Discriminatory School Discipline is a Crisis! We Must Lead.

When I was teaching at UT Austin, school discipline was a dissertation topic that students wanted to investigate, but there weren’t available faculty at the institution that were conducting research in the area at the time. As a result, student interest in the disparate and unequal discipline practices occurring in schools began to drive my own interest in the area. So we began an informal research group that would meet once a month or so to coordinate and discuss our school discipline research. While there were several students working on the issue, I’d like to quickly highlight two of the students that I worked with. Rebecca Cohen was probably one of the sharpest graduate students I chaired at UT. Her dissertation was entitled Discipline without Derailing: An Investigation of Exclusionary Discipline Practices in Schools. She found:

Maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment in schools is fundamental to the greater goals of education, but determining optimal disciplinary responses to student misbehavior is often complicated. While there is an abundance of research that speaks to the negative impact of exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspension, expulsion or any other disciplinary response that removes a student from the traditional classroom setting) on student behavioral and academic outcomes, there is an absence of work that examines if, when, and to what extent a student is actually better off receiving non-exclusionary dispositions. Using multivariate regression analysis on a unique dataset from an urban Texas school district, this study directly compares the impact of exclusionary vs. non-exclusionary discipline on student outcomes (controlling for student characteristics, school characteristics, and offense type). Additionally, the study examines the extent to which offense type influences the relationship between disposition and student outcomes. The study’s findings suggest that a student is generally worse off in terms of academic progress and risk of future offenses when she/he receives an exclusionary disposition for any disciplinary infraction. The impact of exclusion, however, was shown to vary by student offense.

I tried to recruit Dr. Rebecca Cohen to California State University. She’d make a fantastic faculty member.

Then there is Dr. Heather Cole. I don’t think I have encountered a graduate student who was more prolific writer during graduate school. We published six pieces together while she was in graduate school! 6! Relevant to this blog, we also took on school discipline in two pieces about school-based Youth Courts.

Cole, H. & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2011). Developing a school-based youth court: A potential alternative to the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education, 4(2), 1-17.

Cole, H., Vasquez Heilig, J., Fernandez, T., Clifford, M., & Garcia, R. (2015). Social Justice in action: Urban school leaders address the school to prison pipeline via a youth court. In M. Khalifa, C. Grant, N.W. Arnold and A. Osanloo (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Educational Leadership (pp. 320-328). New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

I’ll come back to Youth Courts in a moment. Last night, here in Sacramento, the NAACP sponsored a community-town hall to address school discipline.

NAACP Community Townhall flyer

A new report entitled The Capitol of suspensions: Examining the racial exclusion of Black male in Sacramento county authored by Luke Wood, Frank Harris and Tyrone Howard shows the Sacramento City Unified School District suspends Black students more than any other school district in the state. The report also shows that several other districts in the Sacramento region are also 4 of the worst 20 districts in the state.

The report, published in partnership with the Greater Sacramento NAACP, details the exposure of Black males to exclusionary discipline in Sacramento County. In particular, this report highlights the high suspensions of Black boys and young men in Sacramento County public schools. Some of the key findings include:

  • Black males are 5.4 times more likely to be suspended in Sacramento County than the statewide average.
  • Nearly 18 Black males were suspended, per day, in the county.
  • Sacramento County has four school districts in the top 20 suspension districts for Black males in the State of California.
  • Sacramento City Unified is the most egregious suspension district for Black males in the State of California.
  • Black males in early childhood education (kindergarten through third grade) are 9.9 times more likely to be suspended than their peers (statewide).
  • One third of all Black male foster youth are suspended in Sacramento County
CBS30 quoted Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams as saying
The numbers need to change immediately. Williams says she may seek legal action if the district doesn’t make policy changes. “Either you make a change now, or we can go to court and you can make the change later,” Williams said. Williams said she intends to hold town hall meetings showing the report findings in full. She hopes to partner at some of the town hall meetings with the Sacramento Unified School District.

I had the opportunity to help open the townhall. Here are my comments as written, but not necessarily as delivered:

I bring greetings from the state conference of the California NAACP. I’m Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Leadership Policy Studies at Sacramento State and Education Chair of the California NAACP. Would you like the good news or the bad news first? I’ll start with the good news. The good news is that suspensions and expulsions across the state of California have been reduced by tens of thousands over the past few years. But there really is bad news. Millions of students across the US and hundreds of thousands of student across California are still experiencing exclusionary discipline each year In predictable, inequitable ways. Typically for non-violent, discretionary offenses. Research suggests an association between exclusion and negative outcomes for students. In fact, there is no evidence that student removals improve overall school safety. As a result, suspension and expulsion do not seem to be optimal disciplinary solutions. Controlling for offense and student characteristics, a student is generally worse off when excluded than not excluded for a disciplinary infraction. When a student receives an exclusionary disposition for her/his first offense, she/he is significantly more likely to commit future offenses. The research has identified racial disparities. We recognize and are angered by the scale of the disparities.  Now is time for us to come together and implement the solutions that we know work. We must be restorative. We must be determined. We are the generation that ends disparate discipline practices for children of color.

We must move the conversation forward with solutions. What I appreciate about Tyrone Howard and Luke Wood’s presentation at the NAACP townhall is that not only did they identify the origins (implicit bias, racism etc), scale, and scope of the school discipline problem in Sacramento and across the nation— I also appreciate that they concluded their talk with research-based approaches to remedy the school discipline gap. I do wish they would have had more time to talk about the solutions that they included in the report for the community.  One solution that Heather Cole and I worked on in our previous work is Youth Courts, a restorative justice approach (You can read about it here and here.) There many restorative justice practices that compliment restorative circles and other approaches that can be brought to bear to remedy problematic disciplinary practices in schools. Discriminatory school discipline is a crisis, we must lead.

See all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts about school discipline here.

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  • Mary Johnson. Parent-U-Turn

    I disagree with the one comment. I see thay plsy out every in my school district. On my fistrivt black males are supspended st a higher rate by latino teachers, then latino suspending of students that long like them. Yes. Evrty day racial bias is going on by adults in the Schools.Two year ago 80 black males student at the high school seek me out to file a complaints.Against teacher§. Princpals. And others staff that was racial.profiling and treating them like they was back in 1955. Yes in tbe 21st Century black student are being treated by adult like they don’t matter. The whole staff at the school and the district have too attend trsining by Dr.Tyrone Howard . The superintendent make it mandoratory for all staff.we was very proud that students trusted us the parents to become an agent of changes for them.and other that look.like them


  • It is politically incorrect to suggest that the negative school behaviors exhibited by LIMs coming from unstructured and poorly supervised home environments can explain the disparities in disciplinary action listed here. The questions is, is this observation correct? Loud, combative, uncooperative, defiant, and unruly behaviors are also produced by frustration with learning; too many LIMs enter school with knowledge and skill deficits, which undermines their chances for success. None of this is meant to point a finger of blame, but teachers and administrators do not pick on children of color because they are well behaved.


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