Racial Disproportionality in Exclusionary Discipline: School Factors and Disciplinary Practices

Heilbrun, Anna, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Racial disproportionality in exclusionary discipline is widely recognized as a serious national problem. Exclusionary discipline in schools has been associated with a host of negative outcomes, including school disengagement, academic difficulties, grade retention, and school dropout (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010; Skiba & Rausch, 2006). The negative consequences of exclusionary discipline are particularly pronounced for Black students, who are two to three times more likely than White students to be suspended (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, 2014), and more likely than White students and other racial minorities to be suspended for relatively minor disciplinary infractions (Losen & Skiba, 2010; Petras et al., 2011).

There is relatively little evidence-based guidance on the underlying causes of racial disproportionality in exclusionary discipline, and arguably even less empirical support for interventions to reduce it. The three papers in this dissertation help to narrow this knowledge gap.

The first paper hypothesized that a school principal’s support for zero tolerance policies would be associated with a) higher suspension rates and b) larger racial disparities in suspension rates. The sample was based on a statewide school safety survey of school principals from all 306 Virginia public high schools. Regression analyses provided partial support for the study hypotheses; after controlling for student poverty and school size, principal endorsement of zero tolerance was moderately associated with higher suspension rates for both White and Black students. Zero tolerance attitudes, however, were not associated with the size of the racial gap. The data revealed additional noteworthy patterns. Consistent with previous findings (see, for example, Skiba et al., 2006), the data demonstrated large racial disparities between Black and White students in high school suspension rates. The data also revealed significant racial differences in the types of infractions that result in suspensions. Black students were significantly more likely than White students to be suspended for disruptive offenses and White students were significantly more likely than Black students to be suspended for alcohol- and drug-related offenses.

The second paper investigated the association between teacher and student perceptions of authoritative school climate and suspension rates in a statewide sample of 423 Virginia middle schools. The sample consisted of 7th and/or 8th students (N = 39,364) and their teachers (N = 9,621). Based on an influential theory of parenting (Baumrind, 1968), authoritative school climate defines high disciplinary structure and student support as key elements of a positive school climate. Regression analyses controlling for student poverty and school size showed that elements of authoritative school climate, particularly structure, significantly predicted suspension rates. Specifically, schools with high levels of student- and teacher-reported disciplinary structure had lower overall suspension rates and a lower gap between Black and White suspension rates. These findings provide support for a certain approach to school discipline—one in which students perceive the discipline as strict but fair—and can be used to guide school climate initiatives to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.

The third paper identified promising efforts to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and office disciplinary referrals. The goal was to show how three popular school interventions might be successful in reducing these disparities. The paper reviewed commonly used methods for measuring disproportionality and examined three programs with the potential to reduce the racial disciplinary gap: School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, My Teaching Partner-Secondary, and Restorative Practices. A review of studies on these programs revealed that they did not have a direct effect on racial disparities; however, each program showed some promise in producing these effects. The paper considered some of the likely factors that might reduce these disparities in the future. This paper made specific recommendations drawn from the analysis of these programs, and underscored the need for controlled studies that can offer additional guidance for narrowing the gap.

An important goal of this three-paper dissertation was to identify possibilities for reducing disproportionality in exclusionary discipline. The first paper provided modest support for the prior finding (Skiba et al., 2006) that suspension rates are higher in schools where principals endorse zero tolerance policies. The second paper demonstrated that disciplinary structure was associated with lower overall suspension rates and a smaller gap between Black and White suspension rates. The third paper investigated promising approaches for reducing the racial disciplinary gap and considered the qualities of these programs that are most likely to successfully target this goal.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
racial disproportionality , school suspensions
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