David Hinojosa, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2016 •

From a recent social media post showing a young high school girl being flung across the floor by a school resource officer (Ford, et al., 2015) to national reports of stark racial disparities in suspension rates, school discipline has resurfaced as a critical civil rights educational issue. Importantly, these events have forced many school boards, leaders and communities to take a second look at the systemic issues underlying poor disciplinary practices and the antiquated, ineffective policies around them.

Many of those ineffective policies stem from the adoption of zero tolerance measures over two decades ago (National Summit on Zero Tolerance, 2000). These policies initially targeted very specific, serious offenses involving weapons, drugs and acts of extreme violence. But they soon grew to include a number of minor, non-threatening offenses (Kang-Brown, et al., 2013). Not surprisingly, the proliferation of zero tolerance policies led to a spike in disciplinary actions, including suspensions.

In a 2015 report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, researchers found that “nearly 3.5 million public school students were suspended out of school at least once in 2011-12” (Losen, et al., 2015). This resulted in a loss of learning time estimated at 18 million days of instruction.

Even among discretionary offenses, a 2011 Texas study found that far fewer White male students (59 percent) had at least one discretionary violation compared to African American male students (83 percent) and Latino male students (74 percent). Similarly, 37 percent of White female students had at least one such violation compared to 70 percent of African American female students and 58 percent of Hispanic female students. (Fabelo, et al., 2011).

IDRA’s South Central Collaborative for Equity – one of 10 federally-funded regional equity assistance centers – has assisted several schools in formulating more equitable student disciplinary policies and practices. Our experience shows that policies starting at the state level and continuing through to board policies, student codes of conducts and handbooks, and teacher manuals set the tone for student discipline (Cortez, 2009).

 eBook: Resources on Student Discipline Policy and Practice

Factors that Lead to Unfair Discipline

When policies are vague, they give neither the educators nor the students sufficient notice of the expectations. When policies allow for discretionary referrals with a range of consequences, they often are not monitored and result in disproportionate offenses among racial groups. When policies governing the processes of disciplinary referrals are insufficient (such as very short timelines for contesting disciplinary actions), they can engender an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity among students of color – who are often the targets of discipline – which can lead to further disciplinary issues.

Research also suggests that the over-identification of students of color for disciplinary action may result from educators wrongly and unfairly disciplining minority students based on educators’ implicit biases (Staats, 2014). In simple terms, implicit bias refers to “embedded stereotypes that heavily influence our decision-making without our conscious knowledge” (Godsil, et al., 2014), and virtually all people carry them. Typically, these are not biases we are consciously aware of and try to hide, but instead, are unconscious biases we hold that are likely fueled by stereotypes perpetrated in the media or beliefs passed along by parents, peers and other community members (Flannery, 2015).

For example, a White teacher may perceive a Black student’s excited, inquisitive responses to a question as insubordination because the teacher unconsciously perceives the student as trying to disrupt the class. The teacher may then refer the student to the office, and such discretionary referrals can end up resulting in school suspension.

Teachers may also have lower expectations for students of color, leading to less praise and more disciplinary action from teachers (Rudd, 2014).

Reducing the Impact of Bias

The impact of these biases can be mitigated. First, teachers must become aware of their own biases (Flannery, 2015). In terms of discipline, a teacher can review his or her own referral records to determine racial disproportionalities, especially in terms of discretionary referrals. There also are tests available to help identify biases, such as Project Implicit’s Hidden Bias Tests (2011).

Next, a teacher should reflect on his or her internal practices by asking questions, such as: “Who do I call on and how often?” “How do I seat students or group them?” “Do I truly value the differences among my students and if so, how?” “Do I have the same expectations for all my students?” (Flannery, 2015).

Affirmatively countering negative stereotypes that sustain biases with more accurate facts and perceptions can help lessen the influence of implicit bias (Flannery, 2015).

Racial disproportionality in student discipline and suspension must be addressed both at the policy and practice levels due to the substantial impact on student learning and social and emotional development. (Schools also should ensure their policies do not target students based on their disability, religious preference, and sex or gender.) Suspensions have been correlated to poor student outcomes, including decreased student achievement, lower graduation rates, higher dropout rates, suppressed student engagement, and future disciplinary exclusion (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Contrary to popular belief, research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics, such as socioeconomic status” (APA, 2008).

Schools have the task of maintaining order and safety in the classroom while ensuring that all students learn and achieve. While it is no easy task, schools can begin to take steps or renew efforts in evaluating and correcting their student disciplinary policies and practices by committing to do the following, non-exhaustive actions (U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, 2014).

  • Examine disaggregated data by racial, gender, language, and disability subgroups at the teacher, grade, school and school district levels.
  • Examine each type of discipline referral at the teacher, grade, school and school district levels.
  • Examine data for students found to have been disciplined more than once to detect any patterns.
  • If certain data are missing or not available, take steps to begin properly recording and maintaining the data.
  • Create a task force that includes students, parents, teachers, counselors, support staff, administrators, board members, community members, and school resource/law enforcement officers (if required to assist with student discipline) to examine the data, school discipline policies, and supports and interventions.
  • Survey students, teachers, counselors, support staff and the community about school climate.
  • Conduct public hearings on the findings of the task force.
  • Ensure school discipline policies and expectations are clear, fair and equitable for all students and student groups and that policies are founded on restorative justice and positive behavioral intervention support principles.
  • Reduce the loss of learning time by limiting school suspensions to the most extreme behaviors and actions, such as inflicting serious bodily harm and possession of illegal weapons and illegal drugs that are accompanied by intent.
  • Create a plan to improve student-teacher and teacher-parent communications and relationships.
  • Develop a training and information program for students and community members that explains the school discipline policies and student expectations in an age appropriate, easily understood manner.
  • Provide training on implementing discipline policies in a nondiscriminatory manner and classroom management for all support staff, teachers, counselors, and administrators.
  • Provide high quality training to teachers, support staff, counselors, and administrators on detecting implicit bias, developing cultural competency, and becoming aware of civil rights laws and federal guidance related to fair and effective school discipline.
  • Consistently monitor and evaluate the implementation and impact of disciplinary practices to identify areas needing improvement and to ensure nondiscriminatory and equitable practices and policies are at work.
  • At least annually, conduct a forum that provides students, support staff, teachers, counselors, and administrators the opportunity to discuss matters relating to discipline and provide input on the school’s policies.

State leaders also can revisit their laws and regulations to ensure they are not explicitly or implicitly requiring, perpetuating or authorizing school discipline policies that result in unfair and racially disproportionate policies. Several resources are available to assist states and school districts, including IDRA’s South Central Collaborative for Equity, regional equity assistance centers in your area, and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

David Hinojosa, J.D., is IDRA‘s National Director of Policy and Director of South Central Collaborative for Equity. comments and questions may be directed to him via email at david.hinojosa@idra.org.


American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations,” American Psychologist (December 2008).

Cortez, A. Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – A 2009 Update (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

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

Flannery, M.E. “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations,” NEA Today (September 9, 2015).

Ford, D., & G. Botelho, K. Conlon. “Spring Valley High School officer suspended after violent classroom arrest,” CNN (October 27, 2015).

Godsil, R., & L.R. Tropp, P.A. Goff, J.A. Powell. The Science of Equality, Volume 1: Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety and Stereotype Threat in Education and Healthcare (Perception Institute, November 2014).

Kang-Brown, J., & J. Trone, J. Fratello, T. Daftary-Kapur. A Generation Later: What We’ve Learned about Zero Tolerance in Schools, Issue Brief (New York, N.Y.: Vera Institute of Justice, December 2013).

Losen, D., & C. Hodson, M.A. Keith, K. Morrison, S. Belway. Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? (Los Angeles, Calif.: Center for Civil Rights Remedies, February 2015).

National Summit on Zero Tolerance. Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies (Washington, D.C.: The Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project, June 1, 2000).

Project Implicit. Hidden Bias Tests (2011).

Rudd, T. Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline: Implicit Bias is Heavily Implicated (Columbus, Ohio: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, February 2014).

Staats, C. Implicit Racial Bias and School Discipline Disparities: Exploring the Connection (Columbus, Ohio: Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, May 2014).

U.S. Department of Education. School Climate and Discipline: Suspension 101 (October 15, 2015).

U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. Dear Colleague Letter: Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline (January 8, 2014).

eBook: Resources on Student Discipline Policy and Practice

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2016 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.]