, which reduces their leaders’ ability to approach discipline holistically.

The wide discipline gap only worsens inequities in a school system where minority students are already more likely to attend lower-resourced schools, with larger class sizes, and fewer teachers with similar identities or backgrounds to help them navigate these challenges.

Recent research also found that harsh school discipline policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline that syphons students of color into the criminal justice system. 

3) There are tensions between policymakers and school leaders on how to equip educators with alternative practices that effectively correct individual behavior and contribute to healthier classroom environments.

As we’ve always known, discipline starts with classroom culture. But establishing healthy classroom culture can require a multi-faceted approach to discipline. And there isn’t a universal roadmap. 

Simply decreasing the severity and frequency of suspensions has mixed results. 

In Chicago, banning the use of suspensions for low-level “nonviolent” behavior did not increase academic achievement for students. That said, decreasing the use of out-of-school suspensions for severe infractions led to a small increase in test scores in racially diverse schools, and schools serving predominantly African American students saw a large jump in perceptions of school climate.

Various alternatives to suspensions are more or less effective.

For example, Restorative Justice practices approach discipline holistically rather than entirely punitively. These practices aren’t meant to be entirely substituted for punitive practices, but when done well, they can help prevent future incidents. 

But the results of restorative justice practices are mixed in cities that have fully embraced them, depending on whether you ask teachers or students.

Teachers in Pittsburgh who adopted Restorative Justice practices reported increases in school climate, a reduction in overall suspension rates, and a reduction in the disparities in suspension rates between African American and white students. But students' rating of their teachers’ classroom management dipped by about 4%.

There are other alternatives to zero-tolerance policies that tackle the challenge from different angles.

For individual teachers, experts argue implicit bias training to reduce the discriminatory implementation of discipline in all its forms and professional development around communicating classroom expectations of behavior to students with a variety of backgrounds could help student behavior.

Other approaches take a grassroots approach to correcting disruptive behavior. Social and emotional learning curricula focus on developing students’ social and emotional skills, which has proven to help create supportive and equitable learning environments. Teachers want more of it, and they haven’t been getting it.

When these preventative measures aren’t enough, targeted interventions for individual students have proven to be effective when executed well as an alternative to suspensions. Examples include the “guidance” approach, and brief exercises to improve students’ relationships with teachers.

No single change to school practice across the country will close the discipline gap or solve the larger discipline challenge in America’s schools. But this nuance highlights an important point for the education reform community.

This challenge will be addressed at the local level. And local leaders should be equipped with the full range of tools to address their unique version of the discipline challenge in their classrooms. 

4) The onus is on us to continue these local conversations since national efforts to explore these alternatives have slowed to a crawl.

In 2014, the Obama administration introduced guidelines that urged schools to use suspension, expulsion and reporting students to the police as a last resort in an effort to reduce the discipline gap across the county. 

These guidelines were not new federal law. They laid out the administration’s plan to enforce current law.

The administration used its ability to mold enforcement of the law to create downward pressure on states to address school discipline by encouraging transparency around the status quo.

The federal government stated that it would pursue investigations against districts that demonstrated “disparate impact” in their school discipline policies. 

Then came a new law that supplemented these executive efforts by the Obama administration. 

In 2015, Congress passed the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), which codified greater transparency around school discipline.

The law required states to lay out detailed plans to reduce the overuse of exclusionary discipline practices and provide data on school climate in their annual report card.

Our school leaders know transparency is important. Data creates space for conversation around solutions—and for pressure on those who have the power to change the status quo. 

The new DOEd guidelines and ESSA’s requirements aimed to shed much-needed light on notoriously murky school discipline processes across the country and, in doing so, create an opening for advocates, teachers and parents to pursue change at lower levels of government.

Then, in 2018, the Trump administration rolled back some of these efforts to enforce the current law. 

The Trump administration reversed the 2014 guidance around school discipline. Some policy analysts lauded the reversal citing mixed results of the top down decision. But the reversal also took some pressure off the states to pursue reform.

Former Obama Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John King issued a joint statement to this effect:

We put this guidance in place to start a conversation about these harmful practices and encourage advocates and policymakers to look more deeply into why these disparities exist and to intervene when necessary.

There is no universal roadmap to closing the “discipline gap” and addressing the challenge at the heart of school discipline. For the foreseeable future, the pressure for transparency and ultimately a shift toward more effective school discipline practices must be driven by state and local efforts. This reality makes our conversations even more important.

No matter where the pressure comes from, mindset change for teachers and administrators in high-stress environments is challenging work. Necessary work, but challenging. And we should do everything we can to support them as they advance this important work on the ground.

Explore this interactive map to see how your school district experiences the effects of school discipline practices.

Join the Movement