Disproportionality and Bias in School Discipline

Note: This information is from our manual, Discipline in Public Schools.

Disproportionality and Bias in School Discipline

Over the years, discipline data have shown persistent disparities in how often schools suspend students of different racial, ethnic, disability, gender, and socio-economic groups. Researchers continue to try to pin down what causes these disparities, and how to reduce or eliminate them. 

Researchers have considered whether differences in exposure to poverty or income levels might explain the disparities by race, but have found that disparities remain even when controlling for other factors. One recent study found that higher rates of explicit racial bias in a broader community correlated to higher rates of racial disparities in school discipline. Researchers have looked at how disparities increase for students who are disciplined more than once. Researchers have looked at how implicit racial bias might influence teachers’ perceptions of students’ behavior, and whether negative stereotypes based on race lead to more frequent or more severe discipline. One recent study found that race played a factor in whether teachers perceived two separate instances of misbehavior as a pattern and indication of future problems, or as simply two instances of minor misbehavior.  

These issues are complex. Getting to a single, clear answer about what causes the persistent disparities in school discipline may not be possible. However, the harmful effects of exclusionary discipline and their disparate impacts are clear.

Fortunately, each school community has opportunity to take a close look at its own practices, by using data and gathering input and perspectives from multiple sources, to try to identify and address root causes of disparities in their own discipline practices. 

In every case of school discipline, someone is making a decision about what a student did, how serious it was, and what kind of response is appropriate.  They are often making these decisions while also fulfilling other responsibilities, and often without complete information.

At each decision point, there is a risk that decisions may be influenced by bias and stereotypes. In each individual case of student discipline, the informal conferences, formal appeals processes, and reengagement planning meetings offer opportunities for raising and considering concerns of bias in the discipline decisions.

What can I do if I feel like a discipline decision about my child was discriminatory or biased?

You can raise concerns of bias in a discipline appeal hearing for a long-term suspension or expulsion, or during an informal conference with the principal.

There are also options for raising formal or informal complaints of discrimination under a district’s nondiscrimination policy and procedure. You can find information about dispute resolution options for discrimination complaints, appeals to OSPI, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights complaint process at OSPI’s Equity & Civil Rights Office webpage, here: https://ospi.k12.wa.us/policy-funding/equity-and-civil-rights/complaints-and-concerns-about-discrimination.

You can also find a brief toolkit on Discrimination on our website, here: https://www.oeo.wa.gov/en/about-us/publications-and-resources-families.

If you would like to talk through options or get support in raising concerns about discrimination in student discipline, you can reach out to our office. You can call us at 1-866-297-2597 or submit an online intake at: https://services.oeo.wa.gov/oeo.

Help Uncover Root Causes of Disparities in Discipline

Washington state law requires districts to regularly review their discipline data to check for disparities and consider why they are happening.

Data Equity Teams:

Districts are encouraged to bring together data equity teams to do the data review and analysis. Data teams try to identify “root causes” of the disparate outcomes. Inviting people with different perspectives, and different roles in discipline processes, to participate in those teams can help open up the root cause inquiry.

Check in with your district to see if there is an active data equity team. If so, does it include classroom teachers, building principals, district administrators, parents, students, school counselors, community partners, and others who might bring different insights and perspectives to the work? Do you have the time to volunteer to join the data equity team? Or to participate in a data meeting or data review?

Looking at Decision-Points and Patterns in Schools and Districts’ Discipline Rates

Looking at multiple data points can help a team identify possible factors contributing to disparate outcomes.

Data teams often look at data showing how often different student groups are disciplined, and for what reasons. For example, they often compare discipline rates for students of color versus white students, or students with disabilities versus students without. These comparisons, and others that look at differences in how often, for what reasons, and for how long, students are suspended, can help a team focus its attention to look for root causes. At the same time, however, looking at discipline data only from this angle carries risks.

A data team looking only at overall data for a school or district on how often students of a certain group are excluded may miss variations in how often different educators or different schools rely on classroom exclusions or suspensions.

Research in other contexts has also cautioned that repeatedly highlighting disparities based on race can actually re-inforce negative stereotypes and biases against the individuals reflected in that data.

Data teams should also look for data that can help illuminate variations at the different decision points in student discipline, including at the classroom, school and district levels.

Other questions a data equity team might ask include:

  • How do different schools in the district compare with regard to their rates of suspension or expulsion? The types of offenses that lead to discipline? How long students are removed from class or school?
  • What types of offenses most frequently lead to discipline?
  • Are there some classes, some activities, times of the day, or times of the year when disciplinary referrals spike up or down?

These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions a data team might consider in the process of trying to identify root causes of disparate outcomes.    

If you are interested in participating in your school or district’s discipline data review process, reach out to your school or district office to see how you can participate.

If you want to take a look at the data for your school or district, look at the OSPI’s Report Card webpages: https://washingtonstatereportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/, or contact your school or district directly to ask for data.