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9. Current Barriers to Educational Equity--A Look At Disproportionality in School Discipline

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

What does every young person need to be inspired?  What are the conditions in which students can best learn, ask questions, create, and ready themselves for their most fulfilled life?   We invite you to watch this short clip from Jeff Duncan-Andrade at an education summit  -- arguing that our North Star for educating young people has to be their joy and happiness.  

This MLM explores the ways in which current trends in discipline seem to be heading the opposite direction - not sparking love of learning or focusing on joy, but teaching that for some students, schools are places where their humanity is not fully seen or valued.  

Bridging the goals of equity explored in MLM 7: What’s the Goal? Thinking about Equality and Equity and acknowledging intersectionality in MLM 8: Intersectionality--What It Is vs. What It’s Not would mean that students are celebrated and recognized as their authentic selves as they grow to adulthood.  Educators are likely to say -- and consciously believe --  that they want schools to be places where all students have an opportunity to thrive and reach their potential.  

It is important to note that most students, of all races, do not receive out-of-school suspensions in any given year (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). In fact, schools differ markedly in their disciplinary rates, with relatively few schools suspending at high rates.   A Brookings Study of California schools published in 2017 showed, for example, that suspension rates differ wildly across schools -- with a small number of schools suspending huge numbers of Black students and a larger number where suspension rates are far lower.  Illuminating this reality is important—to affirm that suspension is not the norm for students of color and occurs only in some schools.  The schools with the highest suspension rates tend to be large racially segregated schools with harsh or “zero-tolerance” policies.    

We highlight this to avoid the risk of falling into deficit framing discussed in MLM 6: Acknowledging the Assets and Contributions of All: Rejecting Deficit Framing:  while the topic of disproportionate discipline is critically important because of its impact on young people’s lives -- the focus on who is more harshly disciplined can have the unintended consequence of reaffirming stereotypes about the very students we are concerned about.   

Data is important to understand the problem -- but a focus on data can allow us to forget that each data point is a student, a real person who is having an experience that can have a powerful effect on how they experience schools.  We began this MLM with the video because if you have not had personal experience with the problem of racialized discipline -- when you were a student yourself, as a caregiver or close friend now, we invite you to think about the students in the video clip and other students of color you may know.

The problem of harsh and unequal discipline has grown over time even as general racial attitudes have become more egalitarian.  A report by the U.C.L.A. Civil Rights Project shows an extraordinary increase in student suspensions from the 1970’s to 2010, but also illustrates that the most dramatic increases were among Black and Latinx students (Losen & Martinez, 2013). As demonstrated below, suspension rates for white students increased by only slightly , while the rates for Black and Latinx students more than doubled. 

The disparities noted above are linked to race alone. The table below uses an intersectional lens -- you can see that Black boys are slightly more than 3x more likely to be suspended than white boys, while Black girls are 6x more likely to be suspended than white girls. Native American girls aso experience greater disparities with white girls than Native American boys show with white boys.

The consequences of excessively harsh discipline can be dire -- as this clip shows -- forming the basis for the “school to prison pipeline.”    

  • Does the data about school discipline establish that we haven’t achieved equity in schools?
  • Based upon what you have learned in the MLMs, what do you think explains these disparities?

Educators who believe that they and their colleagues are colorblind -- and that any outcome differences must be based upon student conduct are often surprised when data shows otherwise.  Research indicates that discipline and suspension disparities are not based upon more severely problematic behavior by Black, Native, or Latinx  students, such as bringing weapons to school or acting aggressively toward other students. Rather, they found that the greatest racial disparities are in responses to subjectively evaluated behaviors such as willful defiance, disrespect or loitering (Losen et al., 2015).  

What can be done to change these outcomes?  The most immediate and effective shift is for administrators and school officials to end harsh disciplinary policies that suspend students for minor infractions: breaking the dress code, using a cell phone in class, or truancy (Losen, 2015). As the PBS clip posed -- what is the logic behind suspending a student from school for failing to attend school? For those of us existing outside of school contexts, it is important to understand the implications of this information for young people -- and society as a whole.

These changes have been effective in reducing suspensions -- but have not fully addressed the racial disparities in suspensions.  Rosemarie Allen provides a powerful account of how children experience school differently based upon race and what solutions might be.  

We invite you to note that she uses asset framing as discussed in MLM 6: Acknowledging the Assets and Contributions of All: Rejecting Deficit Framing.


This prompt should be answered twice. Begin by including only objective information in response to the first two questions. The second attempt should be a subjective telling of the incident - what did it feel like to you. In comparing the two, what is missing? 

Think about a time when you got in trouble at school. What did you do? What was the response?  Do you think that the response to your behavior might have been either harsher or more lenient if you were a different race or ethnicity?


As a mentor, you are engaging with mentees who are currently navigating school discipline policies and practices.  Being mindful of the potential differences students may be experiencing in schools will ideally be useful to you as you support your mentee’s growth and development.

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #9!