Eliminating School Discipline Disparities: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Effectiveness of Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion

Eliminating School Discipline Disparities: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Effectiveness of Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion

Nov 18, 2021
Black students in Maryland were removed from school at more than twice the rate of their peers.
RELevant: Viewpoints and Findings from the REL Mid-Atlantic

Research on school discipline disparities has demonstrated three key trends across the country:

  • Black students are more likely than White students to be referred for disciplinary action for subjective infractions such as disruption or defiance compared to objective infractions such as tardiness or truancy.[1]
  • Black students are more likely than White students to receive harsher consequences for disciplinary infractions, even when committing similar offenses.[2]
  • Discipline disparities are driven by classroom teachers’ decisions to refer a student for disciplinary action and by school administrators’ decisions in response to those referrals.[3] Racial stereotyping can influence these referrals.[4]

This research suggests that school discipline reforms must address decision making and implicit bias at both stages of the disciplinary process. Findings from a Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Mid-Atlantic study on exclusionary discipline (that is, removal from the classroom) in Maryland public schools corroborate these patterns. We partnered with the Maryland State Department of Education to help the state refine its definition and measurement of discipline disparities, use discipline data to identify and deliver technical support to school systems with disproportionately high suspension and expulsion rates, and assess progress toward eliminating those disparities.

There are many preventative strategies and less punitive alternatives to exclusionary discipline that schools can implement such as culturally responsive teaching, behavioral and social-emotional learning interventions, and implicit bias training for school staff. For example:

  • Data-based inquiry with Comprehensive Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (CSTAG). Formerly known as the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, CSTAG is an evidence-based student threat assessment and violence prevention model. It helps schools address behavioral issues such as bullying and teasing before they escalate into violent behavior. School threat assessment teams are trained in a six-hour workshop that prepares them to adopt more empathetic and supportive problem-solving strategies over suspension or law enforcement action.[5]
  • My Teaching Partner-Secondary (MTP-S). MTP-S is an evidence-based intervention that aims to improve teacher–student interactions. MTP-S helps teachers establish clear classroom norms; implement consistent rules; monitor behavior in a proactive way; and develop warm, respectful relationships that honor students' desire for autonomy. With the support of a coach for an entire school year, teachers regularly reflect on video recordings of their classroom instruction and apply the validated Classroom Assessment Scoring System (commonly referred to as CLASS) to improve the quality of their interactions with students.[6]

To what extent have alternative approaches like these reduced discipline disproportionality? A randomized controlled trial found that teachers using the MTP-S intervention issued fewer discipline referrals for Black students.[7] This study places MTP-S in rare company. Although many interventions have been rigorously shown to reduce exclusionary discipline overall, most have not demonstrated that they can reduce disproportionate impact for students of color and students with disabilities. The evidence base shows three noteworthy gaps:

  1. Few alternative interventions explicitly address underlying drivers of discipline disparities, such as implicit bias.[8] The design of evidence-based approaches such as Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and SaferSanerSchools are “color-blind” or “race neutral.” Although such interventions can effectively improve school climate and reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, racial disparities may persist.[9]
  2. Research is inconclusive about the impact of culturally responsive teaching on student behavior.[10]
  3. Few intervention studies disaggregate outcomes by student subgroup and so cannot draw conclusions about the impact of those interventions on reducing disparities.[11]

The absence of evidence does not imply that a particular approach is ineffective. Instead, rigorous research may be needed to demonstrate its efficacy. A growing number of strategies and interventions show promise based on formative evaluation and program implementation data. These approaches merit consideration by schools and school districts. For example:

  • Educator diversity initiatives. Several studies have found that Black and Latino students are less likely to be suspended or expelled in schools with higher proportions of Black and Latino teachers. Efforts to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers of color may be a promising strategy to strengthen teacher–student relationships and mitigate the role of implicit bias in disciplinary decisions.[12]
  • Learning Lab. This intervention brings schools together with local stakeholders who have been historically excluded from school decision making. Collaboratively, they conduct historical and empirical root cause analyses, study their existing discipline system, and design a culturally responsive schoolwide behavioral support model.[13]
  • ROARS Teen Court-School Partnership Framework. This framework helps schools explore the use of teen court as an alternative to school removal, the role of school social workers, and the distinguishing features of various teen court programs.[14]

REL Mid-Atlantic hosted a coaching session webinar for Maryland local school systems to broaden their understanding and implementation of both evidence-based and promising alternatives to exclusionary discipline. In the absence of rigorous evidence, the webinar discussed resources schools and school districts can use to monitor and evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the promising alternative approaches they adopt.

This capacity-building need is not specific to Maryland but common among schools and school systems nationwide. Download the webinar PowerPoint slides to learn more about:

  • Evidence-based and promising programs and practices in use by school districts across the country
  • Common areas for improvement that schools can consider when updating their codes of conduct, based on an environmental scan of state and local codes of conduct
  • Tools to assess change in educator belief and implicit bias over time, as schools and districts implement school discipline reforms

The slides include speaker notes so that schools, districts, and state education agencies can repurpose the content for their own professional learning activities.


[1] 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(4), 317–342. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ663870 Smolkowski, K., Girvan, E. J., McIntosh, K., Nese, R. N., & Horner, R. H. (2016). Vulnerable decision points for disproportionate office discipline referrals: Comparisons of discipline for African American and White elementary school students. Behavioral Disorders, 41(4), 178–195. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1113080.

[2] Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26(5), 617–624.; Skiba et al. (2002); Smolkowski et al. (2016).

[3] Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C. G., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85–107. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ921466.

[4] Okonofua & Eberhardt (2015).

[5] Maeng, J. L., Cornell, D., & Huang, F. (2020). Student threat assessment as an alternative to exclusionary discipline. Journal of School Violence, 19(3), 377–388. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1257667. For more information, see https://education.virginia.edu/faculty-research/centers-labs-projects/research-labs/youth-violence-project/comprehensive-school.

[6] Gregory, A., Allen, J. P., Mikami, A. Y., Hafen, C. A., & Pianta, R. (2014). Eliminating the racial disparity in classroom exclusionary discipline. Journal of Applied Research on Children, 5(2). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1188521.

[7] Gregory et al. (2014).

[8] Welsh, R. O., & Little, S. (2018). The school discipline dilemma: A comprehensive review of disparities and alternative approaches. Review of Educational Research, 88(5), 752–794. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1191548.

[9] Okonofua & Eberhardt (2015).

[10] Larson, K. E., Pas, E. T., Bradshaw, C. P., Rosenberg, M. S., & Day-Vines, N. L. (2018). Examining how proactive management and culturally responsive teaching related to student behavior: Implications for measurement and practice. School Psychology Review, 47(2), 153–166. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1182041.

[11] Welsh & Little (2018).

[12] Welsh & Little (2018).

[13] Bal, A., Afacan, K., & Cakir, H. I. (2018). Culturally responsive school discipline: Implementing Learning Lab at high school for systemic transformation. American Educational Research Journal, 55(5), 1007–1050. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1191754.

[14] Stalker, K. C. (2018). Teen court-school partnerships: Reducing disproportionality in school discipline. Children & Schools, 40(1), 17–24. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1165840.

Cross-posted from the REL Mid-Atlantic website.

About the Author

Lauren Amos

Lauren Amos

Principal Researcher
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