Renewed Efforts to Address the Negative Impacts of Inequitable School Discipline
September 14, 2023
Students of color, students with disabilities, boys — and particularly those at the intersection of these identities — continue to experience disproportionate rates of discipline. School discipline practices can impede child development, result in reduced instructional time, harm mental health, and increase involvement in the juvenile justice system, among other impacts on health and wellbeing. This year, federal and state agencies have announced renewed efforts to enforce students’ civil rights in school to address longstanding inequities.
As a new school year begins, some students remain significantly more likely to face discipline than others. Students of color, students with disabilities, boys — and particularly those at the intersection of these identities — continue to experience disproportionate rates of discipline. School discipline practices can impede child development, result in reduced instructional time, harm mental health, and increase involvement in the juvenile justice system, among other impacts on health and wellbeing. This year, federal and state agencies have announced renewed efforts to enforce students’ civil rights in school to address longstanding inequities.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, disparities in school discipline begin as early as preschool; during the 2017-2018 school year, 42.7 percent of preschoolers receiving one out-of-school suspension were Black and 24.5 percent were young children with disabilities (the data do not identify the overlap in these groups). Preschoolers with disabilities accounted for 56.9 percent of expulsions that year despite representing only 22.7 percent of the student population.
Facing exclusionary discipline in preschool can have lasting impacts on a young child’s development and views about school; for these reasons, Head Start, a federally-funded program for children ages zero to five, prohibits expulsions based on a child’s behavior. Instead of deferring to exclusionary disciplinary practices, Head Start programs are focusing on collaborating with families and encouraging referrals to early mental health consultation to determine interventions and supports that address a child’s behavioral needs.
Exclusionary and disparate disciplinary practices continue through high school. Research based on data from the 2015-2016 school year shows stark racial disparities in loss of instructional time due to suspensions. In secondary schools, Black students lost 103 days of education per 100 students enrolled while white students lost 21 days. Hawaiian and Pacific Islander secondary students lost 63 days and Native American students lost 54 days per 100 students enrolled.
Discriminatory school discipline practices are associated with heightened disparities in academic achievement, not only due to lost learning days but also because the factors that create an inequitable school environment with regard to discipline, such as teacher biases and feelings of isolation, likely engender inequities in academic instruction and support as well. Furthermore, school-related referrals to law enforcement and arrests disproportionately affect students who are Black and Latino and those with disabilities; these inequitable practices (as well as exclusions from school) increase the likelihood of student involvement in the juvenile justice system.
In addition to exclusionary practices such as suspensions and expulsions, corporal punishment remains legal in many states despite awareness that the practice causes physical harm, worsens mental health, and impairs socioemotional development and educational attainment. In the United States, 27 states and the District of Columbia have express bans on corporal punishment in schools. Data from the 2017-2018 school year (the most recently published data by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights) reveal disparate use of corporal punishment. That year, school staff used corporal punishment against Black students at more than twice their rate of enrollment and against American Indian or Alaska Native students at nearly twice their enrollment rate. Students with disabilities also experience corporal punishment at higher rates than their non-disabled peers — representing 16.5 percent of students who received corporal punishment while only accounting for 13.2 percent of enrollment. Though there was a 34.5 percent decrease in reported incidents of corporal punishment in public schools from the 2013-2014 school year, over 69,000 students (80.7 percent of them boys) received corporal punishment during the 2017-2018 school year.
In May 2023, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice published a Resource on Confronting Racial Discrimination in Student Discipline. The Resource includes several examples of Department of Education and Department of Justice enforcement actions to address non-compliance with civil rights laws in school district disciplinary practices throughout the country. As a result of federal enforcement, school districts have agreed to, for example, modify their memoranda of understanding with local law enforcement to prohibit law enforcement involvement in routine discipline, identify particular staff members who discipline students of color more harshly than white students, revise discriminatory dress codes, and ensure that disciplinary actions minimize loss of instructional time.
States are also taking steps to enforce civil rights laws and advance equity in school discipline. For example, on August 28, 2023, the New Jersey Attorney General and Acting Department of Education Commissioner issued guidance aimed at preventing discrimination in school discipline. The guidance outlines the disproportionate rates of suspension imposed on students who are Black, Latino, and multiracial, along with students with disabilities and those who are LGBTQ+, and explains how the state’s Division on Civil Rights applies the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to school discipline policies and practices. The state sets forth two legal claims — differential treatment and disparate impact — that it will pursue against school districts that discriminate in their discipline policies, processes, and enforcement.
Additional federal data on school enrollment, programming, college preparation, retention, staff, discipline, and climate are available on the Office of Civil Rights’ website. These data and guidance from federal and state agencies can inform approaches to school discipline that protect the civil rights, educational opportunities, and physical and mental health of all students.
This post was written by Susan Fleurant, J.D., M.P.H., Staff Attorney, Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.