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A Mixed Methods Approach Examining Disproportionality in School Discipline

Authors: Pamela Fenning, Therese Pigott,, Elizabeth Engler, Katie Bradshaw, Elizabeth Gamboney, Stephanie Grunewald, Tamanna Haque, K. Brigid Flannery, Mimi McGrath Kato
Date Published: April 06, 2013

Prepared for the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Research-to-Practice Collaborative, National Conference on Race and Gender Disparities in Discipline
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Editor's Note: This research is part of the “Closing the School Discipline Gap Conference” of January 2013. An overview of the research project can be found here; for a list of the sixteen studies presented, click here


Based on analysis of discipline referrals for infractions and the content of written discipline policies as part of a larger study of Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) at the high school level, we argue that district-administered school discipline policies need to be better aligned with prevention-oriented practices, such as SWPBS and must integrate alternatives to suspension, particularly for minor behaviors, such as tardies. SWPBS focuses on teaching expected behaviors to the entire student population, but our findings are that these practices are not aligned with discipline policies, even in schools that received professional development and technical assistance in SWPBS implementation as part of a larger funded project.

Hierarchical linear modeling techniques indicated that, on the average, African-American and Latino(a) students and males in our sample were the most likely to generate discipline referrals to the office across the ten high schools that were included in the analyses. These findings were consistent for three years (2008-2009; 2009-2010 and 2010-2011) of discipline referrals analyzed. Statistical variation was found across schools in ethnic and gender disproportionality in referrals. However, the school level variables of SWPBS implementation status or type of discipline policy (punitive or proactive) did not account for this variation.

Because the discipline policies for each school were categorized as punitive, regardless of the degree of SWPBS implementation, we argue that in order for multi-tiered systems of support, such as SWPBS to be effective, formally adopted discipline policies need to align with these practices. At the high school level, SWPBS requires additional time to implement and the foundational of district-level buy-in to the effort must be evident formally as well as informally.

Author Notes: Portions of this paper were presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (2011), Washington, DC. This work was, in part, supported by U.S. Department of Education Grant # #R324A070157.


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