Getting to the ‘why’ of discipline disparities

August 19, 2015

What happened at a rural high school was, according to a new guide to school discipline, the starting point for change. Faced with chronically tardy students and a steady stream of office referrals, including a disproportionate number of American Indian students, school administrators asked: Why? Why the lateness? Why the office referrals?

With schools across California and the nation working to reform discipline practices — either voluntarily or under legal pressure — the guide, “Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide,” is intended as a tool to help schools “look for the whole story” behind who is disciplined and why. Produced by the American Institutes for Research for the U.S. Department of Education, the guide offers schools a data-informed road map for improving school climate and reducing discipline disparities.

“People are feeling the pressure to do something immediately,” said David Osher, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and the lead author of guide. “The purpose of the guide is to help people do something immediately, but do something with strategic analysis.”

In the process of changing the uneven application of school discipline, school staff move from lack of awareness to full acceptance of the fact that some groups of students are disciplined more harshly than others, according to a U.S. Department of Education action guide for educators.

Driving the need for discipline reform, the guide noted, are discriminatory discipline practices in schools nationwide, according to an issue brief from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Students of color, students with disabilities and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are disproportionately subject to school suspensions, the guide said. The impact on students, families, schools and the community “is serious and the cost is high,” the guide said.

Rather than a prescription for how schools should change or who is at fault for the way things are, the guide is intended to provide a structure for making change, Osher said.

“If people are going to do this well, we have to go beyond blame or guilt,” he said. “It’s rather a problem-solving approach.”

Step by step, the guide outlines how schools can conduct a “root cause analysis” to understand what underlies school discipline disparities and how to take corrective action.

The process is hands-on. A “Discipline Data Checklist” and a “Data Mining Tip Sheet” can help schools organize student data, collected from school databases or government agencies, about attendance, the time and place of discipline infractions, race, disability, ethnicity and more. The “Disciplinary Disparities Risk Assessment Tool” is a series of formatted Excel spreadsheets with instructions on how to enter and interpret discipline data.

Also included are examples of what’s happened at other schools, ideas about building a school climate team and tips for how to guide “courageous conversations” about sensitive topics, including race, ethnicity, culture and classroom-management styles.

In the case of the rural high school detailed in the guide, the root cause analysis included sorting attendance data by gender and race. That revealed that more girls than boys were arriving late to school and that among the students referred to the office for tardiness, “a significant percentage” were American Indian, according to the guide, which did not cite specific numbers.

“Talking to kids ought to be a basic step,” said David Osher of the American Institutes for Research. “Young people have a lot to say about what doesn’t work.”

The assistant principal then set out to talk to students and teachers at the school, which is located in Wisconsin but was not identified by name. Osher said that conversations with students are invaluable, yet often overlooked. “Talking to kids ought to be a basic step,” he said. “Young people have a lot to say about what doesn’t work.”

Some students said they were late because they lived far away. Others had to bring a sibling to school first. Still others said the only time they had to talk with friends was before school.

In the schema of the root cause analysis, these were the causes.

As for the office referrals, some teachers said they regularly argued with and disciplined a group of students who were both late and unprepared for class.

The analysis also went a level deeper. At the high school, a team of teachers, administrators, staff members, students and community members — carefully selected to be both representative of the community and willing to work together — talked about the data and the reported causes. The conversation was revealing.

The team learned that school buses didn’t always run on time and that if the bus arrived at a stop early, the driver wouldn’t wait to pick up the students. They learned that bringing a sibling to another school was a real obstacle to students arriving by the first class bell at 7:45 a.m. And they learned that for some students in the widely scattered rural community, seeing their friends face to face in the morning meant more to them than getting to class punctually.

At the same time, the team learned that many of the teachers were new and unsure how to interact with American Indian students. Teachers said they didn’t realize that some students needed help with the curriculum, or that students’ bold behavior masked academic frustration. Teachers also hadn’t known that some students felt that teachers didn’t care about them.

Straightforward action corrected the school bus issue. The bus schedule was moved up five minutes and drivers received a brief training to discuss issues and reinforce the practice of not leaving pick-up stops before the scheduled departure time.

To address the need for academic support and to provide students with a chance to connect in the morning, the assistant principal received permission from the district to shift the school start time to 8:15 a.m. — 30 minutes later — and to set aside the time from 7:45 to 8:15 a.m. for students to do homework and seek help from teachers.

On the social front, the school contacted a local American Indian tribal community center and invited members, including parents of students, to come talk with teachers. In addition, community center members were invited to volunteer as campus greeters at arrival time in the morning.

Within a few weeks of the changes, the number of students marked tardy or sent to the office for misconduct “decreased significantly,” the guide said.

The example is not meant to suggest that change in student-teacher relationships and discipline policies comes easily, the guide notes. Rather, it shows that once root causes are identified, relatively simple adjustments can build momentum for long-term shifts in practices, Osher said.

Osher said that the guide, which was released at a national White House conference for educators called “Rethink Discipline” on July 22, is not a stand-alone tool. It includes links to resources on positive discipline and so-called restorative practices that allow students to make amends for misbehavior. Along with the guide, the U.S. Department of Education launched a Rethink Discipline initiative and released an interactive map showing school suspension rates across the country.

But Osher said that to make effective change, schools need to start by understanding what’s really going on, and the guide is one way to conduct a thorough review of school policies and data, as well as the experiences of teachers, students and community members.

“This is about systemic change,” he said. “This is not about just fixing one teacher or one kid.”

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