Reducing Disparities and Promoting Equity in School Discipline

Justice System Reform

The State Constitution and U.S. Constitution guarantee students in North Carolina public schools equal protection under of the laws. Moreover, under federal civil rights laws, North Carolina public school students have a right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex, and disability. Yet Black students, male students, and students with disabilities are disproportionately pushed out of the state’s public schools and on a path toward the juvenile and criminal systems — a phenomenon known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

For years, North Carolina public schools have had huge disparities in the various ways they discipline students. For example, during the 2011-12school year, the short-term suspension rate for Black students was 4.2 greater than the rate for White students. The disparities were even greater for Black, female students, who were suspended at 5.7 times the rate of White, female students. Students with disabilities were 14% of the total student population but received 25% of short-term suspensions. Male students were approximately half of the total student population but received nearly three-quarters of suspensions. Black students were 26.3% of the total student population, but received 66.5% of the placements in alternative learning programs and a hugely disparate share of school-based delinquency complaints. Neither districts nor the state publishes any data on disparities for economically disadvantaged and LGBT students, but national data and anecdotal evidence suggest that these students are also disproportionately pushed out of school. Some North Carolina school districts — including Durham, Wake (not once but twice), and Wilson — have already been the targets of federal civil rights complaints and investigations.

Fortunately, there is new guidance available for North Carolina’s education leaders.

In January 2014, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released a school discipline guidance package, which contains:

  • A “Dear Colleague Letter” that describes how schools can meet their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin;
  • A “Guiding Principles” document that draws from emerging research and best practices to describe three key principles and related action steps that can help guide state- and locally-controlled efforts to improve school climate and school discipline;
  • A compendium of school discipline laws and regulations; and
  • An outline of recent federal efforts on these issues through the interagency Supportive School Discipline Initiative.

The Departments made clear that:

  • Research suggests that the substantial racial disparities in school discipline are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color;
  • Schools are safer when all students feel comfortable and are engaged in the school community;
  • School districts cannot administer school discipline in a manner that discriminates against students on the basis of race, national origin, sex, or disability; and
  • Schools are obligated to avoid and redress discrimination in the administration of school discipline.

Then, early this month, the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative released a series of papers that identify promising methods of addressing disparities in school discipline. The Collaborative, launched in 2011 through The Equity Project at Indiana University with funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations, is a group of 26 nationally recognized experts from the social science, education and legal fields. The Collaborative’s key findings include:

  • Students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT students are at higher risk for suspension and expulsion;
  • There is no evidence that use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion is due to poverty or higher rates of misbehavior among students of color;
  • Students of color are removed from school for similar or lesser offenses compared to their peers;
  • Out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and school-based arrests place students who are disproportionately represented at increased risk of a variety of negative school and life outcomes, including academic disengagement, dropout, and incarceration;
  • Schools can prevent or reduce excessive exclusion and disparities in discipline through school climates that establish supportive relationships, promote academic rigor and support for all students, provide high-level learning opportunities, engage in teaching that responds and connects to students’ real lives, and create inclusive and fair classrooms;
  • There are effective and promising alternatives to exclusionary discipline and interventions that can reduce racial disparity (e.g., My Teaching Partner, Restorative Practices, Social and Emotional Learning programs, and the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines); and
  • Policymakers should require states and districts to publicly report disaggregated data annually.

Some North Carolina school districts have begun addressing racial disparities in school discipline. Guilford County Schools launched an African-American Male Initiative after examining racial disparities in school discipline. As part of its district priorities and long-range plan, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is conducting a review of its current discipline protocols and procedures with a focus on the disproportionate representation of minor groups.

All North Carolina school district leaders who want to promote equity, increase student achievement, strengthen public education, avoid being subject to legal action, and fulfill their ethical obligations to all students would be well served to carefully study and put into practice the guidance from the Departments and Collaborative. The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) should assist school districts in implementing the new guidance and improve its own school discipline data collection and publication. Finally, the General Assembly should provide DPI and school districts with desperately needed funding to prevent misbehavior, provide positive and productive interventions and alternatives when misbehavior occurs, and reduce discipline disparities.

Jason Langberg is a member of Youth Justice North Carolina’s Board of Directors.