Discipline Discussions: Changing Our Mindset—Discipline Inequities

Discipline and Behavior Series: Changing Our Mindset: Discipline Inequities

Valerie C. Williams Director, Office of Special Education Programs Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

By Valerie C. Williams
Director, Office of Special Education Programs

I must confess that being a mother of an African American young man — specifically, a 12-year-old Black boy with a disability — I am gravely concerned with the disparities in discipline practices that children with disabilities, particularly children of color with disabilities, experience.  This breaks my heart and simultaneously makes me very angry.

Exclusionary discipline practices in our nation’s schools disproportionately impact students of color; students with emotional, behavioral, and cognitive disabilities; and youth who identify as LGBTQ. The disparities of students being removed from class, losing opportunities to learn, and missing opportunities to interact socially with peers alarms me.

In 2017–18, students lost 11 million days of instruction due to suspensions, and the most recent evidence confirms that suspensions lead to poor student outcomes. The data don’t lie. Sadly, the data confirms that these discipline disparities exist by race, ethnicity, and disability in schools, and these disparities are longstanding and persistent.

The data from the Civil Rights Data Collection  (CRDC), conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, documents that students in certain racial or ethnic groups and students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are disciplined more often than their peers. Among the findings are:

  • Students with disabilities served under IDEA represented 13.2% of total student enrollment but received 20.5% of one or more in-school suspensions and 24.5% of one or more out of school suspensions.
  • Black students with disabilities accounted for 2.3% of total student enrollment but received 6.2% of one or more in school suspensions and 8.8% of one or more out of-school suspensions.
  • Black students, who accounted for 15.1% of total student enrollment, were expelled at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment — 38.8% of expulsions with educational services and 33.3% of expulsions without educational services.
  • Of all expulsions from school, boys received 72.5% of expulsions with educational services and 73.8% of expulsions without educational services.

Data this alarming must be examined. To truly understand what is going on in schools, we must follow the data and get to the root causes. It is a necessary step in addressing pervasive discipline disparities.

I applaud the schools and districts that are already deeply engaged in confronting disparities in their discipline practices and building a positive school climate. (In my previous Discipline Discussion Blog on how our discipline policies reflect our priorities, I shared strategies that schools can use to change policies, procedures, and adult attitudes, knowledge, and behavior.) We can and must do more.

OSEP-funded technical assistance centers provide resources that address discipline disparities that can be accessed by state and local educational agencies, schools, early childhood programs, and educators who are interested in digging into their data to make change. In this Discipline Discussion blog, the IDEA Data Center (IDC) and the National Center for Systemic Improvement (NCSI) share insight into how states, districts, school/program leaders and educators can use data to make decisions and implement lasting change related to student discipline.

It is my hope that in building our toolkit on what we know and what we’ve learned about discipline disparities and positive approaches, our young people, including those most marginalized, can grow up safe and have positive outcomes in their schools and communities. Let’s get excited about the possibilities!

Click on the questions to view the responses.


NCSI: We recommend educators work as a team to:

  • select appropriate evidence-based approaches for a given situation,
  • implement with fidelity, and
  • make sure the approaches help each student.

This process is a data-driven cycle. Data on student needs and root cause informs selection, and data on implementation and student progress informs possible adaptations or leads you to consider different approaches. (See the next question for more on using data).

NCSI’s Three Circles of Evidence-Based Decision Making to Support Students with Disabilities walks you through selecting an evidence-based approach:

  1. Define your question.
    Consider student characteristics (e.g., age, race/culture, disability, language), type of approach (e.g., group size, who delivers), and desired outcomes (e.g., reading comprehension, social skills).

    • Consider systemic root causes and solutions. In some cases, the best path forward may be to change school or classroom practices.
    • When identifying desired outcomes and needed areas of support, remember that academic and behavioral needs often go hand in hand, especially for our students with the most intensive needs.
  2. Consider the evidence.
    Include the best available research evidence, family and student wisdom and values, and professional wisdom and values. The document includes example resources for each circle of evidence.

    • Determine if the intervention is FAIR.
      Is the intervention: Feasible to implement, Acceptable to families/students/professionals, Effective in producing a positive Impact, and Relevant for your identified context? For more information, see Guiding Questions: The FAIR Test
  3. Make an evidence-based decision.
    Consider all sources of information.

Further, Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) Plus developed a flyer with five key questions about schoolwide and classroom behavioral supports. Although the flyer is targeted to parents of adolescents, these questions can guide school teams serving all grades.

Once you select an approach, you want to plan to implement it with fidelity. An approach with a strong evidence base is unlikely to work if it is not implemented as designed and studied. Implementing with fidelity means following all key components but does not preclude considering adaptions to local context and student/family needs when appropriate.

Instructional coaching can help educators strengthen their implementation. NCSI offers several coaching resources, including the Effective Practices for Coaches learning module and the NCSI Effective Coaching Brief.

Research only tells us what worked, on average, for a certain sample of students; it will not work for everyone even when implemented well. You need to monitor each student’s progress to see if the approach needs to be adapted or changed. And remember, many approaches take time to work—be patient and compassionate with yourself and your students.

IDC: School teams have an important responsibility for making decisions about discipline disparities within their schools. Such decisions can have a positive impact on students and their performance. It is easy to be overwhelmed with the amount of data available when trying to use data to make effective decisions. Being strategic when it comes to using data can prove beneficial to school teams.

Being strategic to achieve your long- and short-term goals for addressing discipline disparities involves teams using a process that begins with data. Some key components for a process to use data, include:

  • Identifying relevant questions. These are specific questions that the team wants answered.
  • Identifying valid and reliable data that are important to use to answer the questions the team identified and the issue(s) at hand. For example, with discipline disparities, in addition to disciplinary removals, data such as office referrals, loss of instructional time, and other data will be important to consider.
  • Analyzing the gathered data in various ways to define the issue(s). Analyzing data for trends/patterns, anomalies, and year-to-year data changes and disaggregating the data in various ways/by various subgroups will help to clarify the disparity.
  • Using the data analysis to make effective decisions. Effective decision-making can minimize discipline disparities and affect positive change for students.

IDC’s Success Gaps Toolkit: Addressing Equity, Inclusion, and Opportunity provides a manageable process for using data to address outcome gaps or disparities between groups of children in districts or schools.

NCSI: School leadership teams and individual classroom educators can use data to explore what’s working for whom and under what conditions, to support effective decisions about when to proceed as planned and to adapt when needed to ensure all students are thriving. NCSI’s Essential Elements of Comprehensive Data Literacy, created collaboratively with IDC input, defines four essential elements of data literacy to support data-based decision making:

  • Data Exploration. Spend time discussing the purpose or “why” of the data, including what questions you aim to answer. Explore data focused on student outcomes as well as data focused on process and implementation.
  • Data Management. Effective teachers do not just rely on student data that lives in assessments, grades, suspensions, and attendance; they understand the importance of students’ cultural identities and how they show up in their learning. Use NCSI’s Culturally Responsive Data Literacy brief to support you in defining the range of quantitative and qualitative data sources that support addressing prioritized questions.
  • Data Use. While data do not lie, it is critical to disaggregate school data by sub-population to fully understand how approaches and interventions are working for students in the building. Further, exploring potential differences or biases in how teachers make discipline referrals by sub-group population can support better understanding each students’ experience. We recommend creating data visualizations and collaboratively making meaning of the data with stakeholders that have diverse perspectives aids in interpretation and decision making for next steps.
  • Reflection and Improvement. Examine the process and each element above to consider how to better or more efficiently achieve a purpose.

State Educational Agency (SEA)/Local Education Agency (LEA)/Program Leaders

IDC: It can be easy to react and make quick decisions when encountering issues like discipline disparities. Educators may instinctually want to support students and make positive change as quickly as possible; however, sometimes this results in applying a band-aid to a broken bone.

To truly address the issues leading to discipline disparities, which are often complex and deeply rooted, it is important to be intentional when identifying an effective solution. Planning on the front end to implement a systematic, data-based approach to resolving deeply rooted issues can ultimately prevent them from recurring.

The following steps are important for SEAs, LEAs, and Early Childhood Educators to consider as they work toward reducing discipline disparities:

  • Use a team approach. Having diverse representatives at the table ensures that unique perspectives, insights, expertise, and knowledge are reflected in discussions and decision-making around discipline disparities. Team members might include general and special education teachers, parents and students, support staff, community members, and leaders with the influence and authority to make change.
  • Use and share data in accessible ways. To uncover contributing factors to challenges like discipline disparities, the more data you can pull together, the better! It can be valuable to disaggregate the data in different ways, looking at information by student groups, schools, regions, etc. Providing this information in accessible, approachable formats like charts or graphs can be helpful for those who may be less data-inclined or uncomfortable with spreadsheets and more comfortable with various data visualizations.
  • Conduct root cause analysis. With the team assembled and data gathered, root cause analysis can now begin! This problem-solving approach helps teams at the SEA, LEA, and ECE levels drill down into the data, investigate what story the data are telling, develop and test hypotheses, and ultimately define a root cause. Defining the root cause is essential to determine what factors must change in order to meet desired outcomes, like reducing discipline disparities.

To learn more about these steps, check out IDC’s Data Meeting Toolkit. The toolkit offers a suite of tools that groups can use to establish a team, guide conversation around data, and support data-based decision-making using methods like root cause analysis.

NCSI: The first step to reducing discipline disparities is creating awareness of and a common understanding of the need to addressing the disparities. This can be done by breaking out discipline data at the state and local level by race for public reporting and for decision-making. State and local leaders need to communicate to school leaders and providers about the priority of reducing disparities.

Follow-up steps include reinforcing that priority through state accountability and support systems. State and local accountability systems can be leveraged toward this priority by oversampling students in over-disciplined categories and the teachers and providers engaging in disciplinary removals for reviews and observations. Those teachers and providers can also be provided with targeted professional development to increase their capacity to provide proactive supports that will allow students to continue learning with their peers in the settings determined appropriate by their IEP teams.

Finally, state accountability and support systems can be adjusted to examine compliance with IDEA requirements for functional behavior assessments and behavior plans for students prior to disciplinary actions. Proactive examination of the supports provided to students more likely to be disciplined can identify professional development needs that will help IEP teams understand their role in preventing discipline disparities. Supports should be provided to all IEP team members including families and students.

IDC: States play a paramount role in reviewing LEA/SEA/ECE program data and, as a result, making informed decisions regarding discipline disparities to affect positive change for students. States have access to valuable data about types and duration of disciplinary removals, disaggregated by various subgroups, for review and consideration. They can analyze these data for trends and patterns, data anomalies, and year-to-year data changes, among other factors. States can use data analysis to inform decisions about addressing discipline disparities and keeping their stakeholders informed. When data are analyzed, communicating the data in clear and meaningful ways is critical. Data displays are useful for:

  • Communicating complex data;
  • Building stakeholder capacity to better understand the data; and
  • Providing technical assistance to LEAs and ECEs when addressing discipline disparities.

For more information about displaying IDEA Section 618 and Section 616 data, check out these IDC resources, SEA and LEA EDFacts Edit Check Tools and Part B Indicator Data Display Wizard. The edit check and data display tools help states identify potential business rule errors or errors in subtotals or totals prior to submitting the data to OSEP and provide user-friendly data summaries. States can use the data wizard to communicate complex data to stakeholders in more user-friendly data visualizations.

What professional development opportunities are available for schools and early childhood programs to address social, emotional, behavioral needs of students with disabilities?

NCSI: There are many free resources and supports for schools and early childhood programs to address the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students with disabilities.

OSEP’s Ideas that Work website houses the document Professional Development to Support Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs, outlining OSEP-funded TA Center resources and supports.

The Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety’s Integrating Social and Emotional Learning Throughout the School System: A Compendium of Resources for District Leaders provides a vast list of resources at each step of a plan, do, study, act continuous improvement cycle, with a strong focus on embedded equitable practices.

The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), the National Center on Pyramid Model Interventions, and the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety provide a wealth of resources and supports in this area.

Additional resources include:

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for providing these blog posts! I learned about them through the newsletter and I look forward to reading them when I can!

    Although my 2yo D/HH is not Black, he has some atypical behaviors that I hope educators and specialists will handle with respect and grace. I am a middle school science teacher and multilingual specialist; the school district I taught with for the last seven years is one of the most ethnically-diverse in the country. The school and district discipline data is abhorrent and I’m always curious to learn more about Black culture, socio-emotional skills, and behavior management strategies so that I am doing my best to treat Black boys and their families, in particular, with the respect, dignity, and integrity that they deserve.

    Thank you!

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