Transformative, Evidence-Based Ideas

Closing the Discipline Gap

In the wake of the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown and the mass demonstrations that followed, community leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, are working to address years of racial injustice in their city and surrounding areas. Among their calls to action: change how area schools handle student suspensions and expulsions.

disciplined student

Why would changing school discipline rank among the reforms recommended for a city where the most egregious injustice has played out in law enforcement and the court system? In a recent NPR story, Reverend Starsky Wilson, the co-chairman of the group of leaders known as the Ferguson Committee, explained:

The perception of our police is the same as many teachers who see young black men, particularly, as older than they actually are, as more dangerous than they present. And then they treat them differently with their use of consequences. So in the classroom, it’s out-of-school suspensions, and on the street, it’s extrajudicial killings.

That’s a stark statement, but the link between getting into trouble in and out of school is a reality for many students, so much so that people refer to a “school-to-prison pipeline” that moves students from school into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Sadly, our recent report on urban public schools only underscores the discipline problem we have in this country. We found that black students in the 50 cities we studied were, on average, nearly twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as white students. In every city except for one—Baton Rouge—black students were suspended at higher rates than white students.

This discipline gap isn’t news (for example, see here and here). The question is, what can be done about it?

Our report is not designed to answer that question, but it does offer clues. Consider, for example, what we found in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, the overall out-of-school suspension rate was 4 percent (2011-2012). For a large city, that’s relatively low. (By comparison, the overall rate in Miami during that same time period was 10 percent). But even more striking, we also found a relatively small discipline gap between black students and white students in Los Angeles: black students were 4 percentage points more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white students (LA was also one of only a few cities in which Hispanic students were less likely than white students to be suspended). The rates in some other cities were higher: in Miami, for example, the black-white gap was 16 percentage points; in Milwaukee, it was 12 percentage points.

Why is the suspension rate in Los Angeles lower than most other cities we looked at? One possible explanation is the multi-year effort by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to reduce exclusionary discipline in schools. Beginning in 2007, LAUSD called on all schools to design and implement a school-wide positive behavior support system for students.

Over the time these reforms took place (2007-2012), overall suspension rates in LAUSD fell by more than two-thirds and the black-white discipline gap fell by more than half. In 2000, almost 7 percent of all students in LAUSD received at least one out-of-school suspension; the black-white gap was around 9 percentage points. By 2012, the overall rate dropped to just 2 percent and the black-white gap dropped to 3 percentage points.

Not satisfied with these improvements, in 2013 LAUSD deepened their reform efforts with the School Discipline and School Climate Bill of Rights Resolution that did four things:

  1. Eliminated suspensions for “willful defiance.”
  2. Introduced restorative justice and other strategies for resolving conflict.
  3. Committed the district to training educators in new models of discipline.
  4. Committed the district to reporting suspension and expulsion data to the public.

Our report was not designed to analyze the impact of any specific reform strategy. Therefore, we are not able to conclude that LAUSD’s reforms are the reason they made progress on reducing exclusionary discipline or its disproportionate impact on students of color. And news reports like this and this describing the new demands on, and need to support, teachers in these new expectations shows that crafting policy is just the first step toward meaningful improvement for students and that training geared toward the new approach to discipline is an important component of effective implementation.

But what our results do show is that districts can make progress on this important issue. As leaders in Ferguson and other cities look for ways to improve school discipline, our data suggest that some cities, like Los Angeles and elsewhere, will have important insights into potentially valuable policy strategies, as well as their limitations.

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