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The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment

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Abstract and Figures

The disproportionate discipline of African-American students has been extensively documented; yet the reasons for those disparities are less well understood. Drawing upon one year of middle-school disciplinary data for an urban school district, we explored three of the most commonly offered hypotheses for disproportionate discipline based on gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Racial and gender disparities in office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions were somewhat more robust than socioeconomic differences. Both racial and gender differences remained when controlling for socioeconomic status. Finally, although evidence emerged that boys engage more frequently in a broad range of disruptive behavior, there were no similar findings for race. Rather, there appeared to be a differential pattern of treatment, originating at the classroom level, wherein African-American students are referred to the office for infractions that are more subjective in interpretation. Implications for teacher training and structural reform are explored.
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The Indiana Education Policy Center is funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. and Indiana University to provide
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Policy Center.
By
Russell J. Skiba
Robert S. Michael
Abra Carroll Nardo
Indiana Education Policy Center
Reece Peterson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Policy Research Report #SRS1
June, 2000
Sources of Racial and Gender
Disproportionality in School Punishment
The Color of Discipline
Disproportionate representation of minority students, especially African Ameri-
cans, in a variety of school disciplinary procedures has been documented almost
continuously for the past 25 years, yet there has been little study of the factors
contributing to that disproportionality. Whether disparate treatment of a group can
be judged as bias depends largely on the extent to which other hypotheses that
could provide a credible alternative explanation of the discrepancy can be ruled
out. In this study, investigation of three alternative hypotheses led to different
conclusions for disproportionate representation based on gender, race, and socio-
economic status. First, racial and gender discrepancies in school disciplinary
outcomes were consistent regardless of methodology, but socioeconomic dispari-
ties appeared to be somewhat less robust. Second, we found no evidence that
racial disparities disappear when controlling for poverty status; instead,
disproportionality in suspension appears to be due to prior disproportionality in
referrals to the office. Finally, although discriminant analysis suggests that dispro-
portionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased
rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African Ameri-
can students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students
appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons.
Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that
disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspen-
sion and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be
inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline.
Abstract
Table of Contents
Disproportionality by Socioeconomic Status ............................. 1
Disproportionality by Minority Status....................................... 2
Disproportionality by Gender................................................. 4
Explanations of Racial Disproportionality in Discipline .............. 4
When Does Disproportionality Indicate Discrimination? ........... 6
Method ................................................................... 7
Subjects ................................................................................7
Procedures ............................................................................7
Analyses ...............................................................................8
Results ..................................................................................9
Sources of Disproportionality ................................................ 10
Discriminant Analyses .......................................................... 11
Testing Differences in Types of Referrals ................................. 11
Discussion ............................................................. 14
References............................................................. 20
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 11
The two-year expulsion of seven African American students for a football game
brawl in Decatur, Illinois and the subsequent involvement of the Reverend Jesse
Jackson and Operation PUSH in defending those students has brought the issue of
racial disparities in school discipline to the forefront of national attention. As part
of the court hearing for six of those students, extensive data regarding the dispro-
portionate discipline of African American students both in Decatur and in large
urban school systems throughout the country were highlighted (Gordon, Della
Piana, & Keleher 2000). Despite a ruling in federal court that the Decatur School
Board was within its rights in expelling the students, the incident has led to consid-
eration of the general issues of zero tolerance and racial inequity in discipline by
both the United States Commission on Civil Rights and Secretary of Education
Richard Riley (Koch, 2000).
Minority overrepresentation in school punishment is by no means a new issue.
Extensive investigations of school punishments over the past 25 years have been
consistent in raising questions concerning socioeconomic and racial
disproportionality in the administration of school discipline (e.g., Children’s De-
fense Fund, 1975; McCarthy & Hoge, 1987; Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997;
Thornton & Trent, 1988; Wu, Pink, Crain, & Moles, 1982). The meaning of those
statistics remains unclear, however. Despite extensive documentation of the exist-
ence of racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities in school discipline data,
there has been little systematic exploration of possible explanations for the
disproportionality. The purpose of this investigation was to explore gender, racial,
and socioeconomic disparities in school discipline in sufficient detail to test alter-
native hypotheses concerning disproportionate school discipline.
DISPROPORTIONALITY BY SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS
Studies of school suspension have consistently documented disproportionality
by socioeconomic status (SES). Students who receive free school lunch are at in-
creased risk for school suspension (Skiba et al., 1997; Wu et al., 1982). Wu et al.
(1982) also found that students whose fathers did not have a full-time job were
significantly more likely to be suspended than students whose fathers were em-
ployed full-time.
In a qualitative study of student reactions to school discipline, Brantlinger (1991)
interviewed adolescent students from both high- and low-income residential areas
concerning their reactions to school climate and school discipline. Both low- and
high-income adolescents agreed that low-income students were more likely to be
unfairly targeted by school disciplinary sanctions. There also appeared to be differ-
ences in the nature of punishment meted out to students of different social classes.
While high-income students more often reported receiving mild and moderate con-
The Color of Discipline:
Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in
School Punishment
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 22
sequences (e.g., teacher reprimand, seat reassign-
ment), low-income students reported receiving more
severe consequences, sometimes delivered in a less-
than-professional manner (e.g., yelled at in front of
class, made to stand in hall all day, search of per-
sonal belongings).
DISPROPORTIONALITY BY MINORITY STATUS
Of particular concern in the administration of
school discipline is the overrepresentation of mi-
norities, especially African American1 students, in the
use of exclusionary and punitive consequences. In
one of the earliest explorations of evidence con-
cerning school suspension, the Children’s Defense
Fund (1975) studied national data on school disci-
pline provided by the U.S. Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and reported rates of
school suspension for black students that exceeded
white students on a variety of measures. Rates of
suspension for black students were between two
and three times higher than suspension rates for
white students at the elementary, middle, and high
school levels. While 29 states suspended over 5 per-
cent of their total black enrollment, only 4 states
suspended 5 percent or more of white students. Fi-
nally, black students were more likely than white
students to be suspended more than once, although
no racial differences were found in the length of
suspension administered.
Since that report, racial disproportionality in the
use of school suspension has been a highly consis-
tent finding (Costenbader & Markson, 1994;
Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Glackman et al., 1978;
Gregory, 1997; Kaeser, 1979; Lietz & Gregory, 1978;
Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1986; McCarthy &
Hoge, 1987; McFadden, Marsh, Price, & Hwang, 1992;
Skiba et al., 1997; Streitmatter, 1986; Taylor & Foster,
1986; Thornton & Trent, 1988; Wu et al., 1982). Afri-
can American students are also more frequently
exposed to harsher disciplinary strategies, such as
corporal punishment (Gregory, 1996; Shaw & Braden,
1990), and are less likely to receive mild disciplinary
alternatives when referred for an infraction
(McFadden et al., 1992). Indeed, there is some sug-
gestion that the relationship between the use of
school discipline and minority disproportionality is
linear. Overrepresentation of African American stu-
dents in school suspension and expulsion appears
to increase as those punishments are used more fre-
quently (Advancement Project, 2000; Massachusetts
Advocacy Center, 1986). Finally, while overrepresen-
tation of African American students in school
exclusion does not appear to be dependent on the
proportion of African American students enrolled,
studies of recently desegregated schools have found
that disproportionality in school suspension appears
to increase immediately after school desegregation,
especially in high socioeconomic status schools
(Larkin, 1979; Thornton & Trent, 1988).
It has been suggested that the interpretation of
disproportionality data may depend to some extent
upon the way the data are presented, or upon the
criterion applied to the data (MacMillan & Reschly,
1998; Reschly, 1997). Commenting upon minority
overrepresentation in special education, Reschly
(1997) notes that disproportionality data have been
typically reported in two different ways, yielding per-
centages that differ dramatically. The first method
compares the baseline distribution of the target group
in the population with the distribution of that group
in the category under study (e.g., African Americans
represent 16% of general enrollment, but 24% of the
enrollment in classes for students with mild mental
retardation); the second is the absolute proportion
of a population being served in a category (e.g., of
the entire population of African American students,
2.1% are enrolled in programs for students with mild
mental retardation). In addition, Reschly notes that
investigations of disproportionality have used dif-
ferent criteria for judging whether a statistical
discrepancy constitutes over or underrepresentation.
Obviously, lack of clarity concerning which report-
ing method is being used will yield confusion, yet it
is unclear whether simply changing the dimension
of reporting will affect the conclusions drawn from
a statistical analysis of the data.
Table 1 is a summary of the findings of studies
investigating minority overrepresentation in school
suspension and expulsion since the Children’s De-
fense Fund (1975) report. Studies are grouped by
those that report the distribution of school punish-
ments by race (e.g., proportion of all suspended
students who were African American as compared
1In this manuscript, we will use terms suggested by Nieto (2000) for labeling racial categories (e.g., African American and European-
American) whenever speaking of those students in themselves, without comparison. But since those terms are somewhat cumbersome
for purposes of comparison, particularly in tables, we will use the terms black and white when comparing populations.
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 33
to the proportion of African Americans in school or
district enrollment), those that report the percent-
age of students in a given group who received a
given disciplinary consequence (e.g., total percent-
age of African American students who were
suspended), or other (e.g., mean differences). A com-
mon criterion for judging whether a group is
disproportionately represented is the “ten percent
of the population” standard (Reschly, 1997); that is,
a subpopulation may be considered over- or under-
represented if its proportion in the target classifica-
tion (e.g. suspension) exceeds its representation in
the population by 10% of that representation. Thus,
if African American students constitute 20% of the
Table 1. Investigations of Minority Disproportionality in Office Referral, Suspension, and Expulsion
A. Data Indicating Disproportionality in Suspension or Other Disciplinary Action
Study Location & Data Source Sample Percentage of
Enrollment
Percentage Receiving Disciplinary
Acitons
Costenbader &
Markson (1998)
One urban and one rural
school district; school district
records
620 middle and
high school
students
White 50%
African American 23%
Hispanic 8%
Suspension:
White 12%
African American 45%
Hispanic 18%
Gordon, Della
Piana, & Keleher
(2000)
Twelve major urban school
districts; suspension and
expulsion data
All students who
were suspended or
expelled
Percentages varied
across the 12 cities.
Examples are:
Boston
White 13%
African American 55%
Hispanic 23%
Los Angeles
White 11%
African American 14%
Hispanic 69%
Suspensions and Expulsion Data for
selected cities:
Boston
White 9%
African American 70%
Hispanic 19%
Los Angeles
White 8%
African American 30%
Hispanic 85%
(Note: In the 12 cities studied, the
proportion of African American
students suspended or expelled
exceeded their representation in the
population by between 14% and
296%.)
Massachusetts
Advocacy Center
(1986)
Boston; central administration
records from 1985
All suspension data
from seven middle
schools over three
schools years
African American 49.8% Suspension:
African American 63.8%
McFadden, Marsh,
Price, & Hwang
(1992)
South Florida; discipline files
from the 1987-88 school year
4,391 disciplined
students in grades
K through 12
White 58%
African American 22%
Hispanic 18%
Other 2%
Suspension:
White 35%
African American 44%
Hispanic 20.6%
Other .5%
Corporal Punishment:
White 33.1%
African American 54.1%
Hispanic 11.8%
Other 1%
Taylor & Foster
(1986)
Southeastern United States;
suspension records of a
medium sized school district
for 1983-84 school year
All suspension
records
Elementary:
African American 44%
Secondary:
African American 45%
Elementary Suspensions:
African American 67.4%
Secondary Suspensions:
African American 59%
Thornton & Trent
(1988)
East Baton Rouge Parish, LA
secondary school records
1981-82 school year
32,210 school
suspension records
White 58.7%
African American 42%
Suspensions:
White 33%
African American 66%
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 44
population, they will be considered to be suspended
disproportionately if more than 22% or less than 18%
of students who were suspended were African Ameri-
can. All of the studies in Table 1 comparing
proportion of population and proportion of students
suspended report disproportionality statistics that
meet or exceed this criterion. Indeed, all of the stud-
ies except one (Cooley, 1995) that have compared
discipline by race have found overrepresentation of
African Americans, regardless of the statistical crite-
ria used. Fewer investigations have explored
disciplinary disproportionality among students of
other ethnic backgrounds, and those studies have
yielded inconsistent results. While there appears to
be overrepresentation of Latino students in some
studies, the finding is not universal across locations
or studies (see e.g., Gordon et al., 2000).
DISPROPORTIONALITY BY GENDER
There also appears to be consistent evidence of
overrepresentation of boys in school disciplinary
sanctions. In virtually every study presenting school
disciplinary data by gender, boys are referred to the
office and receive a range of disciplinary conse-
quences at a significantly greater rate than girls (Lietz
& Gregory, 1978; McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw &
Braden, 1990; Skiba et al., 1997; Taylor & Foster,
1986). Indeed, a number of studies have found that
boys are over four times as likely as girls to be re-
ferred to the office, suspended, or subjected to
corporal punishment (Bain & MacPherson, 1990;
Cooley, 1995; Gregory, 1996; Imich, 1994). There
appears to be a gender by race interaction in the
probability of being disciplined. Using U.S. Office
for Civil Rights data from 1992, Gregory (1996) found
that black males were 16 times as likely to be sub-
jected to corporal punishment as white females.
At both the junior and senior high school levels,
Taylor and Foster (1986) reported a consistent or-
dering in the likelihood of suspension from most
to least: black males, white males, black females,
white females.
EXPLANATIONS OF RACIAL DISPROPORTIONALITY
IN DISCIPLINE
Given the consistency of the findings of minority
overrepresentation across a number of measures of
school discipline, it is surprising that relatively few
investigations have sought to provide explanations
for this disparity. Among those that have, two ex-
planations have been offered. First, because students
of color are overrepresented in lower economic
classes, disciplinary disproportionality may be an ar-
tifact of the overuse of discipline among low-income
students. Second, disproportionality in discipline
among students of color may in fact be a response
to greater rates of disruptive behavior among those
students.
Relationship to Socioeconomic Status
One possible explanation of racial overrepresenta-
tion in school suspension is that overuse of
suspension for black students is not racial bias per
se, but is rather a corollary of the overuse of exclu-
sionary school discipline for students from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds. As noted, low SES has
been consistently found to be a risk factor for school
suspension (Brantlinger, 1991; Skiba et al., 1997; Wu
Table 1. Investigations of Minority Disproportionality in Office Referral, Suspension, and Expulsion (Cont’d)
B. Percent of Group Suspended
Study Location & Data Source Sample Percentage of Group Suspended
Kaeser (1979) United States and Ohio=s seven
largest city school districts; 1975
Office of Civil Rights school survey
All students in the nation; all
students in the Ohio districts
Nationwide:
African American 6%
White 3.1%
Ohio=s 7 largest city school districts:
White 5.6%-16.7%
African American 13.3%-24.7%
Wu, Pink, Crain, &
Moles (1982)
Self-administered questionnaires of
principals, teachers, and students as
part of the Safe School Study
(National Institute of Education,
1978)
Principals, teachers (23, 895),
and students (31,103) from
641 public secondary schools
(seventh through twelfth
grades) in the U.S.
White 5%-11%
African American 15%-23%
Hispanic 8%-17%
Asian American and Pacific Islanders 6%-11%
Native Americans 5%-23%
Other Minorities 7%-14%
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 55
Table 1. Investigations of Minority Disproportionality in Office Referral, Suspension, and Expulsion (Cont’d)
C. Other Relevant Findings
et al., 1982). Yet race also appears to make a contri-
bution to disciplinary outcome independent of
socioeconomic status. Using a regression model con-
trolling for socioeconomic status at the school level
(percent of parents unemployed and percentage of
students enrolled in free lunch program), Wu et al.
(1982) reported that nonwhite students still reported
significantly higher rates of suspension than white
students in all locales except rural senior high
schools.
Relationship of Behavior and Discipline
The possibility exists that higher rates of school
exclusion and punishment for African American stu-
dents are due to correspondingly high rates of
disruptive behavior. In such a case, disproportionality
in suspension or other punishments would not rep-
resent racial bias, but a relatively appropriate
response to disproportionate misbehavior.
It is important to note that the overrepresentation
of African Americans with respect to behavior-re-
lated consequences is not confined to school
suspension, but appears to be part of a broader pat-
tern common to both education and criminal justice.
Gregory (1997) notes that, in addition to suspen-
sion, African American students, especially males,
are disproportionally subjected to corporal punish-
ment and disproportionally referred for special
education service for emotional and behavioral dis-
orders. Serwatka, Deering, and Grant (1995) reported
Study Location & Data Source Sample Findings
Cooley (1995) Kansas; survey results from
principals of middle, junior high,
and high schools
1,094 incidents from principal
report of the last three
students suspended or
expelled at their school
African American and Hispanic students were
only slightly over represented among those
suspended or expelled. This difference was
not significant (χ2).
Costenbader &
Markson (1994)
National survey sampling two states
in each of five geographical regions
Principals and Assistant
Principals from 349 Middle
and High schools
Respondents reported that African American
students were suspended in numbers
significantly disproportionate to their total
enrollment (t-test).
Gregory (1997) Nationwide data; 1992 Office for
Civil Rights school survey
25+ million students,
representing 59% of the total
enrollment of U. S. public
schools in 1992
African American males were more likely to
be suspended than all other index groups
ranging from 1.71 times more likely than
Hispanic and American Indian males, to 10.14
times more likely than Asian females
(Likelihood ratios).
Lietz & Gregory
(1978)
Milwaukee; discipline files from one
public elementary school for 1975-
76 school year
397 students African American students were referred to the
office for disciplinary reasons significantly
more often than white children (χ2).
McCarthy & Hoge
(1987)
Self-reported school suspension of
students over two school years
(1976-77, 1977-78)
945 junior high and high
school students
Occurrence of suspension rated using a Likert
scale (0=never and 5=once a month or more).
Average African American student score for
suspension was .94 (year 1) and .92 (year 2).
Average white student score for suspension
was .48 (year 1) and .54 (year 2). Difference
was significant at .001 level for both years (t-
test).
Nichols, Ludwin, &
Iadicola (1999)
Large metropolitan city in the
Midwest; enrollment and
suspension data
15,400 middle and high school
students
Although enrollment was made up of 74%
majority student 23% minority students,
minority students received 2.76 times as many
suspensions as majority students.
Skiba, Peterson, &
Williams (1997)
Midwestern city school district; all
disciplinary records from a from the
1994-95 school year
11,001students (6th through
9th grade)
African American students received a
significantly higher number of average
referrals and significantly more suspensions
than students from other ethnic backgrounds
(ANOVA).
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 66
that African American overrepresentation in such
classes decreased as the representation of African
Americans among the school faculty increased, sug-
gesting the possibility of bias in the referral process.
Finally, the overrepresentation of young African
American males in the juvenile justice system is well
documented. Reports on state and city criminal jus-
tice practices have reported that African Americans
are twice as likely to be the target of stop-and-frisk
practices (New York State Attorney General’s Office
Civil Rights Bureau, 1999), five times more likely to
be detained (Conley, 1994), and up to ten times as
likely to be incarcerated (Mauer, 1997).
Despite the ubiquity of findings concerning the
relationship between race and behavior-related con-
sequences, investigations of behavior, race, and
discipline have yet to provide evidence that African
American students misbehave at a significantly higher
rate. Whether based on school records (McFadden
et al., 1992) or student interviews (McCarthy & Hoge,
1987), studies have failed to find racial disparities in
misbehavior sufficient to account for the typically
wide racial differences in school punishment. If any-
thing, African American students appear to receive
more severe school punishments for less severe be-
havior (McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1990).
WHEN DOES DISPROPORTIONALITY INDICATE
DISCRIMINATION?
Questions about the sources of disproportionality
in the application of school discipline relate to the
central issue inherent in questions of overrepresen-
tation: When does minority overrepresentation in-
dicate bias? Although disciplinary disparities appear
to be common, demonstrating that disproportion-
ality represents discrimination or bias is highly com-
plex. A direct survey of racial attitudes will probably
fail to capture bias, since self-reports about disci-
plinary practices involving race or gender would
likely be highly influenced by social acceptability.
Thus, determining whether a given measure of
disproportionality represents bias is most likely a
matter of ruling out alternative hypotheses that could
account for overrepresentation.
For data concerning disparate rates of school pun-
ishment, three such alternative explanations might
be offered. First, apparent differences between
groups could be simply a statistical artifact, a prod-
uct of the particular method of reporting the data.
Measures of disproportionality are inconsistent across
and even within studies, making it conceivable that
apparent discrepancies are dependent upon a par-
ticular method of measurement. Second, racial or
gender differences in office referrals, suspensions,
or expulsions may be due primarily to the influence
of SES. Race and socioeconomic status are unfortu-
nately highly connected in American society
(Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, & Klebanov, 1994), increas-
ing the possibility that any finding of disproportion-
ality due to race is in fact a product of
disproportionality associated with SES. Finally, dis-
proportionate representation in school discipline may
be a product of corresponding disparities in disrup-
tive behavior. Since school sanctions represent the
intersection of a student behavior and the decision
to punish that behavior, disproportionate rates of
misbehavior among some target group (e.g., males)
would support a conclusion that disproportionality
is not bias, but rather an appropriate response to
unacceptable behavior by members of that group.
The purpose of this investigation is explore ra-
cial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities in school
discipline practice in sufficient detail to provide data
on possible sources of disproportionate representa-
tion. In order to bring some consistency to measures
of disproportionality, the results of a number of dif-
ferent indices of disproportionality will be compared.
More importantly, our analyses focused on the three
alternative hypotheses above in order to explore the
extent to which racial and gender overrepresentation
in school disciplinary referrals are artifactual, or in-
dicators of bias:
1. To what extent is disproportionality in school dis-
cipline a function of variations in statistical
methodology?
2. To what extent are disciplinary disparities by race
or gender attributable to socioeconomic differ-
ences?
3. To what extent is disproportionality in school dis-
cipline a function of disproportionate rates of
misbehavior among those groups disciplined
more frequently?
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 77
Method
SUBJECTS
Subjects for this study were all middle school students in a large, urban Mid-
western public school district. The district is located in one of the 15 largest cities
in the United States, serving over 50,000 students.
The data reported herein were drawn from the disciplinary records of all 11,001
students in 19 middle schools in the district for the 1994-95 school year. Students
were almost exactly evenly divided between grades six, seven, and eight, with four
students listed as being in grade nine. Male students accounted for 51.8 % (5,698)
of the participants compared to 48.2% female (5,303) participants in the study. The
majority of students were categorized as either black (56%) or white (42%). Latino
students represented 1.2% of the middle school population, while 0.7% of the
students were designated Asian American and 0.1% were described as Native Ameri-
can. Students in general education accounted for 83.2% (9,095) of the middle school
population, while a total of 2,006 (16.8%) students were eligible for special educa-
tion services. The largest special education category in the district was comprised
by the 982 (9.8%) students with learning disabilities; there were 580 students with
mild or moderate mental handicaps (5.3%) in the sample, 193 (1.8%) students clas-
sified as emotionally handicapped, and 85 students (0.8%) classified as
communication handicapped.
Information on socioeconomic status was represented by qualification status for
free or reduced cost lunch. Of the entire sample, 7,287 (65.3%) students’ families
met the criteria required for free lunch status. Another 2, 923 (26.6%) students were
eligible for reduced cost lunch. Students either not eligible for free or reduced
lunch or for whom meal status data were not recorded represented 8.1% (891) of
the total number of students.
The 19 middle schools were located in a predominantly urban setting. Of the 19
public middle schools, four had less than 400 students, 11 schools had student
bodies ranging from 400 to 800, and four had a school population greater than 800.
PROCEDURES
The disciplinary data were drawn from an extant data collection system for re-
cording disciplinary contacts in the district. When a formal referral was made to the
office of any of the middle schools, a standardized coding form was filled out by
the administrator receiving the referral. The form included information regarding
the nature of the incident triggering the referral and the resulting action taken by
the administrator. Other general information reported on the coding form were
referral date and time, by whom and to whom the referral was made, previous
actions taken, date of administrative action, and whether parents were contacted.
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 88
Data were scanned, organized and maintained in a
central database by the district’s research and data
team.
Information about disciplinary referrals and con-
sequences was based on the district’s disciplinary
policy, as outlined in the disciplinary handbook.
There were 33 reasons for referral listed on the cod-
ing sheet (complete listings of these variables may
be found in Skiba et al., 1997). The coding form
required that at least one reason for referral be
marked, with an option of applying up to two sec-
ondary codes. Only the primary reason for referral
is included in these analyses. The category “Other”
was dropped for purposes of the current analyses,
leaving 32 reasons for referral. In terms of sanctions,
only out-of-school suspensions and school expul-
sions were analyzed in this investigation.
After obtaining appropriate human subjects and
district clearance and removing individual identify-
ing information, disciplinary incidents files were
transferred from the district’s mainframe computer,
along with registration data for all middle school
students in the district. The data on these records
encompass all middle school students formally reg-
istered at one of the 19 middle schools during the
1994-1995 academic year. The registration and disci-
plinary incidents files were merged, so as to include
those students who were registered as attending one
of the 19 middle schools, but who did not have a
disciplinary incident during the course of the school
year.
ANALYSES
The data as originally transferred from the district
data base were based on disciplinary infraction as
the unit of analysis. For purposes of the present in-
vestigation, the data were aggregated so that student
became the unit of analysis. Because gender, race
and socioeconomic status have all demonstrated
evidence of disproportionate representation in pre-
vious investigations, disparities for all three were
explored in this data set, in terms of number of of-
fice referrals, suspensions, and expulsions.
Disproportionality as a Statistical Artifact
Reschly (MacMillan & Reschly, 1998; Reschly,
1997) has documented substantial inconsistencies
in the display and analysis of data concerning mi-
nority disproportionality in special education. He
describes two common methods for assessing dis-
proportionate representation. The first compares the
baseline ethnic distribution in the population with
the ethnic distribution in the category under study
(e.g., African Americans represent 17% of the popu-
lation, but 23% of those labeled emotionally
disturbed in special education). The second is the
absolute proportion of a population being served in
a category (e.g., of the entire population of African
American students, 1.2% are enrolled in programs
for students with emotional disturbance). While fail-
ure to clearly specify which method is being applied
will create confusion, it is unclear whether simply
changing the dimension of reporting will affect the
conclusions drawn from a statistical analysis of the
data. Thus for all disciplinary measures (office refer-
rals, suspensions, and expulsions) disproportionality
figures will be presented using both methods.
There appears to be no single criterion for deter-
mining how large a discrepancy constitutes over or
underrepresentation. To test of the robustness of
findings of disproportionality across different
methodological approaches, both the 10% of popu-
lation proportion (Reschly, 1997) and chi-square tests
were applied for all analyses.
Statistical Analyses
As a second alternative hypothesis, we explored
the extent to which disparities in discipline by race
and gender can be explained by discrepancies in
socioeconomic status. Free or reduced lunch status
served as a proxy variable for socioeconomic status,
entered in a two-factor (race, gender) analysis of
covariance predicting a number of disciplinary out-
comes. Effect sizes were computed from the F ratios
using procedures recommended by Cooper (1998).
Comparison of the effect sizes drawn from the un-
adjusted means to effect sizes drawn from means
adjusted for the covariate provided an index of the
extent to which the covariate, free lunch status, re-
duced the mean difference between black and white
students on disciplinary measures.
Finally, discriminant analysis (Huberty, 1994;
Lachenbruch, 1975) was used to explore the types
of infractions that differentiate black and white re-
ferrals to the principal’s office. Discriminant analysis
is specifically designed to clarify the relationship
between the response variable (types of infraction)
and a grouping variable with a small number of cat-
egories (ethnicity), by creating a linear combination
of the response variables that best identify the dif-
ferences among groups. As such, the procedure is
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 99
better suited to the problem addressed herein (e.g.
differentiating black and white students on types of
referrals) than logistic regression, which differenti-
ates presence or absence within a single variable.
One of the advantages of discriminant is that the
grouping variable can be of any level of measure-
ment. The grouping variable in many applications,
including this one, is nominal. Lachenbruch (1975)
and Huberty (1994) report that discriminant performs
reasonably well with nominal level variables.
RESULTS
Table 2 presents descriptive comparisons of dis-
ciplinary measures broken down by gender,
ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as represented
by free lunch status. The upper half of the table
shows the percentage of students disciplined repre-
sented by a given gender, ethnic, or lunch status
category. For purposes of comparison, enrollment
percentages are presented at the top of each col-
umn. Applying the 10% of the population proportion
criteria to these data (Reschly, 1997), males and black
students were overrepresented on all measures of
school discipline (referrals, suspensions, and expul-
sions), while females and white students were
under-represented on all measures of school disci-
pline. Disproportionality among males and African
American students appears to increase as one moves
from suspension to expulsion. All comparisons were
statistically significant on chi-square tests at the p <
.01 level.
Analyses in the upper half of Table 2 showed
evidence of disproportionality by income level for
most but not all disciplinary indices. All compari-
sons met or exceeded the 10% of population
proportion criteria for over or underrepresentation,
with the exception of office referrals for the category
reduced cost lunch. Using chi-square tests, differ-
ences among the three SES groups were statistically
significant for office referrals and school suspensions,
but not expulsions.
Proportions of each group referred, suspended,
and expelled are presented in the lower half of Table
2. All differences between the groups due to gen-
Gender Racial Status Free/Reduced Cost Status (SES)
Analysis Male Female Black White Free Reduced Not Eligible
% of Total Represented by Group a
% of Enrolled (n=11,001) 51.8% 48.2% 56.0% 42.0% b64.8% 8.0% 27.2%
% of Referred (n=4,513) 63.0% 37.0% 66.1% 32.7% 71.4% 7.4% 21.4%
Discrepancy +11.2% -11.2% + 11.1% -7.3% +6.6% - 0.6% +-5.8%
% of Suspended (n=2,476) 67.2% 32.8% 68.5% 30.9% 74.5% 7.1% 18.4%
Discrepancy +15.4% -15.4% + 13.5% -9.1% +9.7% -0.9% -8.8%
% of Expelled (n=43) 83.7% 16.3% 80.9% 17.0% 74.4% 11.6% 14.0% x
Discrepancy +31.9% -31.9% +24.9% -25.0% + 9.6% + 3.6% -13.2%
% of Group Receiving Disciplinary Consequence c
% of Group Referred 49.9% 31.5% 48.4% 21.4% 45.6% 38.5% 32.8%
% of Group Suspended 29.2% 15.3% 27.0% 17.1% 25.9% 19.9% 15.2%
% of Group Expelled 0.6% 0.1% 0.6% 0.2% 0.4% 0.6% 0.2% x
Note. All comparisons (gender, ethnic status, SES) of Percentage of Total Represented by Group were significant at p < .01
level on chi-square tests except for percentage of expulsions for SES comparison.
aRepresents percentage of disciplinary incidents accounted for by the index group. Discrepancy is the difference between proportion
of incidents accounted for and percentage of total enrollment.
bProportions represent only black and white students. Given that the remaining 2% of students were represented by students in other
ethnic categories, percentages in this column will not total to 100%, nor will discrepancies with enrollment figures be reciprocal of one
another.
cRepresents percentage of index group receiving each disciplinary consequence. Statistical significance represented as above.
+Does not reach the disproportionality criteria of 10% plus or minus the population proportion (Reschly, 1997).
XNo significant difference in expulsions by socioeconomic status, p> .05. All other chi-square tests were significant at the p < .05
level.
Table 2. Disproportionality on Various Disciplinary Indices by Gender, Race, and Socioeconomic Status
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1010
Measure Total Sample Black White
Mean nMean nMean n
Office Referrals Per Student
Male 2.08 5585 2.50 3187 1.53 2398
Female 98 5195 1.26 2978 0.61 2217
Total 1.55 10780 a1.90 6165 1.09 4615
Suspensions Per Student
Male 0.72 5585 0.85 3187 0.54 2398
Female 0.32 5195 0.40 2978 0.20 2217
Total 0.53 10780 a0.63 6165 0.38 4615
Proportion of Referrals Suspended
Male 0.34 2802 0.33 1811 0.35 991
Female 0.31 1659 0.31 1173 0.30 486
Total 0.33 4461 b0.32 2984 0.33 477
No. of Days Per Suspension
Male 2.38 1698 2.39 1106 2.38 592
Female 2.33 840 2.36 609 2.18 231
Total 2.36 2538 c2.38 1715 2.33 823
aIncludes total number of black or white students, including those with no office referrals.
bIncludes only those students who were referred to the office one or more times during the school year.
cIncludes only those students who were suspended one or more times during the school year.
Table 3. Mean Rates of Occurrence for Various Disciplinary Indices: Race and Gender Comparison
der, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are statisti-
cally significant for both proportion of the group
referred to the office, proportion suspended, and
proportion expelled. Indeed, because proportions
presented in the top and bottom half of Table 2 rep-
resent the row and column proportions of an n x n
contingency table (e.g., race by presence/absence
of suspension), all chi-square results for the top and
bottom half of Table 2 were exactly the same.
A more detailed analysis of disciplinary referrals
and consequences by gender and race can be found
in Table 3. Across both office referrals and suspen-
sions, there is a clear rank order from greatest to
least frequency (black male, white male, black fe-
male, white female). Differences in the rate of office
referrals were significant for both the main effects
of race, F (3, 10,776) = 165.35, p < .001) and gender,
F (3, 10,776) = 310.56, p < .001, as well as the inter-
action of the two variables, F (3, 10,776) = 6.19, p <
.05. In terms of the likelihood of being suspended
once referred to the office, boys were suspended at
a significantly higher rate than girls given at least
one office referral, F (3, 4457) = 4.19, p < .05). There
were no statistically significant differences in pro-
portion of incidents resulting in suspension by race
or for the interaction of race and gender. Nor were
there any significant race or gender differences in
the mean number of days suspension assigned for
those students who had been suspended. Effect sizes
for all four measures are provided in Table 4 for
both main and interaction effects.
SOURCES OF DISPROPORTIONALITY
Since low-income students appear to be subjected
to a variety of school sanctions in disproportionate
numbers, some have suggested that racial
disproportionality in suspension and expulsion is
due in large measure to the correlation in most
schools between race and socioeconomic status and
that, if income status were controlled, racial dispari-
ties in disciplinary statistics would disappear
(National Association of Secondary School Princi-
pals, 2000). To test this hypothesis, the mean
differences in Table 3 were retested using a two fac-
tor analysis of covariance. The criterion measures
were the four measures of discipline (referrals, sus-
pensions, proportion of referrals suspended, mean
days suspended), the two factors were race (black,
white) and gender (male, female); socioeconomic
status was controlled by using lunch status as a
covariate. Across all four variables, the addition of
lunch status as a covariate resulted in no change in
significance for any of the analyses. Effect sizes for
main effects and interactions adjusted by the
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1111
covariate lunch status are presented in column two
of Table 4. Comparison of unadjusted and adjusted
effect sizes shows only a minimal influence of so-
cioeconomic status on race or gender differences
on any disciplinary measure.
While differences in the rate of referral to the of-
fice were statistically significant for both race and
gender, there were no significant differences by race
in variables connected with the disposition of refer-
rals at the office level (e.g. mean number of days
suspended). This pattern of results may suggest that
highly disparate rates of suspension for black and
white students in this sample may be due in large
part to prior disproportionate representation in of-
fice referrals. As a further test of this hypothesis,
mean differences by race and gender in number of
suspensions were retested with analysis of covari-
ance, using frequency of office referral as a covariate.
Controlling for number of office referrals reduced
previously significant mean differences in number
of suspensions to non-significance for both gender,
F (4, 10775) = 1.11, p > .05), race, F (4, 10,775) =
2.25, p > .05, and their interaction, F (4, 10775) =
.001, p > .05. These reductions are also reflected in
the decrease in suspension effect sizes for both race
and gender to near zero (see Table 4). These results
suggest that disproportionality in school suspension
for African American students can be accounted for
in large measure by prior disproportionate referral
of African American students to the office.
DISCRIMINANT ANALYSES:
TESTING DIFFERENCES IN TYPES OF REFERRALS
Thus, while disproportionality in the use of sus-
pension by gender and race does not appear to be a
function of socioeconomic status, it does appear to
be explainable by prior disproportionality in rates
of referral to the office. Given that racial and gender
differences in suspension rate appear to originate at
the level of referral, it becomes important to further
assess the sources of disparity in referral.
The ideal test of the hypothesis that a group of
students are suspended disproportionately because
of increased misbehavior would be to observe stu-
dent classroom behavior and office referrals
independently. Those data were not available for
this study, nor are we aware of any other investiga-
tion that has reported both observational and office
referral data. A less direct but probably satisfactory
Measure Unadjusted d d Adjusted for # of Referrals
Lunch Status a
Office Referrals Per Student
Race .248 .206
Gender .340 .350
Race X Gender Interaction .048 .050
Suspensions Per Student
Race .252 .196 .025
Gender .400 .405 .020
Race X Gender Interaction .055 .057 .001
Proportion of Referrals Suspended
Race .020 .038
Gender .061 .066
Race X Gender Interaction .034 .033
No. of Days Per Suspension
Race .029 .040
Gender .058 .056
Race X Gender Interaction .075 .063
aEffect size was calculated from F ratios for main effects and interactions, adapted from Cooper (1998):
where F = the value of the F test for the associated comparison; and df error = the error degrees of freedom associated with the F test.
Table 4. Unadjusted and Adjusted Effect Sizes for Race and Gender Differences on Various Disciplinary Indices
dF
df error
=
2
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1212
2Wilks lambda is a measure of inverse proportion describing the residual variance available after the entry of the independent
variables. The large yet significant Wilks lambda for this sample suggests both that there is a large proportion of unaccounted variance
in describing the difference between these two populations and that the variables entered in this function do discriminate significantly
between the two populations. Given that the dependent variables being discriminated in these analyses are gender and race, the finding
that there are other factors unmeasured in the current analysis that account for a large proportion of the difference between groups is
obvious, perhaps to the extent of being trivial. Thus, the more important information, presented in Tables 3 and 4, is the relative
contribution and sign of the variables that made a significant contribution to the discriminant function.
Reason for Referral Variables Predicting Male Referral Variables Predicting Female Referral
DFA Coefficient aStructure Matrix r bDFA Coefficient Structure Matrix r
Fighting -.468 -.519
Endangering -.352 -.453
Conduct Interference -.208 -.375
Throw/Propel Objects -.255 -.345
Gambling -.332 -.341
Threat -.181 -.283
Vandalism -.204 -.260
Sexual Acts -.139 -.237
Indecent Exposure -.203 -.235
Minor Offenses -.176 -.232
Spit -.182 -.221
Truancy .230 .519
Note: Analysis based on the 4513 students who were referred to the office for a disciplinary violation one or more times during the
school year. All variables significantly entered/remained in the discriminant function at p <.05 level or better. Overall discriminant
function significantly distinguished between the two groups (c2 = 222.65, df=13, p < .001). Positive and negative signs are arbitrary,
based on coding of male as 0 and female as 1. Negative signs thus connote significantly higher mean referrals for males, while positive
signs indicate significantly higher referrals for female students.
aRepresents standardized canonical discriminant function coefficient, transformed so that all variables have a mean of 0 and a
standard deviation of 1.This coefficient might be regarded as an index of the relative importance of each variable in the function.
bRepresents pooled within-group correlations between discriminating variables and standardized canonical discriminant function, and
is an index of the degree of correlation of the variable with the function within each group.
Table 5. Discriminant Function Analysis Predicting Gender by Reason for Office Referral
method for testing this hypothesis is to explore the
types of behavior exhibited by black and white stu-
dents resulting in their referrals to the office. Because
boys and African American students are suspended
at a higher rate than other students, one would ex-
pect them to engage in correspondingly higher rates
of more serious infractions. Alternately, higher rates
of referral for less serious offenses might suggest
that racial or gender disproportionality in suspen-
sion reflects some systematic bias operating at the
classroom level.
Differences in Referrals by Gender
A discriminant analysis (Huberty, 1994) was con-
ducted to explore the extent to which the types of
behaviors resulting in referral to the office differed
for middle school boys and girls (see Table 5). The
sample consisted of all students who had received
at least one referral to the office for a disciplinary
infraction during the school year (n = 4513). The
grouping variable was gender (0=male, 1=female).
The response variables were the 32 reasons for of-
fice referral. With two conditions for the criterion
variable, the analysis yielded a single canonical dis-
criminant function. The Wilks’ lambda associated
with the function, a measure of residual discrimina-
tion after accounting for the variance of the entered
variables, was relatively large (.952), but still statisti-
cally significant (c2 (df = 13) = 222.65, p < .001).2
Of greater interest for this analysis than the over-
all significance of the discriminant function were
the specific reasons for referral that significantly dif-
ferentiated between boys and girls. Variables
entering the equation and measures of their respec-
tive strength are presented in Table 5. Reasons for
referral that were significantly more probable for
boys are represented with a negative sign, and for
girls by a positive sign. While boys were referred to
the office more often for a host of infractions rang-
ing in seriousness from minor offenses to sexual
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1313
acts, for only one infraction (truancy) were girls more
likely to be referred to the office than boys.
Differences in Referrals by Race
A similar discriminant analysis was conducted to
explore differences in the types of office referrals
received by black and white students (see Table 6).
The sample for this analysis consisted of all black or
white students who had been referred to the office
for a disciplinary infraction at least once during the
course of the school year (n = 4461). The grouping
variable was reported ethnic status (0=white,
1=black). The response variables were again the 32
reasons for office referral. Once again, the overall
discriminant function was highly significant in dif-
ferentiating the two groups (c2 (df = 8) = 86.223, p
< .001), although a large Wilks’ lambda (.981) sug-
Reason for Referral Variables Predicting White Referral Variables Predicting Black Referral
DFA Coefficient aStructure Matrix r bDFA Coefficient Structure Matrix r
Smoking -.681 -.680
Left without Permission -.228 -.205
Vandalism -.225 -.191
Obscene Language -.225 -.113
Disrespect .401 .429
Excessive Noise .285 .355
Threat .287 .291
Loitering .235 .277
Note: Analysis based on 4461 African American or European-American students who were referred to the office for a disci-
plinary violation one or more times during the school year. All variables significantly entered/remained in discriminant func-
tion at p <.05 level or better. Overall discriminant function significantly distinguished between the two groups (c2 = 86.22,
df=8, p < .001). Positive and negative signs are arbitrary, based on coding of white students as 0 and black students as 1.
Negative signs thus connote significantly higher mean referrals for white students, while a positive sign indicates significantly
higher referral rate for black students.
aStandardized canonical discriminant function coefficient.
bPooled within-group correlations between discriminating variables and standardized canonical discriminant function.
Table 6. Discriminant Function Analysis Predicting Ethnic Group Membership by Reason for Office Referral
gests that the proportion of overall variance ac-
counted for was relatively small.
Table 6 presents the reasons for referral that sig-
nificantly differentiated black and white referrals. A
positive sign indicates a greater likelihood of refer-
ral for black students, while a negative sign indicates
a greater likelihood of referral for white students.
Black students in this sample appear to be referred
to the office for infractions that are both less serious
and more subjective in their interpretation than white
students. White students were significantly more
likely than black students to be referred to the of-
fice for smoking, leaving without permission,
vandalism, and obscene language. Black students
were more likely to be referred for disrespect, ex-
cessive noise, threat, and loitering.
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1414
The current results were consistent with a large body of previous research in
finding racial and gender overrepresentation across a variety of school consequences.
Previous ethnographic studies of secondary school students in both urban and
small town school systems have reported that students consistently perceive that
students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are more likely to expe-
rience a variety of school punishments (Brantlinger, 1991; Sheets, 1996).
Unfortunately, results both in this study and in previous research going back at
least 25 years are consistent with those perceptions.
In and of itself, disproportionate representation in school discipline is not suffi-
cient to prove bias. Rather, determinations of bias might be seen as probabilistic:
that is, as more alternative hypotheses that might explain disproportionality can be
discounted, the greater the likelihood that statistical disparities between groups
represent some form of systematic bias. The primary purpose of this investigation
was to explore a number of alternative hypotheses that have been used to account
for racial and gender disparities in school discipline.
A serious threat to determining bias in disproportionality data is the methodol-
ogy itself. Studies reporting on minority over-representation are often highly
inconsistent in the presentation or analysis of their results, both across and even
within studies (MacMillan & Reschly, 1998; Reschly, 1997). It is conceivable that
apparent discrepancies between groups on one or more measures of school disci-
pline are simply artifacts of the method of data presentation or analysis chosen.
Thus, we presented the data in two different formats, designed to answer two
different questions. The first is “what percentage of students assigned a given pun-
ishment are African American, and does that percentage differ from their percentage
in overall district enrollment?” The second is “what percentage of African American
students were referred, suspended or expelled?” Statistical analysis of these two
dimensions did not yield different results; indeed, it could not yield different re-
sults. In a two-by-two contingency table where race (black/white) represents the
columns and school suspension (suspended/not suspended) the rows, percent of
those suspended who are African American is represented by the rows across each
column, and total percent of African Americans suspended is represented by the
columns across rows. Thus, chi-square results for these two questions are by defi-
nition identical.
We also used different statistical criteria to test whether the observed disparities
found for gender, race, and socioeconomic status represent meaningful differences.
For measures of SES, results indicated some changes in the apparent extent of
disparity depending upon the statistical criteria used, for both office referrals and
expulsions. For both gender and race, however, all differences met the
disproportionality criteria for all three disciplinary consequences (referral, suspen-
sion, and expulsion), regardless of the method of analysis.
Discussion
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1515
Another rationale typically offered for racial dis-
parity in school punishment is the socioeconomic
explanation, based upon the unfortunate but con-
sistent correlation between race and income level in
American society. In its statement before the United
States Commission on Civil Rights, the National As-
sociation of Secondary School Principals (2000)
argued that racial disproportionality in the applica-
tion of zero tolerance policies
...is not an issue of discrimination or bias be-
tween ethnic or racial groups, but a
socioeconomic issue. As we have seen in the
area of standards and assessments, the greatest
predictor of a student’s score is not race or
ethnicity but the student’s socioeconomic sta-
tus. Therefore a higher incidence of ethnic and
racial minority students being affected by zero
tolerance policies should not be seen as dispar-
ate treatment or discrimination but in terms of
an issue of socioeconomic status. (p. 3)
Yet the results of the current investigation are con-
sistent with previous findings (Wu et al., 1982) in
demonstrating that significant racial disparities in
school discipline remain even after controlling for
socioeconomic status. In this sample, an index of
socioeconomic status had virtually no effect when
used as a covariate in a test of racial differences in
office referrals and suspensions. Indeed, disciplin-
ary disproportionality by socioeconomic status
appears to be a somewhat less robust finding than
gender or racial disparity.
A number of findings in this study converge to
suggest that gender and race disparities in school
suspension are due, not to disposition at the admin-
istrative level, but to differences in the rate of initial
referral to the office for black and white students.
Mean rates of office referral showed large, statisti-
cally significant differences by both gender and race.
Significant race by gender interactions in these analy-
ses echo previous findings (Gregory, 1996; Taylor &
Foster, 1986) in suggesting a consistent rank order-
ing in the likelihood of office referral: black male,
white male, black female, white female. In contrast,
measures reflecting the administrative disposition of
the disciplinary referral showed no evidence of
disproportionality. Although boys were slightly more
likely than girls to be suspended once referred to
the office, administrative actions taken in response
to the referral (e.g., mean number of days suspended,
probability of suspension given a referral) showed
almost identical means for white and black students
in the current study. Furthermore, significant racial
and gender differences in the rate of suspension dis-
appeared when controlling for rate of office referral.
Thus, administrative decisions regarding school dis-
cipline in this sample did not appear to be unfair in
themselves; rather, school suspension may function
primarily to “pass along” the disproportionality that
originates in referrals at the classroom level.
Discriminant analysis describing gender differ-
ences in office referrals revealed that boys in this
sample were more likely than girls to be referred to
the office for a host of misbehaviors ranging from
minor offenses and throwing objects, to fighting and
threats, to sexual offenses. On only one of the 32
possible reasons for referral, truancy, were girls more
likely to be disciplined than boys. These findings
are consistent with higher prevalence rates for boys
across a range of externalizing behaviors and syn-
dromes, including aggression (Parke & Slaby, 1983),
bullying (Boulton & Underwood, 1992), school vio-
lence (Walker, Ramsey & Colvin, 1995), theft and
lying (Keltikangas & Lindeman, 1997), conduct dis-
orders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994), and
delinquency (Mears, Ploeger, & Warr, 1998). Boys
have higher rates of suicide completion (Brock &
Sandoval, 1997) and higher rates of referral to resi-
dential treatment centers for emotional and
behavioral disorders (Wells & Whittington, 1993) than
girls. For the one infraction elevated for girls in this
sample, truancy, previous findings regarding school
avoidance and school refusal appear to be inconsis-
tent in terms of gender differences, with some
researchers finding an equal distribution, and oth-
ers finding higher rates for boys or girls (Paige, 1997).
It seems probable, then, that elevated rates of disci-
plinary referral for boys are not due simply to gender
bias. Rather, they appear at least in part to be an
accurate response to what both the current data and
previous research suggests is a higher rate of en-
gagement by boys in a wide range of major and
minor misbehavior.
A similar analysis was used to test the proposi-
tion that disproportionate rates of office referrals,
suspensions, and expulsions among African Ameri-
can students do not represent bias, but an
appropriate response to higher rates of disruptive
behavior among African American students. We are
unaware of any empirical findings that support this
proposition, although there appear to be some that
contradict it. Shaw and Braden (1990) reported that
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1616
although black children received a disproportionate
share of disciplinary referrals and corporal punish-
ment, white children tended to be referred for
disciplinary action for more severe rule violations
than black children. In a longitudinal study of sec-
ondary school students, McCarthy and Hoge (1987)
found that black students reported receiving higher
rates of sanctions for all disciplinary measures stud-
ied; yet the only two behaviors that showed
significant differences between white and black stu-
dents across both years of that study-”skipped class”
and “carved desk”-indicated higher rates of misbe-
havior for white students. Studying disciplinary
referrals across all grades in a single school district,
McFadden et al. (1992) reported that African Ameri-
can students were more often subjected to corporal
punishment and suspension and less often referred
for in-school suspension, and reported that:
...data from the disciplinary files indicate that
corporal punishment was administered more fre-
quently for defiance of school authority, fighting,
and bothering others. A review of the data indi-
cates that white pupils were referred for these
acts more frequently than black pupils and, thus,
should have received higher rates of corporal
punishment... The fact that black pupils received
higher rates of corporal punishment does not
appear to be explainable in terms of their be-
havior; rather some form of bias does appear to
have existed. (p. 144)
Data from the current investigation are consis-
tent with previous investigations in finding that
African American students were subjected to higher
rates of more severe punishments, yet referred for
less serious disciplinary infractions. Discriminant
analysis for black and white students in this sample
indicated that the two groups could be significantly
differentiated on type of referral to the office. In
striking contrast to the gender analyses, however,
the group with the higher rate of office referrals was
not referred for more serious behaviors. White stu-
dents were significantly more likely to be referred
to the office for smoking, leaving without permis-
sion, obscene language, and vandalism. In contrast,
black students were more likely than white students
to be referred to the office for disrespect, excessive
noise, threat, and loitering, behaviors that are at once
less serious and more subjective in their interpreta-
tion. Even the most serious of the reasons for office
referrals among black students, threat, is dependent
on perception of threat by the staff making the re-
ferral. Far from supporting the hypothesis that African
American students act out more frequently, these
and other data suggest that African American stu-
dents are disciplined more frequently and harshly
for less serious, more subjective reasons.
Together, these explorations of three alternative
hypotheses for disproportionality point to important
differences in the sources and meaning of socioeco-
nomic-, gender-, and race-based disparities in school
discipline. In terms of the first hypothesis, concern-
ing methodology, apparent disproportionality due
to SES is to some extent dependent on the method-
ology applied. In contrast, findings of overrepresenta-
tion by gender and race in school discipline are
consistent regardless of measure or statistical criteria.
The second hypothesis, that apparent racial
disproportionality is due to correlation with socio-
economic factors, received no support in this inves-
tigation: Racial and gender disparities persist after
controlling for socioeconomic status. Finally, analy-
ses testing the third hypothesis, that disproportion-
ality is due to disproportionate rates of misbehavior,
provided a striking contrast for gender and race. Our
findings that boys are referred more often for a host
of major and minor disciplinary infractions replicated
extensive findings on gender differences in exter-
nalizing behavior, suggesting that disproportionate
discipline for boys appears to be an appropriate re-
sponse to higher rates of disruptive behavior among
boys. There is no such support for a similar racial
hypothesis. Neither these nor any previous results
we are aware of provide any evidence that racial
discrepancies in school punishment can be ac-
counted for by disproportionate rates of misbehav-
ior. Rather African American students are referred
for and subjected to more severe consequences for
less serious and more subjective reasons. Thus, of
the three dimensions tested in this study-gender, race,
and socioeconomic status-only disparities due to race
persist regardless of level of analysis. Absent sup-
port for any plausible alternative explanation, these
data lend support to the conclusion that racial
disproportionality in school discipline, originating
at the classroom level, is an indicator of systematic
racial discrimination.
It seems likely that racial inequity in the practice
of school discipline is nested within the context of
the overuse of school suspension in general. There
appears to be tremendous variability by school in
the use of school suspension (Massachusetts Advo-
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1717
cacy Center, 1986). At least some of this variability
appears to be attributable to variation in school prac-
tices and school climate. Wu et al. (1982) reported a
significant negative relationship between quality of
school governance and the prevalence of school sus-
pension. Davis and Jordan (1994) reported high
suspension rates in schools spending excessive
amounts of time on discipline-related matters. In an
extensive comparison of schools with high and low
use of school suspension, Bickel and Qualls (1980)
found no differences between high and low sus-
pension schools in school size, geographic location,
or racial proportion of the student body, but did
report that low suspension schools paid significantly
better attention to issues of school climate, accord-
ing to administrators, teachers, and students. In
particular, administrators in high and low use schools
differed significantly in the areas of communication,
management, decision making, and leadership style.
The disproportionate discipline of minority stu-
dents appears to be to some degree associated with
this over-reliance on negative and punitive discipline.
There is some evidence that schools with the high-
est rate of suspension in general also have the highest
rates of overrepresentation of African American stu-
dents in suspension (Advancement Project, 2000;
Massachusetts Advocacy Center, 1986). Bullara (1993)
argues that the typical classroom management style
in many schools, relying heavily on negative conse-
quences, contributes to school rejection and dropout
for African American youth; for such students, “the
choice of either staying in school or dropping out
may be less of a choice and more of a natural re-
sponse to a negative environment in which he or
she is trying to escape” (p. 362). Indeed, Felice (1981)
found significant relationships in urban schools
among high rates of minority suspension, minor-
ity dropout rate, and student perceptions of racial
discrimination.
Student reactions to a negative climate and class-
room management may be exacerbated by cultural
discontinuities that place African American students,
especially African American male adolescents, at a
disadvantage in many secondary classrooms.
Townsend (2000) suggests that many teachers, es-
pecially those of European American background,
may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with the
more active and physical style of communication that
characterizes African American adolescents; the im-
passioned and emotive manner popular among
young African Americans may be interpreted as com-
bative or argumentative by unfamiliar listeners. Fear
may also contribute to over-referral. Teachers who
are prone to accepting stereotypes of adolescent Af-
rican American males as threatening or dangerous
may overreact to relatively minor threats to author-
ity, especially if their anxiety is paired with a
misunderstanding of cultural norms of social inter-
action.
This cycle of fear and cultural discontinuity can
create tension and conflict between students and
school staff. Sheets (1996) reported that both major-
ity and ethnically diverse students in an urban high
school perceived sources of racism in the applica-
tion of discipline. But while white students and
teachers perceived racial disparity in discipline as
unintentional or unconscious, students of color saw
it as conscious and deliberate, arguing that teachers
often apply classroom rules and guidelines arbitrarily
to exercise control, or to remove students whom
they do not like. In particular, African American stu-
dents felt that contextual variables, such as a lack of
respect, differences in communication styles, disin-
terest on the part of teachers, and “being purposefully
pushed to the edge where they were expected and
encouraged to be hostile” were the primary causes
of many disciplinary conflicts (Sheets, p. 175).
Teacher training in appropriate and culturally com-
petent methods of classroom management is likely
then to be the most pressing need in addressing
racial disparities in school discipline. Although con-
sistently rated as among the most important teaching
skills by both regular and special education teach-
ers (J. Brown, Gable, Hendrickson, & Algozzine,
1991; Canon, Idol & West, 1992; Mandell & Strain,
1978; Myles & Simpson, 1989), classroom teachers
report feeling most underprepared in the area of
classroom management (Calhoun, 1986; Leyser,
1988). Ill-equipped to handle the challenges of dis-
ruptive classroom behavior, inexperienced teachers
may increasingly adopt an authoritarian approach
to management, and engage students in power
struggles that serve only to escalate disruption (Em-
mer, 1994; Kearney, Plax, Sorenson, and Smith, 1988),
especially in urban environments (Brophy &
Rohrkemper, 1980). Appropriate training in construc-
tive classroom management, appropriate rules
adequately communicated to students, and the sup-
port of mental health staff and administration can
all assist in developing a more supportive classroom
environment (Bullara, 1993).
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1818
In particular, effective teacher training will focus
on culturally competent practices that enable new
teachers to address the needs of a diverse classroom.
Townsend (2000) suggests a number of important
components that may reduce cultural discontinuity
and enhance the educational experience of African
American students, including relationship-building
strategies, knowledge of linguistic or dialectic pat-
terns of African American youth, increased
opportunity for participation in a range of school
activities, and family and community partnerships.
Finally, effective preparation for teaching diverse
students goes beyond “feel-good” or single issue
approaches to teaching awareness and tolerance
(Banks, 1996; Nieto, 1994) to include a range of skill
instruction and experiences. For example, Leavell,
Cowart, and Wilhelm (1999) describe a multi-com-
ponent training program to enhance the multicultural
awareness of pre-service teachers in the Dallas Pub-
lic Schools, focusing on pedagogical and community
awareness, exposure to diverse communities, instruc-
tional practice, and experiences that challenge
students to examine previously held assumptions.
Racial bias in the practice of school discipline is
also part of a broader discourse concerning the con-
tinuing presence of institutional racism (Hannssen,
1998) or structural inequity (Nieto, 2000; Skiba, Bush,
& Knesting, in press) in education. The theory of
cultural reproduction has proven useful in explain-
ing the contribution of school-based inequity to the
perpetuation of racial and socioeconomic injustice.
As originally formulated (Bowles & Gintis, 1976;
Bernstein, 1977; Spring, 1972), cultural reproduction
theory argued that schools serve as institutional
mechanisms for the transmission and perpetuation
of differential social class values. Oakes (1982) ex-
panded the formulation beyond a solely economic
analysis, suggesting that both ethnic and class dis-
parities are perpetuated through pervasive inequity
across a variety of educational processes. Racial and
socioeconomic inequality in educational opportu-
nity have been extensively documented in areas as
diverse as tracking (Alexander, Cook, & McDill, 1978;
Oakes, 1982), representation in curriculum (Anyon,
1981; Sleeter & Grant, 1991), quality of instruction
(Greenwood, Hart, Walker, & Risley, 1994), physical
resources (Kozol, 1991; Oakes, Ormseth, Bell, &
Camp, 1990), and school funding (Rebell, 1999;
Singer, 1999). Thus, the discriminatory treatment of
African American students in school discipline is not
an isolated phenomena, but appears to be part of a
complex of inequity that appears to be associated
with both special education overrepresentation and
school dropout (Gordon, Della Piana, & Keleher,
2000). These sources of institutional inequity per-
sisting throughout public education do not typically
rise to the conscious level, yet they have the effect
of reinforcing and perpetuating racial and socioeco-
nomic disadvantage. Bowditch (1993) argues that,
whether or not discrepancies in school discipline
are fact racially motivated, the overrepresentation
of African Americans and those of lower socioeco-
nomic status in school discipline contributes to racial
stratification in school and society.
In this context, reducing the disciplinary gap be-
tween black and white students may require attention
to broad-scale systemic reform whose goal is to
equalize educational opportunity for all students.
Hilliard (1999) argues for a shift in emphasis in ur-
ban education away from the linguistic or cultural
“deficits” of minority students toward improving the
quality of educational service for all children. Brown
and Peterkin (1999) propose an integrated strategy
of public schools, particularly urban schools, de-
signed to address a broad range of factors that appear
to be maintaining racial and socioeconomic ineq-
uity; these include developing a set of districtwide
academic standards and priority goals, administra-
tive restructuring to increase resources to schools
rather than the central office, developing procedures
that ensure equitable resource distribution across
schools, school resource inventories, and a meth-
odology for implementation and evaluation across
schools. In some cases, systemic reform may require
litigation in order to overcome institutionalized prac-
tices that contribute to educational inequity; legal
challenges to inequitable practices are beginning to
be documented in the areas of tracking (Welner &
Oakes, 1996) and resource availability (Dunn, 1999).
In summary, the current results are highly consis-
tent with a large body of previous literature in finding
that schools and school districts that rely to a sig-
nificant degree on suspension and expulsion as their
primary disciplinary tools run a substantial risk of
minority disproportionality, especially for African
American students, in the application of those pun-
ishments. This investigation explored a number of
alternatives to bias as an explanation for gender,
race, and socioeconomic disproportionality, and
found that none were capable of accounting for large
and consistent disparities in the discipline of black
and white students. In the absence of a plausible
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 1919
alternative hypothesis, it becomes likely that highly
consistent statistical discrepancies in school punish-
ment for black and white students indicate a
systematic and prevalent bias in the practice of school
discipline.
Indeed, the universality of racial disparities in
school punishment suggests that some form of sys-
tematic bias is inherent in the use of school
suspension and expulsion. As the widespread ac-
ceptance of zero tolerance disciplinary strategies
continues to expand the use of exclusionary disci-
pline (Advancement Project, 2000), one might expect
a concomitant increase in the documentation of dis-
criminatory treatment of African American students.
Reducing the discrepancy between black and white
rates of suspension will likely require increased at-
tention to teacher training in effective and culturally
competent methods of classroom behavior manage-
ment. Further, research is needed to identify effective
systemic reforms that can reduce disciplinary ineq-
uity and increase educational opportunity for
disadvantaged students.
While we have tried to examine the phenomena
of disproportionate representation in school disci-
pline in greater detail than previous investigations,
it should be noted that these findings still do not
constitute an absolute proof of racial discrimination.
It is possible that there are other hypotheses not
examined here that could account for these and other
disparities due to race, gender, or SES. We did, how-
ever, address three of the most common explanations
offered for findings of disciplinary disproportionality.
If there are other explanations for racial
disproportionality in school discipline, they have not
yet been widely represented in the literature. In ad-
dition, the current results are not idiosyncratic, but
are highly consistent with a fairly substantial body
of previous findings. In particular, we were struck
during the preparation of this manuscript by the vir-
tual absence of empirical support for the popular
hypothesis that African American students are disci-
plined more because they act out more.
Indeed, given the regularity with which findings
of racial disproportionality in discipline are reported,
and the lack of a suitable alternative explanation,
we would argue that the most critical questions that
remain to be addressed in this area do not concern
the data per se. Rather, it might be more fruitful to
explore the prepotent tendency to minimize
disproportionality data. Why do advocates of stu-
dents of color need to prove that African American
students are not deserving of disproportionate treat-
ment? Will the data ever be sufficient to provide
convincing proof of racial bias for those who be-
lieve that discrimination is no longer an issue in
American society? What will it take to persuade the
American public in general, and policymakers in par-
ticular, of the need to confront racial disparities in
public education and ensure equal access to educa-
tional opportunity for all children, regardless of the
color of their skin?
DISPROPORTIONALITY IN DISCIPLINE 2020
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... These other identities condition the day-to-day experiences of SGMY (Conron et al., 2018;Mallory & Russell, 2021), suggesting the importance of considering how interlocking identities shape outcomes. To start, existing research strongly suggests that racialized youth experience specific challenges (e.g., excessive discipline) across a variety of contexts, including at school (Skiba et al., 2002;Snapp, Hoenig, et al., 2015). And while there has been some specific research on the online contexts of racialized SGMY (Bőthe et al., 2019), it is important to acknowledge that very few of the studies we looked at had the statistical power to examine differences in the experiences of SGMY across racialized groups, and little qualitative research has focused on the online experiences of racialized youth in particular. ...
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