Unfinished Business

Closing the School Discipline Gap: From Research to Action

By Gabriella Ramel, a Spring 2013 intern at The Leadership Conference Education Fund

At a conference on “Closing the School Discipline Gap” held last week at the Gallup world headquarters in Washington, D.C., researchers, civil rights advocates, and educators gathered to present recent research concerning the role of zero-tolerance policies and other exclusionary discipline practices in schools, and the damaging effect they are having on students.

Zero-tolerance practices include using across-the-board disciplinary measures on every student, regardless of the severity of the offense. The emphasis of the conference was on suspension and expulsion school policies.

Research presented throughout the day, demonstrated the inefficacy of zero-tolerance practices, as well as the disparate impact these policies have on students of color and students with disabilities. Due to this type of punishment, nearly 1 in every 3 youths is suspended in his or her academic career, according to Tracey Schollenberger’s findings on “Racial Disparities in School Suspensions and Subsequent Outcomes: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997.” Even more alarming, according to Dan Losen of The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, one in four Black students with disabilities nationwide was suspended in 2009-2010.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, presented further evidence of these disparities from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection: Black students 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers; students with disabilities 2 times more likely to receive one or more suspensions than other students; and 70 percent of students arrested and referred to law enforcement for disciplinary problems being Black or Latino.

“The data from these reports suggest that we’ve created a new discriminatory system that uses zero tolerance policies, including out of school suspensions, to make race one of the most significant factors affecting whether or not a child will have access to a quality K-12 education, graduate from high school, avoid the juvenile justice systems and go on to post-secondary education,” said Henderson, who also made a call for a moratorium on suspensions and suggested that awareness and action need to become the top priorities for policy makers today.

There is little evidence supporting the continued use of zero-tolerance practices, and there are a variety of recommended solutions to the issue of discipline in schools. Each presenter called for the recognition of districts with high rates of suspensions and expulsions, otherwise known as “hot spots,” in order to determine what is going wrong and what can be changed at the school level. Most importantly, awareness begins with reporting. Tim Hodges of the Gallup Center created an acronym to describe the necessary steps of transparent and effective process to achieve greater public awareness on the issue, entitled DUPA: Disaggregated Data, Universally collected, Publicly reported, Annually.

Without knowledge of the effect of zero-tolerance on the youth of our country, we risk repeating the mistakes for generations to come.