Promising Approaches for Reducing Disciplinary Disparities in Schools
Making information on effective disparity-reducing interventions and programs accessible to schools and communities is a critical need. As we continue to learn more about the negative effects of school suspension and expulsion, local educators, community organizers, and policymakers are increasingly seeking information about effective alternatives. This project, supported by the Open Society Foundations, seeks to fill gaps in our knowledge of disparity-reducing efforts, providing educators, advocates and policymakers information on exemplary programs: How some school communities are implementing a range of programs and interventions to reduce suspension and expulsion, and disparities in those punishments.
We interviewed representatives of schools, school districts, and local community organizations across the country engaged in school discipline reform to reduce disciplinary disparities. The results, presented in the following series of initiatives, programs, and advocacy effort descriptions on this page, provide a cross-section of exemplars throughout the nation that have intentionally worked to reduce disparities in discipline. The results described for these programs suggest that, not only is change possible, but that it has the potential to positively affect school rates of discipline, school climate, and even academic achievement.
In exploring the model programs and initiatives presented here, a number of key themes emerged about the processes and challenges faced in implementation of alternative disciplinary approaches. In particular, change leaders focused on:
- Data-based decision making. Most of these programs began with leadership that examined school or district data, realized that change was necessary, and used that data to help motivate reform.
- Focus on alterable variables. These programs are based on a belief that, regardless of the characteristics of the student population being served, schools and districts can reflect upon and change their own disciplinary practices.
- Addressing issues of race, ethnicity and culture. Talking about difference is awkward and often difficult. These programs worked through those difficulties in designing effective programs to reduce disparities.
- Communicate commitment. Change is always difficult. The leaders of these organizations and initiatives have maintained a commitment to find more effective methods of discipline, and actively communicate that commitment to others.
These narratives begin to demonstrate that an alternative approach, one that shifts the focus of school discipline from punishment and exclusion to problem-solving and school climate improvement, is not only possible, but is being implemented to positive effect in school sites across the country. Please note that in this work we have not attempted to empirically evaluate the processes or site-reported outcomes described here, and thus these descriptions cannot attest to the general efficacy of these programs and approaches. Our purpose is solely to highlight efforts across the nation that show promise in addressing and reducing disparities in school discipline.
Our purpose was to identify programs, community organizations, and school districts around the country that are explicitly attempting to reduce disciplinary disparities. We cast a broad net in order to identify programs, receiving referrals on promising programs from three sources. We conducted Internet web searches for schools, community organizations or other programs that suggested a focus on disciplinary disparities using keywords such as “discipline disparities, suspensions, expulsions, exclusionary, alternatives to suspensions, code of conduct, disproportionality, out of/in school suspension, interventions to address exclusionary discipline”. In addition, the Equity Project, as part of the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, has developed and maintains a list of more than 758 researchers, advocates, and policy analysts with a focus on understanding and addressing disciplinary disparities. Members of that list were asked for nominations of programs, schools, advocacy organizations or other projects engaging in disciplinary disparity reduction. Finally, the project asked for additional referrals from every phone call or email contact it had with potential sites/programs.
A total of 118 initial referrals were identified through these methods. Eighty-eight potential sites and programs were found online, twenty referrals came from the Equity Project/Disparities Collaborative network list, and 10 additional referrals came from contacts with potential sites and programs.
Consistent with the project’s goals and purposes, final selection of programs selected for interviews was based on the following four criteria:
- Program or approaches that focused on reducing disparities in disciplines by race/ethnicity and/or gender.
- Programs or approaches that provided some evidence of reduction in disciplinary disparities in office discipline referrals, suspension, and/or expulsions and/or programs/sites that were actively working to reduce disparities were included.
- Programs or approaches that are school based, or focused on schools.
- Program or approach was clearly defined as an intervention targeted to reduce discipline disparities.
Each of the 118 referrals was contacted via email or telephone to assess the degree to which the identified program or approach generally met the four criteria above: Ninety-two of the programs were removed from further consideration at this step. Reasons for non-inclusion were no explicit disciplinary or disciplinary disparity focus (24 respondents); programs or approaches did not have a school component (43); and other factors (e.g., the program had ended or that there was no explicitly defined focus on addressing disparities in discipline).
Phone interviews were conducted with representatives of the remaining twenty-six programs. For each respondent, one to two telephone interviews were conducted, averaging 30 – 60 minutes per interview. A semi-structured interview protocol was used in order to ensure consistency in information collection. Six topics were explored with respondents:
- Characteristics of the school, community, and students (e.g. rural/urban, grades served, special populations, socio-demographic characteristics, etc.);
- General description of the program or approach, and reasons the school and/or community is engaging in the program/approach;
- Specific components of the program or approach and how those were implemented with fidelity;
- Key outcomes achieved;
- The most important elements respondents believed made the program or approach successful, and
- The most significant challenges respondents encountered in implementation of the work.
Each interview was audio-recorded and transcribed for purposes of accuracy. Eight of the respondents interviewed were not included in the final program descriptions due to lack of outcome data denoting an impact or if the program did not have an explicit focus on addressing disparities in discipline. The final sample consisted of 17 respondents across 20 sites.
After over twenty years of a national climate favorable to a zero tolerance approach in education and juvenile justice, a counter-narrative highlighting a range of negative outcomes of such approaches, especially for marginalized populations, has led to a new national dialogue raising important questions about the use and effects of suspension and expulsion . Advocates and educators in local communities are beginning to look for alternatives to reduce the use of exclusionary school discipline and develop more positive and supportive school climates. At this point, however, it is difficult for those practitioners to find guidance on effective alternatives that are intended to reducing disparities in discipline (see Gregory, A., Bell, J., & Pollock, M., (2014). How educators can eradicate disparities in school discipline: A briefing paper on school-based interventions. Bloomington, IN: The Equity Project at Indiana University). We hope that collecting these descriptions in one place provides an important starting point for further study of more effective approaches to address disciplinary disparities, and a guide to those seeking to create change. Rigorously evaluating the degree to which these and other programs actually reduce disciplinary disparities – and developing a more comprehensive analysis as to why such programs are successful – is a critical next step in the work of uncovering effective approaches educators across the country use to address disciplinary disparities.
The programs and themes described as a part of this project demonstrate that disciplinary inequity is not inevitable: across the nation, educational and community leaders are working to create schools that attend to disciplinary disparities. As data concerning the negative and unequal impact of suspension and expulsion continue to accumulate, an increasing number of communities will be seeking alternatives. The challenge for future research and practice is uncovering and evaluating more approaches that contribute to school safety and improved student behavior without threatening students’ opportunity to learn, while effectively addressing the persistent and pervasive inequities in school disciplinary systems.
Exemplary Model Descriptions
San Rafael, CA:
NOTE: This listing is provided for your information only. The Equity Project at Indiana University and Discipline Disparities Collaborative do not endorse any specific program.