Unequal Applications of School Disciplinary Policies Among Racial/Ethnic Groups

In 2014, the Society for Research on Adolescence Civil Rights Data Collection Emerging Scholars Grant was offered to researchers interested in studying potential ethnic/racial disparities in how disciplinary policies are applied in American schools. When I heard about the grant, I did not have much expertise in education policy. However, I decided to apply because the grant offered an opportunity to explore issues important to adolescent development using the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).

Our study sponsored by the Society for Research on Adolescence Civil Rights Data Collection Emerging Scholars Grant focuses on racial/ethnic disparities in the application of exclusionary disciplinary policies in America’s public high schools. Exclusionary policies are a type of school disciplinary policy in which a student is suspended from school services or expelled as a punishment for breaking any type of school behavior policy, such as speaking out of turn in class, fighting, truancy, etc. Exclusionary policies are related to the broader educational philosophy of zero-tolerance, where the punishment of disciplinary breach is uniform across students and does not take into account the severity of the behavior, the context, or the individual.

Exclusionary policies appear to be common practice in most American schools (Monahan, VanDerhei, Bechtold, & Cauffman, 2014). Proponents of suspension and expulsion as discipline argue that these methods are effective in separating the “bad” students from the “good” ones, so that “the good kids can learn” (Losen, 2013). However, existing research on zero-tolerance policies does not attest to their effectiveness (Fenning & Rose, 2007); and overusing exclusionary discipline has been found to have unequal impact on different ethnic/racial groups (e.g., Gregory, 1997; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002).

The broad application of zero-tolerance policies has led to a disproportionate increase in suspensions and expulsions among African-American students, which is confirmed in the CRDC data as well. Such exclusionary discipline can be particularly harmful during adolescence, because in many cases, it leaves adolescents without any real possibility to finish high school. Given that middle adolescence is a developmental period associated with the highest rate of delinquent behavior, it is arguable that school expulsion during this “window of vulnerability” leads to increased risk of engaging in substance use or violent crime, as well as an associated increase in the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system (Monahan et al., 2014; Nicholson-Crotty et al., 2009). This process is also known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2003).

The CRDC is a challenging dataset, but it is rich in information. The CRDC dataset allowed us to conduct innovative disciplinary policy research because it includes data from all students who were enrolled in public middle and high schools across the United States in the school year 2011/2012. Access to a large volume of data allowed us to get a more precise understanding of how disciplinary policies are applied across the United States. Many other studies done in this area have only had access to a sample of US schools – this is the first study using a population of all American middle schools and high schools.

Our primary research question was: are there differences in how different school disciplinary measures are applied based on race/ethnicity? In other words, using European Americans as the reference group, we looked at whether African-American, American Indian, Hispanic, and youth who endorsed more than one ethnic/racial group would show higher or lower rates of specific disciplinary measures. Our study looked at the following disciplinary measures: in-school suspension, single suspension, multiple suspensions, expulsion with school services, expulsion without school services, corporal punishment, use of law enforcement, and school arrest. Additionally, we also explored whether mean socio-economic status of a particular school, its rural/urban location, or school size defined as number of students would be associated with differences in rates of exclusionary policies use in schools.

Our findings largely support differences in the application of disciplinary policies based on students’ race/ethnicity. Specifically, we found that African American, American Indian, Hispanic, and youth who endorsed more than one ethnic/racial group, experienced significantly greater rates of most of the disciplinary actions as compared to European American adolescents. On the other hand, Asian American youth experienced significantly lower rates across different disciplinary actions as compared to European American youth. All of these findings were done while statistically accounting for relative proportions of ethnicities within a particular school.

What our findings suggest is that racial bias in the school system exists where certain minority groups are recipients of a disproportionate amount of school discipline. This is especially the case for African-American students who were consistently found to experience higher rates of all types of disciplinary actions examined in our study, thus further supporting the results from previous literature on this topic. Additionally, our analysis found that school size and urban context were associated with using and implementing most of the severe disciplinary actions for misbehaviors at school. Specifically, urban schools were more likely to employ more severe school disciplinary policies (such as expulsion without services or arrest) compared to rural ones, consistent with other literature.

Continued attention to school disciplinary policies is important because of their association with negative life course outcomes related to substance use, crime, and contact with the juvenile justice system. Additionally, continued research attention can help develop new policies and appropriate interventions to reduce the prevalence of these disciplinary actions as well as the negative impact of these disciplinary policies. Findings from our research will help build a foundation for a broader understanding of how disciplinary actions are applied in American middle and high schools, as well as associated racial/ethnic disparities. We believe our research is important in opening a broader discussion and debate on the appropriateness of current disciplinary practices in America’s middle and high schools, and the extent to which the apparent differential application of them by race/ethnicity impacts adolescent development. Our study also provides important information for policymakers in the continued discussion and evaluation of current disciplinary policies found in American schools.

The SRA Emerging Scholar Grant enabled me to devote sufficient time and energy to this comprehensive project, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to explore such important factors related to adolescent development. For the future projects, my team and I would like to utilize the CRDC dataset to understand how disciplinary actions are applied throughout the time span that the CRDC has been collecting data, i.e., since 2000. This analysis would help us understand how and if the application of disciplinary policies accumulates over time among certain racial/ethnic groups. Such an analysis would also help develop a more comprehensive understanding of outcomes that are associated with unequal applications of disciplinary policies.

Albert Ksinan is a doctoral student in the Department of Family Sciences at the University of Kentucky. His research interests include problem behaviors in adolescence, cross-cultural research, development of personality and application of new statistical methods.


  • Christle, C. A., Jolivette, K., & Nelson, C. M. (2005). Breaking the school to prison pipeline: Identifying school risk and protective factors for youth delinquency. Exceptionality13, 69-88.
  • Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: The role of school policy. Urban Education, 42, 536-559. doi:10.1177/0042085907305039
  • Gregory, J. F. (1997). Three strikes and they’re out: African American boys and American schools’ responses to misbehavior. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 7, 25-34.
  • Losen, D. J. (2013). Discipline policies, successful schools, racial justice, and the law. Family Court Review51, 388-400.
  • Monahan, K. C., VanDerhei, S., Bechtold, J., & Cauffman, E. (2014). From the school yard to the squad car: School discipline, truancy, and arrest. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 43, 1110-1122. doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0103-1
  • Noltemeyer, A., & Mcloughlin, C. S. (2010). Patterns of exclusionary discipline by school typology, ethnicity, and their interaction. Perspectives on Urban Education7, 27-40.
  • 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. Urban Review34, 317-342.
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