Toolbox Tuesday: What to do about disproportionality?

Schools are required to keep a lot of statistics, including stats regarding disciplinary action and how it applies to the various demographic groups in the school.  Historically we see considerably more use of suspension, DAEP and other forms of discipline applied to students with disabilities and students of color. How should we think about that?  Let me offer a perspective.

First, the school should apply its rules and enforce its code of conduct in an even-handed manner.  Students should not be treated differently because of race, religion, family status, or national origin. There are requirements to provide certain procedures for students with disabilities that we do not provide to the other students, but those procedures are designed not to create discrimination, but to prevent it.  This is one of the main reasons we have a Toolbox. 

Second, the fact that the statistics show that some groups are subject to discipline more than others does not necessarily mean that this disparity is the result of discrimination.  However, it’s an important data point that should not be ignored.

Third, this is not just about fairness. It’s also about good educational outcomes for all students.  Disciplinary action that excludes the student from the classroom is educationally harmful. All of the research tell us that.  So if we see that there is a clear pattern of disproportionate use of the traditional tools of exclusionary discipline, we should think about what that means for educational outcomes.   If the numbers tell us that black males are far more likely to be sent to ISS, OSS or DAEP than any other demographic group, we are looking at a data point with major implications for the education of those students.  What can we do to reverse that trend?   Looking the other way when students engage in harmful conduct is not a good option.  We can’t ignore serious misconduct in the school.  What are the other options?

We are required to keep statistics about these things so that we can use that data to think about other options.  When there is significant disproportionality we need to ask some questions.   How much of a disparity is there? Is it statistically significant, or easily within the margin of error?  If it is significant, let’s look for some patterns.  Examine each campus in the district to see if the disparity can be pinpointed.  How do elementary schools compare with middle and high schools?  Is there a difference between schools in the more wealthy neighborhoods versus those on the poor side of town?  Does campus leadership seem to matter? 

Concern over disproportionality has been one of the factors driving more schools to move in the direction of a restorative approach to student discipline.  I became a convert to the RD approach many years ago, largely due to the influence of people like Philip Carney and Kevin Curtis who led the charge toward RD in North East ISD.  Kevin summed it up memorably: “Traditional discipline works well for traditional kids from traditional families with traditional values.”   

That made so much sense to me.  I am now an OWG—Old White Guy—who is the product of a traditional family with traditional values.  Traditional discipline made sense to me.  I look back fondly on the strict discipline I experienced in my 13 years of Catholic school.  But we have an increasing number of students who do not fit that profile.  For many students, reliance on our “old school” discipline approach is futile.  It’s like going to the hardware store for a loaf of bread.  You are just not going to get what you want. Statistical disproportionality is an important data point gently nudging us toward a better approach.


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Tomorrow: can we talk?