5 questions to ask about rising discipline disparities

'Data indicate that the school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well,' education lawyer says
By: | June 29, 2021

The rate of school-related arrests and referrals increased during SY 2017-18, according to civil rights data from the U.S. Education Department Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

“There is still the disparate application of exclusionary discipline to minority students and students with disabilities,” said Jose Martín, attorney with Richards, Lindsay, & Martín, LLP in Austin, Texas. “Over a two-year period, between SY 2015-16 and SY 2017-18, you had a 5 percent increase in school-related arrests and a 12 percent increase in referrals to law enforcement.”

Martín said the results from OCR’s “An Overview of Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Public Schools for the 2017-18 School Year” were concerning.

The overview includes data from the office’s civil rights data collection. It revealed that Black students, who represented 15.1% of the total student enrollment in SY 2017-18, accounted for 28.7% of all students referred to law enforcement and 31.6% of all students arrested at school or during a school-related activity.

The disparity grows where race intersects with a disability, according to the data. Black students served under the IDEA accounted for 2.3% of total enrollment, but 8.4% of students referred to law enforcement and 9.1% of those arrested.

“This tells me that there is an increased criminalization of discipline in the United States,” said Martín. “That means that schools are increasingly using the police to affect school discipline.

“The data indicate to me that the school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well,” he continued. “There was a criminalization of school behavior.”

Civil rights advocates have been vocal about the use of data collection to curtail disparities in school discipline practices that bias against historically underserved students.

A coalition of 23 state attorneys general sent a letter May 24, urging U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland to reinstate a 2014 guidance package, Dear Colleague Letter, 114 LRP 1091 (OCR/DOJ 01/08/14), to address discrimination in K-12 school discipline based on race.

“Despite the increased awareness of the problem, the phenomenon is still there,” said Martín.

Martín suggested districts compare and contrast their local data with OCR’s national data. He provided the following sample questions leadership may ask about their school discipline data:

  • How do your numbers stack up to national numbers?
  • Are you increasing the number of suspensions related to school behaviors?
  • Are you calling the police more often?
  • Is your increase greater than 12%?
  • How effective are your discipline management practices?

Martín said effective training on discipline and discipline management can help to reduce disparities in school discipline practices. He said districts that are more effective in preventing discipline problems, do so from the start altogether.

“The law says that a student with recurring behavioral problems needs to have positive behavioral interventions and supports,” he said. “[Ask] how good is the fidelity of implementation? Are the teachers doing this?”

Martín said districts should train teachers and assistant principals on better and more positive disciplinary actions and consistently use functional behavioral assessments and implement quality behavior intervention plans.

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.