New studies examine underlying causes of disproportionate discipline

State and district efforts to limit the use of suspensions for minor infractions and adopt nonpunitive strategies such as restorative justice have helped to reduce the overall out-of-school suspension rate from 6.9 percent in 2010 to 3.8 percent in 2018.

Yet African American students, who comprised 15 percent of public school enrollment in the U.S., accounted for 38 percent of total suspensions, according to the 2017–18 Civil Rights Data Collection.

“The good news is that there has been much progress in recent years,” explained Jing Liu, assistant professor of Education Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park and co-author of a new series of reports that explore the referral-to-suspension process to aid local educational agencies in developing programs and policies to reduce disciplinary rates and disparities.

“Despite these positive changes, however, racial disproportionality in school discipline persists. A close look at research articles and policy debates on this topic suggests that researchers and policymakers have been almost exclusively focusing on the end result of discipline — suspensions,” he continued. “In contrast, little attention has been given to the referral and reporting process that precedes the decision of whether, and for how long, to suspend a student. Educators have a great deal of autonomy about whether and how to respond to undesired student behaviors. It is these ‘moment-by-moment’ interactions that ultimately lead to the observed racial disparities in school discipline.”

Liu and his colleagues examined administrative data from the 2016–17 academic year to 2019–20 provided by “a large and demographically diverse urban school district” in California. The data contained detailed information on all disciplinary referrals, regardless of whether they ultimately led to a suspension, as well as the individual who made and received the referral, the reason for the referral, and the exact time, date and location of the incident.

As a result, Liu said, researchers were able to gain a fuller picture of how racial disparities in school discipline emerge.

Key findings

The racial gap in suspensions is partly due to underlying differences in the frequency of disciplinary referrals, according to the first study of this series, which showed that Black students were more than twice as likely to have received at least one disciplinary referral as their white peers in the same school. And once referred, African American students were about two percentage points more likely to be suspended than white students involved in the exact same incident even if they had the same prior disciplinary histories, according to the report.

The second study examines teachers’ referring behavior and its association with racial disciplinary gaps. Researchers found that a small number of teachers account for a large share of the overall disciplinary referrals and suspensions. While about 50 percent of teachers in the sample issued up to five referrals per year, the top 5 percent of referrers issued more than 45 referrals per year — roughly one referral every four school days. These “top referrers” also effectively doubled the Black-white, Hispanic-white, and multiracial/other-white referral gaps, often issuing referrals for interpersonal offenses and defiance, which researchers noted are considered more subjective than other referral reasons such as violence.

In the third study, researchers sought to figure out if having a teacher of the same race affected a student’s likelihood of receiving a disciplinary referral. Consistent with prior studies, the probability of receiving at least one referral was significantly lower among Black students when they had a Black teacher. Additionally, newer teachers were more likely than their senior colleagues to refer students.

Findings from the three studies combined suggest a multifaceted approach is needed to reduce racial disciplinary disparities, Liu concluded.

“Reducing such disparities would require addressing both underlying gaps in disciplinary referrals and systematic biases in the adjudication process,” he said. “Given the outsized influence of a small group of teacher referrers, understanding the specific contexts where ‘top referrers’ serve and the specific challenges and needs they might have would provide a tangible approach to reducing their extensive referring behavior.”