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School Discipline and the OCR Data

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In March, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released its first reporting of school-level data since 2006, for the school year of 2009-10.  This data included statistics related to school discipline, grade retention, teacher quality/equity, gifted and talented program enrollment, and academic course access.  The numbers were not good for the nation’s Black and Latino students and this surely was not a surprise to many education experts who have been looking at the academic achievement gap for years.  What was surprising, however, was the disparity in the rates of discipline for Black and Latino students, in relation to their white counterparts.  Here are some of those numbers*:

  • Black students represent 18 percent of students in the data, but represent 46 percent of those students suspended more than once and 39 percent of those expelled.
  • Black and Hispanic students represented more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement.
  • 1 in 5 black boys and more than 1 in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension.
  • In districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.
  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.
  • Black students represent 21 percent of students with disabilities, but 44 percent of students who were subjected to mechanical restraint.

Overall, Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

The racial disparities evident within the OCR data are similar to those discovered in a report released last year by the Council of State Governments.  The report, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, examined the effect of Texas’ school discipline policies on student performance and juvenile justice involvement.  Of the many findings offered by the report, the most glaring was the finding that African-American students and those with particular learning disabilities were disproportionately suspended or expelled for discretionary offenses related to school conduct codes (e.g., from doodling in a textbook to disrupting class).  Here, school officials had discretion over how discipline policy could be (or should be) enforced.  Conversely, white and Hispanic students were more likely to be suspended or expelled than African-American students for offenses in which state law mandated that school officials remove students from the classroom, such as bringing a firearm to campus or selling illegal drugs.
Many attribute the disproportionate numbers to the over-policing of schools (especially urban schools) and the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies.  The numbers also suggest that current policies are costly and counterintuitive.  A study conducted by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that while New York City overly-invests in the policing of schools that are disproportionately low-income, Black and Latino, these schools are also under-resourced in fundamental areas of academic learning and enrichment.  According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), at the start of the 2008-2009 school year there were 5,055 school safety agents (SSAs) and 191 armed police officers in NYC’s public schools, making NYPD’s School Safety Division the fifth largest police force in the country.  Similar research also shows that current practices do not improve student’s behavior but rather increase the probability that the student becomes incarcerated, commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sadly, expulsion and suspension rates are extremely high for all students on a national scale, but are far more prevalent for students of color.  Researchers, including Michael Thompson of the Council of State Governments, assert that “97 percent of suspensions [in Texas] were discretionary and that suspension rates might say as much about administrators’ discipline philosophy as about the student behavior.”  Efforts, however, have been made to take a more positive approach to discipline.  The Student Safety Act, passed in late 2010 by the New York City Council, seeks to create accountability and transparency over police behavior and disciplinary policies in schools by requiring the New York City Department of Education and the New York City Police Department to report to the City Council on the numbers of suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and student-police altercations in schools.  Much like the USDOE’s OCR data, the city council can then track and monitor whether discipline is being enforced fairly and constructively for all students.

Many advocacy and philanthropic organizations are committed nationally toward ending zero-tolerance school policies and the school-to-prison pipeline.  Programs designed and promoted by the national Dignity in Schools Campaign and its constituent organizations are transitioning toward taking a more positive and preventative approach in disciplining students.  One of the alternative methods being piloted in a number of schools across the country is the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system.  PBIS is a school-wide system for creating positive climates by training staff in classroom management techniques to recognize and reward positive student behavior, implementing positive interventions when disciplinary issues occur, and using data to monitor and improve discipline policies.  Research at schools in Illinois, Florida, and California show validity in the system as there were reductions in suspensions, as well as improved academic outcomes.

Safety is a critical part of a school’s success.  Every student also deserves a quality opportunity to learn and it is apparent that many are not getting a fair chance due to punitive policies like zero-tolerance.  The Black Male Donor Collaborative understands the gravity of this crisis and is invested in improving the suspension rates and ultimately the achievement gap.  Hopefully, the outcries by students, parents, and advocacy groups will resonate and compel action nationwide.

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^ “Civil Rights Data Show Retention Disparities,” Caralee J. Adams , Erik W. Robelen and Nirvi Shah. Ed Week, March 6, 2012:

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