Decades of research show that students of color are more likely to receive exclusionary discipline practices—such as office discipline referrals or suspensions—than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. The Children’s Defense Fund revealed that suspension rates for black students were two to three times higher than those of white students. Researchers must continue to investigate how to improve policies and practices for school systems to be more equitable and effective in reducing exclusionary discipline.

Using Data for Discipline

Data systems such as the student information system can automatically produce data on significant disproportionality. Principals and other school leaders can potentially use this data to recommend the metrics of risk ratios and track rates of discipline by racial and ethnic groups to aid in addressing the equity of school discipline.

Each state defines what constitutes significant disproportionality based on an analysis of numerical information, which has created issues with monitoring and enforcement. The U.S. Department of Education passed an act that regulates the identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities based on race or ethnicity and urges school districts to monitor and recognize the importance of such tracking. However, additional research is needed to reduce variance and more clearly define how disproportionality should be identified, because there is minimal consensus on the causal impacts of exclusionary discipline.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) is a common approach for the district and school leaders to address disproportionality. PBIS is a decision-making framework that guides selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidence-based practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students. Part of IDEA, which promotes equity by focusing on the vast differences in how black students with disabilities are treated, requires states to “identify districts with significant disproportionality in special education.” The requirement pushes school districts to analyze their policies and practices and identify the causes behind the prevalent issues and how advancements or developments may be needed. Similarly, the PBIS model, in its five-point, multicomponent approach, states that schools and districts should utilize data systems that can separate student data based on “race, ethnicity, and disability” and give district teams and schools easy access to it, in order to reduce discipline disproportionality.

Multitiered Behavioral Frameworks

Researchers support the idea that a single method may not be enough to generate considerable, long-lasting change. For this reason, multitiered behavioral frameworks, or methods with multiple steps or layers, may be needed to appropriately discipline students equitably. One of these multitiered behavioral frameworks is the previously discussed PBIS model.

Schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) reinforces best practices in equitable school discipline. (See Figure 1.) SWPBIS would be a promising model for more equitable and effective discipline practice—it aims to correct behavior by creating a school environment that advises against problematic behavior and informs students about desirable behavior. According to Hanover Research in their 2017 article “Strategies to Support Equitable School Discipline,” SWPBIS encourages equity by reducing ambiguity around disciplinary policies, which would minimize the possibility of implicit bias “affect[ing] disciplinary decisions, and students misunderstanding expectations regarding their behavior.”

According to the report “Pursuing Equity: Disproportionality in Special Education and the Reframing of Technical Solutions to Address Systemic Inequities,” more than 21,000 schools in 47 states utilize the SWPBIS model, and it seems to be having a positive effect on schools.

Even with the positive feedback for this model, there are still factors that need improvement in the framework. According to “Pursuing Equity,” there is “little to no evidence” about how or whether the model could be implemented to deal with concerns regarding culture and disproportionality.

It can’t be concluded that all students would be “effectively served” by this model, note authors Michael J. Boneshefski and Timothy J. Runge in their report “Addressing Disproportionate Discipline Practices Within a School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Framework,” published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. They note that implementing SWPBIS alone may not solve the problem of disproportionality in discipline for minority groups.

We believe that more research on a culturally responsive model should be investigated.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a victim-​centered response to crime that provides opportunities for those most directly affected by the crime—the victim, the offender, their families, and representatives of the community—to be directly involved in responding to the harm caused by the crime. Restorative justice also aims to better the learning environment and behavior of students within schools. It focuses on three main principles: repairing harm, involving stakeholders, and transforming community relationships.

In the article “Socializing Schools: Addressing Racial Disparities in Discipline Through Restorative Justice,” author Thalia González uses research findings formed from a case study analysis of Denver Public Schools. Her work promotes the use of restorative practices in schools as an “alternative to zero-tolerance and punitive exclusionary discipline.” However, it is essential to note that the long-term impact of this approach is not yet conclusive.

Other studies have found that restorative justice does not replace traditional discipline policies or eliminate exclusionary discipline, and may be more complicated for educators to implement. “Pursuing Equity” suggests that more evidence is needed on how, or whether, the SWPBIS model and others could be implemented to be more culturally responsive.

A Case Study on Methodology and Data Sources

For three different school years, a public school district in Michigan (the name of the district has been withheld for privacy reasons) examined significant disproportionality in the district and its impact on black students.

The district captured data using their collection systems and then used descriptive analysis to determine the significant disproportionality. They used the following questions to gather information:

  1. Which children in this Midwestern district who are identified by racial/ethnic group with disabilities are more likely to receive discipline when the risk ratio is weighted according to the racial/ethnic demographics of the state?
  2. For students in this district with IEPs, what is the loss in terms of instructional days and hours due to suspensions and expulsions?

The schools used disciplinary data from three consecutive years (2016–17, 2017–18, and 2018–19), which represented nine data files, all of which have been certified per the Michigan Center for Educational Performance Indicators.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, during the 2009–10 and 2010–11 school years, students with IEPs lost 226,837 days of instruction to suspensions and 251,410 days of instruction due to expulsions. More specifically to this public school district in Michigan, during the 2013–14 and 2014–15 school years, students with IEPs lost an estimated 663 days of instruction due to suspensions and 637 days of instruction due to expulsions. It should be noted that the impact of suspensions and expulsions are excusatory from students’ instructional time and may contribute to future problem behaviors. Researchers have found that children who fall behind academically are more likely to be adverse to academic work and reinforce escape-maintained problem behaviors.

Fighting, disruptive behavior, and physical assault/physical aggression came out as the top three disciplinary incidence areas. These results suggest that the culture within this district plays into disruptive behaviors, physical assault, and physical aggression incidences, resulting in an unsafe environment for staff and students. While the number of days of discipline fluctuated and decreased after the 2013–14 school year, each year boys were disciplined more compared with girls.

This data showed that two-thirds of all incidents occurred in seven of the 30 school sites. Three of the Michigan district’s high schools represented a little more than one-third of the incidents. Four middle level schools represented a little over 31 percent of the total number of “other” incidents. This representation reveals that more than 75 percent of “other” incidents happened between grades 6 and 12. It is also essential to note that black and Arab-American students experienced a higher percentage of incidents coded under “other.” Many students reported for “other” incident types were students with a medical diagnosis of emotional impairment, specific learning disabilities, or other health impairments—these students represent approximately 80 percent of “other” incidents.

Using Data for Discipline Decisions

This empirical analysis demonstrates an urgent concern for the rights and responsibilities of students, teachers, staff, parents, and guardians concerning the disciplining of children with disabilities. When coupled with a review of the district’s policy concerning disciplinary action levels, the core findings demonstrate a substantial lack of alignment with the district’s policies regarding student rights. The district’s student code of conduct does not currently account for “other” incident types within the rules and policies that govern the rights and responsibilities of students, teachers, staff, parents, and guardians.

The main point of the findings was that the district’s leadership—board of education, superintendent and cabinet, and principals and their leadership team—needed to review and implement policies that are both inclusive and offer more significant equitable learning opportunities for every student.

After reviewing the data, researchers determined several things that needed to happen. The district needed to:

  • Deliberately and intentionally analyze current policies and procedures to understand the marginalizing of individuals or groups of students better.
  • Provide professional development for leaders and teachers to help with understanding and building relationships with the students and their families.
  • Identify specific individuals (within the behavioral schoolwide frameworks) to ensure documentation that student progress is consistent with rewards.
  • Ensure that the staff understands the purpose and value of the system. Majority buy-in and communication with families and students should occur before staff implements any kind of change.

Takeaways for Other School Leaders

Consider these moves you can make as a principal to enact inclusive discipline policies that offer equitable learning opportunities for every student.

  • Implement a data-quality policy and oversee its compliance, providing assurances and verification for all students, including a guiding framework for management and accountability of data quality.
  • Communicate, maintain, and encourage a culture that values data quality.
  • Require staff to report to the principal every month (or as required by the principal).
  • Consider the broader strategic issues, perhaps working with an internal and external audit.
  • Gather social-emotional resources to be proactive in addressing the needs of students.
  • Use common language and definitions of acceptable behavior, as well as procedures for documenting and addressing discipline issues of students. Make sure the staff understands multiple learning styles and how to incorporate these strategies.
  • Establish learning opportunities for special education teachers to work with a general education teacher to specifically understand the needs of students with IEPs in classes.
  • Drill down to specifics of discipline infractions based on time, location, and teacher. This may help to provide strategic interventions for students.

Phillip Caldwell II, PhD, is the president of Resolute Educational Solutions and an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI. Antoinette Pearson, EdD, is a lecturer in the Department of Leadership and Counseling at Eastern Michigan University. Rajah E. Smart, EdD, is the director of Resolute Educational Solutions and a department chair in the College of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, MI.

Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Equity

Ensuring that each student is known and feels that he or she is part of the learning community is the foundational element of equity. Without knowing each of your students, you can’t be certain that each one is receiving equitable treatment, nor can you identify supports to meet each student’s full range of needs—academic, social, and emotional. You can create systems, practices, and processes to make sure that each student feels valued and that at least one adult—a teacher, administrator, or staff member—recognizes his or her individual needs.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.