Study Examines Equity in School Discipline After 2015 Policy Reform

February 2021
Study Examines Equity in School Discipline After 2015 Policy Reform

In a sample of Oregon elementary schools, office discipline referrals became significantly less likely to result in suspensions or expulsions for most student racial/ethnic groups following a 2015 state policy reform, according to a new study from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest.

However, for Black students the opposite was true. The REL Northwest study found that office discipline referrals issued to Black students became more likely to result in exclusionary discipline (i.e., discipline actions that remove students from classroom instruction, such as suspensions and expulsions).

“This study highlights the need to end racial bias in school discipline decisions overall and especially for Black students,” says report author Vicki Nishioka of Education Northwest. “It also points to actionable steps to reduce unnecessary suspensions: Schools can increase equity by ensuring educators use culturally responsive practices to build caring relationships with each student and prevent misinterpretation of student behavior—especially for minor, disruptive, and aggression infractions that do not threaten the safety of others.”

As they relate to Black students and the increased likelihood of exclusionary discipline, the study findings run counter to the three goals of the 2015 state policy reform:

  • Decrease overall rates of, as well as racial disparities in, exclusionary discipline in kindergarten through grade 5
  • Increase the likelihood that office discipline referrals would result in nonexclusionary discipline (e.g., individualized instruction, conferences with parents/caregivers, detention, loss of privileges) for all K-5 students
  • Reduce the use of exclusionary discipline for minor, disruptive, and aggression behavioral infractions that are not a direct threat to others’ safety in grades K-5

This policy reform built on state legislation passed in 2013, which directed districts to shift from a zero-tolerance school discipline approach to one that emphasizes prevention, teaching social and emotional skills, and reducing exclusionary discipline.

Over the past decade, Oregon (along with many other states) has prioritized racial equity in school discipline practices, and the REL Northwest study findings have important implications for this work.

The study and an accompanying infographic are available on the REL Northwest website.