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New National Data Shows Racial Disparities in School Discipline

By Michael Harris

Newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals disturbing racial disparities in school discipline. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) finds youth of color not only face harsher discipline than White students, they are more often referred to law enforcement, and are more likely to be taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.1 These new data from 2009 and 2010 confirm that the way in which youth of color, especially Black youth, are disciplined in schools is excessive and counterproductive. These findings have great significance because there are profound collateral consequences for youth who are subjected to forms of discipline, such as suspension and expulsion that exclude them from opportunities to learn.

The new data are incredibly comprehensive, coming from surveys completed by 72,000 schools, which cover 85 percent of students nationwide. The data reveal that while Black students make up only 18 percent of the student population in the surveyed schools, they compose 35 percent of the students suspended at least once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of those expelled from school. Black students were more than three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled as White students.

These numbers should be viewed in a larger context. There has been an explosion in the use of exclusionary discipline – a term generally referring to expulsion or out of school suspension – since the early 1970s. For example, from the early 1970s to 2006, suspension rates in general at least doubled, and the racial gap in suspension rates increased as well.2 Over the same time period, Blacks became three times more likely than Whites to be suspended.3 Frequently suspensions were for minor misbehaviors, the type that in earlier eras would have been resolved at the school.4

Collateral Consequences of Exclusionary Discipline

When students are excluded from the learning environment a range of negative consequences follow them. Students who are given out-of–school suspension or expelled fall behind their peers in their academic work because they are no longer getting classroom instruction. Research confirms what seems obvious: over the long term, suspended and expelled students do worse academically.5 A recent comprehensive research study found that students subjected to exclusionary discipline had increased school drop out rates,6 and were more likely to have later contact with the juvenile justice system, particularly if they were disciplined multiple times.7

Educators often claim that these tragic effects are necessary to maintain an educational environment that is conducive to learning. However, there is no evidence to support the presumption that removing disruptive students from the classroom improves the school climate or academic outcomes for the remaining students.8 Indeed, schools with higher rates of suspension and expulsion have been shown to do worse on a number of school climate indicators. More importantly, they also show a negative relationship with school-wide academic achievement (while controlling for demographics and socioeconomic status).9 The primary reason for the explosion in the use of exclusionary discipline is the broad adoption of zero tolerance discipline polices.

Zero Tolerance Policies

Zero-tolerance is a policy of punishing any breach of a rule, regardless of how minor or whether there are extenuating circumstances. However, implementation varies. Most zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of drugs or a weapon. Students who possess a banned item for any reason must always be punished. There is no way to know how many school districts utilize zero tolerance because it has many characterizations, but there is no doubt that its use is wide spread. For the schools that completed the CRDC survey and reported on expulsions under zero-tolerance polices, Black and Hispanic students were 56 percent of those expelled while they constituted only 45 percent of the students in those schools. Further, there are no data supporting the often-stated belief that Black students have higher rates of disruption or violence than other students.10 Thus, while zero tolerance has been sold as a way to increase fairness and reduce racial disparities in discipline, it has not had either result in practice.

Dramatic, highly publicized, but extremely rare events caused zero tolerance policies to be widely adopted in schools in the early 1990s. This was a classic example of policy by anecdote: implementing a policy not based on analysis of data but because a news story is broadly covered and compels some policy response. Despite perceptions to the contrary, there is no crisis of violence happening in schools. In fact, since about 1985 incidents of critical or deadly violence have remained small and have been stable. School violence, generally, and disruption, in particular, have remained stable or even decreased.11 Thus, even from the very beginning, this widely adopted policy that can have profound consequences for students was never justified by the facts.

Zero tolerance policies often call for teachers and administrators to refer students to law enforcement (who are often based on campus) rather than have education personnel resolve the matters. Referred students are then frequently arrested for minor school misbehavior. The CRDC data show that more than 70 percent of students involved in school related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino despite comprising only 42 percent of the enrollment sample. This phenomenon is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline because youth who are suspended or expelled are more likely to go into the juvenile justice system12, and once in the juvenile justice system they are more likely to go to prison.

Students of Color Attend Schools With More Inexperienced and Lower Paid Teachers

The CRDC data show that within diverse districts, schools serving the most Black and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to employ teachers who are in their first or second year as teachers. Additionally, teachers in elementary schools serving the most Black and Latino students are paid an average of $2,251 less per year than their peers in other schools in the same district who serve the fewest Black and Latino students.

Revamped CRDC Website is Tool for Students, Parents, and Advocates

The Department of Education collected data from a national survey of schools every two years until 2006, when the Bush administration discontinued the practice. The survey was resumed by the Obama administration in 2009. With the release of the data gathered by the resumed survey for 2009 and 2010, one can now search the data by school district or even by individual school. The data is more detailed; it is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, English language learner status, sex, and disability. This gives students, parents and advocates a great resource to combat the unfair use of discipline, zero tolerance or a number of other practices.

NCYL’S Work on School Discipline

NCYL is currently working on school discipline issues in Texas and Arkansas. In Texas, along with our partners Texas Appleseed and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, we are challenging racial disparities in the imposition of school discipline through complaints to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.13 With Texas Appleseed and other advocates we are also working to end the practice of issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets for minor misbehavior in school. These tickets can result in fines as high as $500 and can also end up permanently on the young person’s record because the cases are heard in courts of general jurisdiction rather than juvenile court. In Arkansas, NCYL has been working with schools, probation, lawyers, judges, students, and other stakeholders in Craighead County to reduce school-based arrests, and to collaboratively develop school polices that use positive (rather than punitive) approaches to discipline and use restorative practices to address student misbehavior.

Michael Harris is a Senior Attorney at NCYL specializing in juvenile justice reform.  Michael has worked for many years to reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system using collaborative processes to effect system reform. 

  1. CRDC data can be viewed at
  2. Daniel J. Losen & Russell Skiba, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis 2-3 (2010).
  3. Id.
  4. Robin L. Dahlberg, Arrested Futures: The Criminalization of School Discipline in Massachusetts’ Three Largest School Districts 9 (2012).
  5. Russell Skiba & M. Karega Rausch, Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, The Relationship Between Achievement, Discipline, and Race: An Analysis of Factors Predicting ISTEP Scores 3 (2004).
  6. Tony Fabelo, et al., The Council of State Governments Justice Center, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement 55 (2011).
  7. Id.
  8. Losen, supra, note 1, at 10.
  9. American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations, American Psychologist, Vol. 63, No. 9, 854 (December 2008).
  10. Id.
  11. Id., note 8, at 853.
  12. Fabelo, supra, note 5 at 61.
  13. These are brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.