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Disproportionality, Discipline, and Race

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This piece, part of our Addressing Critical Equity Issues series, discusses the racial disproportionality in discipline and provides promising practices to address it.

Disproportionality, Discipline and Race

Racial disproportionality in discipline can be defined as the overrepresentation of children of color that are subject to discipline,suspension and/or expulsion as compared to the total population of children in the community or institution (NCCREST, 2009). Current trends, nationwide, show that when it comes to school discipline, African American students are suspended two to three times more frequently than other students. Similarly, they are overrepresented in office referral, expulsion and corporal punishment (Skiba, et al, 2011, Duncan, 2010, Kim 2010). The problem of disproportionality has been particularly controversial surrounding “zero tolerance” and “one-strike you are out”.

The longevity and severity of the challenge begs the question of why the persistent disproportionality patterns applied to African American students persists. In the face of broad disparities in disciplinary exclusion, questions are raised about the root causes of behavioral problems, the culture of educational environments, and norms that may be consciously or unconsciously more hostile to some groups than others.

System-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS or SWPBS) is a wellestablished systemic and data-driven approach to improving school learning environments. Its emphasis is on changing underlying attitudes and policies concerning how behavior is addressed. The behavior support systems encourage “school connectedness” and “caring and trusting relationships” between teachers and students. Overall, the programs try to increase students’ positive experience of schooling and to move away from a reliance on punitive reactions to misbehavior (Skiba, Lassenet, et al. 2006, Vincent, 2008).

Yet universal approaches to educational practice have frequently been critiqued for not specifically addressing the racial dynamics, economic obstacles or other influences on the racial discipline gap (Goldstein & Noguera, 2006). In fact, one study of an otherwise successfully implemented PBIS system demonstrated that Black and Latino students nevertheless received more severe punishment for the category of minor misbehavior and concluded that one cannot assume that interventions intended to improve behavior will be effective to the same degree for all groups (Losen, 2011).

Overall, the importance of considering culture when implementing these schoolwide models cannot be overemphasized (Townsend, 2000). Large racial differences in suspension rates raise questions about whether training to improve classroom management skills might be more effective for more African American students if it included components of multicultural sensitivity to broaden teachers’ awareness that implicit bias may affect how they discipline their students (Losen, 2011). While explanations for disproportionality vary considerably, a growing body of literature is suggesting that lack of cultural competency and classroom management are especially important factors contributing to disproportionality (Skiba et al, 2006, Texas Appleseed, 2008).

According to the Disproportionality in Disciplinary Action in Public Education Literature Review submitted by Shore Research, Inc. (February 2012), the preponderance of recommendations found in the literature are for educators and policy makers to:

1. develop culturally responsive instructional and classroom management strategies and train teachers in those strategies.
2. develop clear definitions of disproportionality and analyze individual school data to determine if/where disproportionality exists.
3. incorporate disaggregated data systems that are analyzed with culturally competent data analysis; and balance zero tolerance policies
and consideration of students’ intentions for misbehavior.



  • Duncan, A. (2010). Crossing the Next Bridge: Remarks Delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan on the 45th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, Edmund Pettus Bridge. Selma, AL: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved
  • Kim, Y.K., Losen, D.J., & Hewitt, D.T. (2010). The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. New York, NY: New York University Press. 1 (citing National Center for Schools and Communities, (2003). Equity or Exclusion: the Dynamics of Resources, Demographics, and Behavior in the New York City Public Schools. Fordham University,
    available at data/files/EQUITY_OR_EXCLUSION.pdf.).
  • Losen, D.L. & Skiba, R.J. (2010, September). Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Retrieved
  • Daniel J. Losen (2011). Discipline, policies, successful schools, and racial justice. Boulder, CO:
    The Civil Rights Project National Education Policy Center. Retrieved
  • United States Department of Education (2010). Important Changes to Civil Rights Data Collection. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education. Retrieved
  • Vincent, C. (2008). Do Schools Using SWIS Take Advantage of the School Ethnicity Report? OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Retrieved from
  • Zehr, M. (2010, December). Obama administration targets ‘disparate impact’ of school discipline. Education Week, 30(7). Retrieved


  • Bradshaw, C. P., Mitchell, M. M., O’Brennan, L. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Multilevel exploration
    of factors contributing to the overrepresentation of Black students in office disciplinary
    referrals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(2), 508-520, 514
  • Lassenet, S.R. et al. (2006).The relationship of school-wide positive behavior support to
    academic achievement in an urban middle school. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 701-712.
  • Minow, M. (2010). In Brown’s Wake: Legacies of America’s Educational Landmark, (pp. 69-
    79). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Noguera, P.A. (2001). Finding safety where we least expect it: the role of social capital. In W.
    Ayers, B. Dohrn, & R. Ayers, (Eds.). Preventing School Violence, in Zero Tolerance: Resisting
    the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools (pp. 204-205).New York, NY: The New Press.
  • Shore Research, Inc ( 2012). Disproportionality in disciplinary action in public education
    literature review (pp. 1-15). Austin, TX: Shore Research Inc.
  • Skiba, R.J., Horner, R.H., Chung, C, Rauch, K.M., May, S.L., and Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not
    neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school
    discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85-107.
  • Townsend, B. L. (2000). The disproportionatediscipline of African American learners:
    Reducing school suspension and expulsion. Exceptional Children, 66(3), 381-391



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