Psychological Factors May Be at the Root of Discipline Disparities for Students With Disabilities

October 2015

Although discipline disparities along racial and gender lines have gained increasing attention in recent years, students with disabilities are not always a part of the conversation. Making up 11–14 percent of the country’s student population, students with disabilities receive disciplinary suspensions three times as often as students without disabilities.

Education Northwest Researcher Jacob Williams is the lead author of an innovative study that examines social-psychological factors that may influence school administrators’ disciplinary decisions involving students with disabilities. According to Williams, discipline disparities for students with disabilities are very similar to those experienced by students of color, but how those disparities play out is different. This is partly due to differences in the law, but as Williams and his colleagues show, it may also be based on factors that research is only beginning to understand.

Under federal law, school administrators must make a manifestation determination before subjecting a student with disabilities to suspension or expulsion. “The laws are designed to ensure that a student’s disability is not the cause of exclusionary discipline,” says Williams. “Yet, students with disabilities receive exclusionary discipline more often than their peers.”

Williams’ study explores a theory called intergroup threat, which posits that many people will respond to a perceived threat by acting in a prejudicial way. For the school leaders surveyed in Williams’ research, the perceived threat from a student with disabilities was not typically a physical one bur rather one that would negatively affect variables such as staff time and the financial resources of the school.

“What we found is that there does seem to be a link between perception of threat and the exclusionary discipline given to students with disabilities,” Williams says. “Administrators often see students with disabilities as more time consuming and expensive to educate. When faced with a discipline decision that is based on their own discretion, their reaction is often to remove the student from the school environment for a period of time.”

While working on the study and its accompanying literature review, Williams was surprised at how often prejudicial statements were made by administrators. “From the research population, I was told this wasn’t a problem,” Williams says. “But the data demonstrate that it is a problem, and this study provides an initial theory of what drives that problem.”

The remedy, Williams suggests, begins with building awareness among school administrators and educators and then collaborating on ways to address it. “My hope is that this study will draw greater attention to this issue and will encourage others to increase work in this area,” he says.