Improving Equity in Student Discipline

By Cora Goldston

August 22, 2019

Diverse group of students reads workbooks outside

Instruction is not the only crucial piece of a student’s school experience. Disciplinary measures, including suspension and expulsion, can hinder a student’s academic progress and sense of belonging. According to the most recent Civil Rights Data Collection, some students are disproportionately disciplined using exclusionary methods, particularly Black male students and students with disabilities. Black male students composed 8% of the total American student population in the 2015–16 school year; however, they accounted for nearly 25% of all students who were suspended and expelled in the same year. Students with disabilities composed 12% of the total student population in 2015–16, but they accounted for 24% of all students who were suspended and expelled in the same year.

To help districts better support all students, the Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) developed a virtual training series with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to help districts and schools identify the root causes of disproportionate school discipline and create an action plan to make student discipline more equitable. The webinar series was informed by work from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE).

Kelly Gilbert, a former senior technical assistance consultant with MWCC, described how this work built on a collaboration between MWCC and MDE that began in the 2017–18 school year: “MWCC was supporting MDE’s efforts to address disproportionate discipline in Minnesota. This included a convening where we shared toolkits from NCSSLE. The toolkits were very well received, and MDE requested that we do some additional webinars.” The MWCC team also used the NCSSLE root-cause analysis guidance to structure and inform the webinar series.

After hearing about the project in Minnesota, ISBE approached MWCC about developing an intensive project to help schools understand and address disproportionate discipline. Gilbert explained, “ISBE had started identifying districts in the top 20% of the state for exclusionary discipline, including [the] number of suspensions, [the] number of expulsions, and racial disproportionality. Identified districts have to provide ISBE with a progress report by October 2019 about their efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.”

Because both MDE and ISBE were interested in the topic, MWCC worked with both state education agencies to codevelop a webinar series for district administrators and school leaders. Thanks to MWCC’s efforts, ISBE and MDE could learn from each other without duplicating efforts to support their districts. All districts in Illinois and Minnesota that were identified as having disproportionate discipline rates were invited to attend the webinars, although participation was voluntary. The series included four webinars facilitated by MWCC staff in January and February 2019:

  • Session 1: Conducting root-cause analysis and identifying the root cause(s) of disproportionate discipline
  • Session 2: Creating an action plan to reduce disproportionate discipline
  • Session 3: Refining and implementing the action plan
  • Session 4: Monitoring action plan implementation and measuring results

For all four webinar sessions, the majority of participants agreed or strongly agreed that the sessions were relevant and prepared them to tackle challenges in understanding discipline trends, conducting a root analysis, developing and implementing new practices, and measuring outcomes.

Survey feedback from the webinar series indicated that the respondents wanted more support in planning and implementing solutions to increase equity in school discipline. MWCC also will support ISBE in coordinating student discipline improvement with other initiatives to mirror the state’s new consolidated model for district funding. This coordination across ISBE initiatives reflects collaborative efforts noted in the Illinois Every Student Succeeds Act state plan.

Building on the collaboration between MWCC and ISBE, the District and School Improvement Center at the American Institutes for Research is working closely with one identified district, Peoria Public Schools, through the IL-EMPOWER statewide system of support to identify root causes and create an action plan to address disproportionate discipline rates. Many stakeholders participated in the planning sessions, including teachers, principals, district administrators, parents, students, and community members. Representatives from other identified districts have attended Peoria’s action planning sessions, which has benefits for all parties. As Gilbert noted, “This work has been exciting because it causes district staff to think differently. Other districts are being inspired, and there’s more potential to benefit students as district staff and superintendents talk to each other.” Peoria Public Schools is providing support for schools to implement their own action plans. In addition, the district is reviewing suspension and expulsion data on a monthly basis, along with conducting a focused data review at the end of each school year, to evaluate and adjust school action plans.