• by Daryl V. Williams, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2019 •

No student group is more or less likely to misbehave (NAACP LDF, 2017; Fabelo, et al., 2011). But Black male students are punished more often and more severely in our nation’s schools. While only representing 8% of public school students, Black males account for 25% of students receiving out-of-school suspensions and 23% of students expelled (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). From office referrals to suspensions and expulsions, the most substantive impact of school discipline is on Black males (Anyon, et al., 2014).

For instance, Black male students are more likely than their White peers to receive an office referral for mild behaviors, such as disrespect, excessive noise and insubordination (Gregory & Weinstein, 2008; Skiba, et al., 2002). Interpretation of these behaviors is subjective, meaning educators and administrators perceive them to be more or less serious depending on the identity of the student. In addition, many educators have the common misperception that exclusionary discipline deters inappropriate behavior.

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that schools with higher rates of suspensions have “substantial negative long-run impacts” in educational attainment and in the criminal justice system. These negative effects are more pronounced for males and people of color. (Bacher-Hicks, et al., 2019)

The use of suspension and expulsion in school discipline results in reduced instructional time and negatively impacts students’ academic performance (NAACP LDF, 2017; Morris & Perry, 2016). IDRA’s study in 2016 found that zero tolerance discipline policies in Texas likely contributed to high attrition rates of Black students and Hispanic students (Johnson, 2016).

Additional studies show the significant linkages between suspension and expulsion and justice system contact leading Black males into the school-to-prison pipeline (Fabelo, et al., 2011; Jagger, et al., 2016; Monahan, et al., 2014; Mowen & Grent, 2016; Wolf & Kupchik, 2017). Schools with high numbers of students of color and males tend to incorporate prison-like features, including police presence, security and surveillance measures, and stringent discipline policies. These schools are less likely to use restorative practices, have sufficient counseling services or mental health supports, or maintain strong community engagement to improve school climate.

School leaders and policymakers should use alternative, non-exclusionary discipline strategies and other actions when addressing behavior among all students, including the following.

Incorporate restorative justice programs to ensure that all students, regardless of race or gender, have equal opportunity to receive appropriate and restorative disciplinary responses.

Change the school climate from a prison-like environment that emphasizes the presence of police and resource officers, surveillance cameras, metal detectors and mandatory zero-tolerance practices into healthy learning and living systems that meet the needs of the whole child through strong school-community partnerships.

Ensure there is a sufficient number of school mental health professionals and counselors to provide necessary supports to students (academically, socially and emotionally).

Expand family and community engagement to open dialogue about joint goals for student success. Family and community members can work in partnership with the school to monitor discipline and other data and to identify strategies.

Review academic and instructional practices that impact the learning environment. Teachers can incorporate differentiated instruction strategies and culturally-responsive pedagogy to spark students’ imaginations and increase engagement in the classroom.

Initiatives such as these are working.

While the rate of out-of-school suspensions for Black males was 25% in 2015-16, this is a decline from 38% in 2013-14.

The IDRA EAC-South works with schools in the U.S. South to address disparities in school discipline. Our assistance builds capacity to increase positive school climates, revise discriminatory student discipline practices, and establish effective family and parent engagement (Johnson, & Velázquez, 2019). More information is available online.


Anyon, Y., Jenson, J.M., Altschul, I., Farrar, J., McQueen, J., Greer, E. Downing, B., & Simmons, J. (2014). “The Persistent Effect of Race and the Promise of Alternatives to Suspension in School Discipline Outcomes,” Children and Youth Services Review, 44, 379-386.

Bacher-Hicks, A., Deming, D., & Billings, S. (2019). The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions on Adult Crime, Working Paper No. 26257. Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M.D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (2011). Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice System Involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Gregory, A., & Weinstein, R.S. (2008). “The Discipline Gap and African Americans: Defiance or Cooperation in the High School Classroom,” Journal of School Psychology, 46, 455-475.

Jagger, J.W., Robinson, S.B., Rhodes, J.L.F., Guan, X., & Church, W.T. (2016). “Predicting Adult Criminality Among Louisiana’s Urban Youth: Poverty, Academic Risk, and Delinquency,” Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 7, 89-116.

Johnson, R. (2016). “Zero Tolerance Policies Likely Contribute to High Attrition Rates of Black Students and Hispanic Students,” Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2015-16. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Johnson, P.N., & Velázquez, J.A. (2019). “Three Approaches for Dismantling Discriminatory Discipline in Schools,” IDRA Newsletter.

Monahan, K.C., VanDerhei, S., Bechtold, J., & Cauffman, E. (2014). “From the School Yard To The Squad Care: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43, 1110-1122.

Morris, E.W., & Perry, B.L. (2016). “The Punishment Gap: School Suspension and Racial Disparities in Achievement,” Social Problems, 63, 68-86.

Mowen, T., & Grent, J. (2016). “School Discipline as a Turning Point: The Cumulative Effect of Suspension on Arrest,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53, 628-653.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (2017). Locked Out of the Classroom: How Implicit Bias Contributes to Disparities in School Discipline. New York, N.Y.: LDF.

Skiba, R.J., Michael, R.S., Nardo, A.C., & Peterson, R.L. (2002). “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment,” The Urban Review, 34, 317-342.

U.S. Department of Education. (2018). School Climate and Safety, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2015-16. Washington, D.C.: Office for Civil Rights.

Wolf, K.C., & Kupchik, A. (2017). “School Suspensions and Adverse Experiences in Adulthood,” Justice Quarterly, 34, 407-430.

Daryl V. Williams, Ed.D., is senior education equity specialist at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. MAEC operates the Center for Education Equity, which is the Region I equity assistance center serving states in the Northeast United States.

[©2019, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2019 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]