School Discipline

Harsh school discipline strategies plague far too many schools in the United States, particularly in low-income and urban communities. Harsh school discipline leads to many unintended consequences for students. First, it creates a very punitive learning environment that makes students fearful and distrustful of school. Second, it reduces the amount of time students spend in school. Students who are suspended miss valuable class time that cannot be recaptured upon their return. Often, students are behind on coursework with no support to catch up. Third, removing students from school gives them unsupervised idle time that many times leads to negative activities. Fourth, referral to the justice system gives students a stigma that cannot be erased. Fifth, most school-based alternative education settings are primarily disciplinary in structure and emphasis and do not provide as rigorous an education as regular schools. And finally, students who are repeatedly punished by harsh school discipline strategies are more likely to drop out before completing school. 

African-American boys are far more likely to be subjected to harsh discipline policies in their schools. They are more frequently subjected to suspensions, expulsions, school-based arrest, or transfer into alternative education settings than their white peers. While Hispanic boys are suspended and expelled in proportion to their representation in schools, they are disproportionately referred to law enforcement or subjected to school-based arrest. Most of the time, these punishments are for nonviolent misbehavior that could have been dealt with inside the school in a more developmentally appropriate manner. Evidence shows that only a few school suspensions or expulsions can be attributed to behavior that genuinely places other students at risk. Most behavior falls into two fairly ambiguous categories: “disruptive behavior” and “other.” Moreover, research shows that African-American students are more likely to be suspended for subjective violations that require teacher interpretation and judgement. 

Data from the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights reveals the extent of the disparity in treatment received by students of color. For example, African-American students make up 18 percent of the school population, yet they are 46 percent of the students given out-of-school suspension multiple times and 35 percent of students arrested in school.





   Asian/Pacific Islander   

American Indian

Percentage of school population

51% 18% 24%  6%  1%

In-school suspension

39% 35% 23%  2%  1%

Out-of-school suspension (single)

36% 35% 25%  3%  1%

Out-of-school suspension (multiple)

29% 46% 22%  1%  1%


33% 39% 24%  2%  1%

Referral to law enforcement

25% 42% 29%  3%  1%

School-related arrests

21% 35% 37%  5%  1%


COSEBOC believes that the following policy changes would be helpful and have impact on school discipline disparities:

  1. Implement school discipline and policing policies that are more developmentally appropriate and that do not undermine academic achievment for students. 
  2. Use data on school discipline disparity as a part of any strategic planning for change in schools and districts.
  3. Include disparities in school discipline as a part of the federal school accountability structure to ensure that all students receive a quality education. 
  4. Increase training in cultural competence and classroom management for teachers and school leaders to support more appropriate approaches and solutions to school discipline. 
  5. Support school leaders to explore and implement other models of school discipline that are showing positive results with students of color.


Relevant Publications/Resources on School Discipline