The Critical Common Sense Components Needed to Eliminate Disproportionate School Discipline Referrals and Suspensions for Students of Color (Part I)

The Critical Common Sense Components Needed to Eliminate Disproportionate School Discipline Referrals and Suspensions for Students of Color: 

This is NOT About Critical Race Theory (But We Discuss It)

Dear Colleagues,


   In some states, the beginning of the new school year is now weeks—not months—away. And with COVID-19 cases increasing virtually across the country, and most school-aged students still not vaccinated (for different reasons), how the school year opens (i.e., full in-person, full virtual, or hybrid) will probably vary from state to state, and even community to community.

   Historically, the past 16 months or so has included pandemic and political, scientific and sociological, economic and educational, and other important events. Many of these events have been reported both in the media and across social media. And while some of these historical events are open to interpretation, others have been grossly misinterpreted by some. Still other events have, appropriately or inappropriately, been connected or “stacked” on top of each other.

   As noted, some of this stacking has inaccurately linked truly separate events together—resulting in policy and practice confusion that directly affect curriculum and instruction at the classroom level.

   A significant example here involves the stacking of events related to the presence of institutional racism in America and our nation’s schools. Among the events that some have stacked together are:

  • The disproportionate medical, economic, educational, and other effects of the Pandemic on African American (as well as poor and other individuals of color) families and students;
  • The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black citizens at the hands of the police;
  • The Black Lives Matter response to these murders, as well as the related protests and riots across the country during the Summer of 2020;
  • The 400th anniversary of the “beginning” of slavery in the United States—when The White Lion brought 20 African slaves ashore in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619;
  • The 1619 Project, a ten-essay August 14, 2019 issue of the New York Times Magazine that was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary noted above, to re-examine the legacy of slavery in the United States, and “to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative;"
  • The move to use American Rescue Plan funds to help address the historic and long-standing funding inequities between schools that are majority white versus those that are majority students of color; and
  • The recent controversy—and legislation to control—the “instruction” of Critical Race Theory in schools.

   Critically, and first, we must recognize that our schools are a microcosm of our society and our communities at different historical points in time. But we also must recognize that when education becomes overly politicized, its potential as a vehicle to bring communities together— changing beliefs and behavior over time—becomes derailed.

   And this is occurring right now as (at least) 28 states have tried to restrict schools’ treatment and instruction of racism, bias, and the history of different racial and ethnic groups in the United States—many in the name of controlling the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

Don't Let Critical Race Theory Politics Get You Off-Track

   Relative to the Critical Race Theory legislation, it appears that many of our state politicians are spending vast amounts of tax-payer time and money on a factual illusion. Indeed, a July 15, 2021 Education Week article reported on a nationally representative K-12 survey of 262 district leaders, 247 principals, and 251 teachers to determine the presence of Critical Race Theory in our nation’s classrooms.

   The results indicated that just 8% of teachers say they have taught or even discussed Critical Race Theory with their K-12 students—20% of the urban teachers in the sample, and just 6% of the suburban or rural teachers, respectively.

   And one can guess that the teachers who are discussing Critical Race Theory are presenting it objectively as a theory that students should be aware of so they can critically analyze its message and intent.

[CLICK HERE for Article]

   At this point, while it might be interesting to analyze our politicians’ motivation behind all of this legislation, quite frankly, this seems like an additional waste of time. Although there are grave concerns with the sanctions that some states are proposing for educators found teaching Critical Race Theory, and how teachers will be “policed” relative to their instruction of race, racism, equity, and Black history.

   Concurrent with these concerns is how much time will be wasted—still in the midst of a Pandemic—on discussion, debate, professional development, lesson plan analysis, and administrative supervision—to ensure that teachers understand and do not include Critical Race Theory in their classrooms.

   And then, there is the whole issue of the distrust that these interactions may breed—both within schools and out in the community.

   Finally, will this decrease, sanitize, or eliminate legitimate classroom instruction—on the recent and historical impact of race, racism, equity, and Black history—because teachers are afraid to be unjustly accused of teaching Critical Race Theory, or to trigger students’ “emotional reactions” when, for example, they realize the White privilege they have always lived with?

   Given all of this, this two-part Blog Series is not about Critical Race Theory.

   This Series is about the need for educators to avoid wasting their time by looking past the politics and illusions—focusing, instead, directly on the present and its realities.

   This Series is about how to change the long-standing impact of racial bias in our schools— effects that have existed long before any of us ever heard about Critical Race Theory.

   We need to focus on what we can change right now.

   And so, this Series will re-visit how to decrease and eliminate the disproportionate teacher-related office discipline referrals of students of color, and the resulting disproportionate decisions by administrators relative to student suspensions, expulsions, law enforcement involvement, and referrals to alternative school programs.

   But before moving to this important issue, I want to share three recent resources that I read as part of my own self-education on Critical Race Theory. I believe that these resources are factual and objective, and they explain my concerns with how this issue has been forced on education.

July 22, 2021

Efforts to restrict teaching about racism and bias have multiplied across the U.S.; Chalkbeat


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June 24, 2021

What Is (and Isn’t) Critical Race Theory? A Closer Look at the Discipline Texas’ Governor Wants to ‘Abolish’; The74 Million


_ _ _ _ _

July 19, 2021

Who’s Really Driving Critical Race Theory Legislation? An Investigation; Education Week


Racism and Disproportionality

   In this Series Part I, we will discuss different approaches that have been implemented in the past to address school-level disciplinary disproportionality—explaining why they have not worked and, hence, why they should be avoided in the future.

   In doing this, we will not reiterate the well-known data and statistical analyses that validate the historical presence of disproportionality between White students and students of color, nor the fact that many students of color are given office discipline referrals for classroom “offenses” that, when exhibited by White students, are either ignored or addressed by the teacher in the classroom.

   In Part II of this Series, we will discuss specific multi-tiered strategies and solutions that schools can use right now to address this issue.

   But first, we want to define the term “racism” to, once again, emphasize that the discussion and effects of racism are generic and not synonymous with Critical Race Theory.

_ _ _ _ _

   “Racism” is a relatively new word that first appeared in the early 20th Century. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism as:

1: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

also: behavior or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief: racial discrimination or prejudice

2a: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another specifically: Discriminatory housing practices, redlining neighborhoods, underfunded education, lack of access to healthcare, racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration are just a few examples of element that all together contribute to structural racism.

b: a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles

   Significantly, this definition does not differentiate between overt and covert racism, implicit or explicit racism, or intended versus unintended racism.

   And relative to disproportionate office discipline referrals and their resulting actions, we would—once again—like to focus on how to change the perceptions, interactions, or decisions of teachers and administrators when interacting with students of color.

Why Disproportionality Outcomes Haven’t Changed

   There are six reasons or flaws that explain why schools have been unable to address disproportionate discipline referrals for students of color over the past 40 or more years.

  • Reason/Flaw #1. Educational leaders have tried to change the disproportionate numbers through policy and not practice.
  • Reason/Flaw #2. State Departments of Education (and other educational leaders) have promoted whole-school programs that are unproven or have critical scientific flaws.
  • Reason/Flaw #3. Districts and schools have implemented frameworks that target conceptual constructs, rather than instruction that teaches social, emotional, and behavioral skills.
  • Reason/Flaw #4. Districts and schools have not recognized that classroom management and teacher training, supervision, and evaluation are keys to decreasing disproportionality; and they are depending on Teacher Training Programs to equip their teachers with effective classroom management skills.
  • Reason/Flaw #5. Schools and staff have tried to motivate students to change their behavior when they have not learned, mastered, or are unable to apply the social, emotional, and behavioral skills needed to succeed.
  • Reason/Flaw #6. Districts, schools, and staff do not have the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement the multi-tiered (prevention, strategic intervention, intensive need/crisis management) social, emotional, and/or behavioral services, supports, and interventions needed by some students.

Reason/Flaw #1. Legislatures, State Departments of Education, and/or Superintendents (or other School Administrators) have tried to change disproportionate disciplinary referrals and actions for students of color by changing policies that abolish these referrals or actions for certain offenses, for certain students, or at certain ages.

   Over the past 15 or more years, innumerable states, urban school districts (especially), and other districts and schools have tried to eliminate disproportionality by modifying their discipline policies so that students at specific age or grade levels cannot receive an office discipline referral for certain infractions, and/or cannot be suspended even for some legitimate disciplinary offenses.

   The overt result of these policy-driven approaches has been a decrease in overall office discipline referrals and suspensions, but no change in disproportionality between White and students of color.

   The covert results have included (a) less teacher and administrator training, coaching, and supervision to address the root causes of racially-motivated disproportionality; and (b) delays or gaps in multi-tiered services, supports, and interventions for students with social, emotional, or behavioral—and not disciplinary—problems.

   In addition, many of these past policy changes occurred without the input of instructional staff, without notice or preparation, without additional staff training or resources, and without the field-testing needed to validate their success and minimize unintended consequences.

   As a result of these policy-driven approaches, student behavior—in some settings—actually got worse (because student consequences and accountability decreased or were eliminated), staff morale plummeted, and classroom climate and safety was compromised.

Reason/Flaw #2. State Departments of Education (and other educational leaders) have promoted (and/or districts and schools have purchased) whole-school programs (a) with critical scientific flaws; or (b) that have not been independently and objectively implemented, evaluated, and proven effective in diverse school settings.

   The vast majority of the National Technical Assistance (TA) Centers, funded by the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice, that work in the area of disproportionality, use frameworks that either (a) have critical flaws—relative to the psychological science underlying student, staff, or administrator behavior; or (b) have not been objectively field-tested—using sound methodological science—in enough different demographic, geographic, or circumstantial settings.

   One of the biggest flaws with a framework is that it does not discriminate between essential and non-essential components, does not identify proven implementation sequences, and does not address the situational modifications needed to sustain decreases in disproportionality. Instead, frameworks encourage districts and schools to “pick off the menu,” implement and evaluate the (sometimes, ill-)chosen components and activities, and hope that desired results will occur.

   Clearly, this is not a success-oriented, strength-based, science-to-practice approach. Indeed, metaphorically, this is not how medical doctors, car mechanics, electricians, or other professionals conduct their practices.

   My comments here are NOT to cast dispersions.

   The point is to encourage educators to research, question, and evaluate the field-based validity, practicality, and functionality of the frameworks and other practices advocated by federal TA Centers and others. . . before implementing them in schools and with students.

   Critically, our federally-funded TA Centers’ track records for decreasing or eliminating discipline-related disproportionality for students of color are not good. We cannot assume that they truly know what they are doing.

   And, let’s remember: Some state departments of education, districts, and schools have implemented TA Center frameworks, programs, and strategies because these programs are “free”—even though they are funded by our federal tax dollars, and often need additional money to be supported or sustained.

   And so, educators beware. Avoid the principle, “If it’s free, it’s for me.” There are no “free intervention lunches” in schools.

   Indeed, if a framework or program does not work, there is a cost. The costs involve delayed services and supports to students, increases in staff resistant to yet another failed program, and misguided interventions that actually exacerbate or strengthen existing student problems.

   And yet, to be sure, there are some great strategies and interventions out there (see Part II of this Series).

   But districts and schools need to separate the wheat from the chaff by, once again, independently (a) evaluating the science underlying the practices that are embedded in a “recommended” program; then (b) determining whether the approaches that are scientifically-sound are relevant, applicable, and can be successfully applied and implemented in a specific school with the students and staff present.

Reason/Flaw #3. Districts and schools are implementing disproportionality “solutions” that target conceptual constructs, rather than teaching students social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

   When teaching either academic or social, emotional, or behavioral skills, you can’t teach a construct.

   And yet, when trying to combat disciplinary disproportionality by improving student behavior (which is a good idea), some schools are using frameworks or programs that focus on students’ character or social-emotional learning (SEL) constructs—rather than on practices that focus on behaviors and skills.

   Take character education programs.

   In general, the vast majority of character education programs are not evidence-based, and they do not help schools to attain the outcomes that they most want—a decrease in inappropriate student behavior, and an increase in appropriate, prosocial student behavior.

   This is because most character education programs only (a) increase students’ awareness of appropriate and inappropriate behavior (see Reason/Flaw #4 below); and (b) they often only talk about behavior (through stories, discussions, and group work), rather than practice behavior.

   That is, most character education programs do not behaviorally teach behavior (like the plays that a basketball team performs on the court, or the scenes that a theatre group performs on stage) using a sound scientifically-based pedagogical approach.

   Indeed, to be successful, Behavioral Instruction must include the following:

  • Teaching the steps/scripts and behaviors for the skills;
  • Modeling or demonstrating the steps/scripts and the behaviors for the skills;
  • Having students role-play or physically practice (with explicit, critical feedback) the steps/scripts and the behaviors;
  • Transferring the practice of the behaviors (with continued supervision and feedback) into progressively more challenging real-life simulations, settings, and situations;
  • Using teachable, real-life moments to infuse the behaviors into real-life settings and situations; and
  • Continuing the practice and infusion until the behaviors are automatic, conditioned, and able to be demonstrated in different stressful situations or emotional conditions or circumstances.

_ _ _ _ _

   But another critical reason why character education or social-emotional learning programs do not change student behavior is their focus on global constructs or character traits—rather than, once again, actual behavior.

   For example, a popular character education program, Character Counts, teaches six pillars of character: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.

   The point here is that: None of these constructs can be taught.

   In order to teach these constructs, teachers would have to agree on the specific behaviors represented in each construct, match it to the age and developmental level of their students, develop step-by-step instructional scripts, and use the pedagogical approach outlined above to teach the specific behaviors.

   Said a different way: Teachers cannot teach Trustworthiness; they need to teach the specific behaviors that represent the construct of Trustworthiness. Teachers cannot teach Respect; they need to teach the behaviors of Respect. . . etc. . . etc.

   Beyond this, from an instructional perspective, you can have all of the Classroom Meetings and Monthly Celebration Assemblies that you want. If the students have not been taught and/or have not learned the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that they need, the meetings will simply involve talk, and there will be nothing to celebrate.

   Indeed: Talk does not change behavior. Only behavioral instruction changes behavior.

   When Character Counts (and other character education programs) “work”—they typically are working only with the students who have already learned and mastered their social skills.

   Many of the students who are disproportionately sent to the Office for discipline, have not learned and mastered these skills—because the program is not teaching them at all or in scientifically effective ways.

_ _ _ _ _

   Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)—advocated and guided by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)—also talks in constructs, and not behaviors.

   Indeed, below are the constructs that CASEL specifically targets as its primary SEL outcomes:


  • Integrating personal and social identities
  • Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets
  • Identifying one’s emotions
  • Demonstrating honesty and integrity
  • Linking feelings, values, and thoughts
  • Examining prejudices and biases
  • Experiencing self-efficacy
  • Having a growth mindset
  • Developing interests and a sense of purpose


  • Taking others’ perspectives
  • Recognizing strengths in others
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
  • Understanding the influences of organizations/systems on behavior


  • Managing one’s emotions
  • Identifying and using stress-management strategies
  • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation
  • Setting personal and collective goals
  • Using planning and organizational skills
  • Showing the courage to take initiative
  • Demonstrating personal and collective agency


  • Communicating effectively
  • Developing positive relationships
  • Demonstrating cultural competency
  • Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving
  • Resolving conflicts constructively
  • Resisting negative social pressure
  • Showing leadership in groups
  • Seeking or offering support and help when needed
  • Standing up for the rights of others


  • Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness
  • Identifying solutions for personal and social problems
  • Learning to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, facts
  • Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions
  • Recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside & outside of school
  • Reflecting on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being
  • Evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impacts

   We are not saying that these constructs are not valuable.

   We are saying that virtually none of the above constructs can be taught until they have been operationalized into directly observable, measurable, and behaviorally-specific skills that are developmentally- and maturationally-sensitive and matched to specific age (grade) levels of students.

   Thus, as with most character education programs, districts and schools will need to operationalize CASEL/SEL’s global constructs, and then utilize scientifically-sound approaches to teach the behaviors that they want to target.

   All of this, once again, explains why past attempts to use character education or SEL programs to mitigate disproportionate discipline referrals for students of color have not worked.

Reason/Flaw #4. Districts and schools have not recognized that classroom management and teacher training, supervision, and evaluation are keys to decreasing disproportionality; and they are depending on Teacher Training Programs to equip their teachers with effective classroom management skills.

   Point-blank: Districts and schools cannot assume that university-based Teacher and Educational Leadership Programs are effectively preparing general and special education teachers, administrators, and others with sound classroom management and administrative decision-making skills, respectively, relative to student behavior.

   They have not done this for decades.

   Moreover, they should not under-estimate the impact of professional development and teacher/administrator training, coaching and supervision, and evaluation and accountability on decreasing disproportionate office referrals and inappropriate administrative actions for students of color.


   Relative to classroom teachers, we especially discussed the issues and outcomes above in an October 24, 2020 Blog:

“Classroom Management and Students’ (Virtual) Academic Engagement and Learning: Don’t Depend on Teacher Training Programs. Districts Need to Reconceptualize their School Discipline Approaches—For Equity, Excellence, and Effectiveness”

[CLICK HERE for this Blog]

   In this Blog, we reviewed the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) report, 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice & Classroom Management, as it (a) analyzed over a thousand elementary teacher preparation programs’ efforts to train, supervise, and certify their graduates in five research-based strategies that are essential to classroom management; and (b) compared the 2020 results with similar analyses in 2013 and 2016.

   Critically, the five strategies investigated are the bare minimum needed for effective classroom management. Indeed, if teachers demonstrated just these strategies, there would no guarantee that their classrooms would be well-managed.

   Nonetheless, the five research-based classroom management strategies studied by the NCTQ were:

  • Establishing rules and routines that set expectations for behavior;
  • Maximizing learning time;
  • Reinforcing positive behavior;
  • Redirecting off-task behavior without interrupting instruction; and
  • Addressing serious misbehavior with consistent, respectful, and appropriate consequences.

   The 2020 results were more than disappointing as just 14% of traditional teacher-preparation programs, and a third of the non-traditional programs, required candidates to demonstrate their skill in the five research-based classroom management strategies noted above. In addition, only 35% of these programs required their graduates to demonstrate their skill in four of the five strategies.

   Based on the NCTQ Report and other research, our conclusions in the October 24, 2020 Blog were:

  • Newly graduating and certified or licensed elementary classroom teachers are clinically unprepared in basic classroom management, climate enhancement, and student engagement skills.
  • Based on this and studies dating back to the 1980s, virtually all of the elementary classroom teachers in our classrooms today have never received the formal pre-service training or supervision needed for immediate classroom management success.
  • Districts cannot depend on teacher preparation programs to change.

   And our recommendation was:

   Districts must provide the hands-on professional development, training, and supervision needed to ensure that all of their teachers learn, master, and consistently demonstrate the classroom management skills needed for student and teacher success.

   Significantly, we know that this essential professional development, training, and supervision is not happening in most districts.

   The Blog then connected the presence of poor classroom management with issues related to student inequity—especially focusing on student attendance, relationships, engagement, motivation, achievement, and disciplinary disproportionality. The discussion concluded by specifying, from Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, the specific classroom-management domains and skills that would help decrease disproportionate classroom-based disciplinary decisions by teachers.

   These domains were:

  • Domain 1. Planning and Preparation

   1b. Demonstrating Knowledge of Students

  • Domain 2. The Classroom Environment

   2a. Creating a Climate of Respect and Rapport

   2b. Creating a Culture of Learning

   2c. Managing Classroom Procedures

   2d. Managing Student Behavior

  • Domain 3: Instruction

   3a. Communication with Students

   3c. Engaging Students in Learning

   The point in all of this is that one of the root causes of disproportionality is poor classroom management. In order to comprehensively address this problem, districts and schools (and teacher training programs) are going to have to systematically increase and improve their basic classroom management training, mentoring, supervision, evaluation, and teacher accountability systems.

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School Principals  

   Relative to school principals, a June 14, 2021 article published by The Brookings Institute (by Lucy Sorensen) asks, “Do Principals Hold the Key to Fixing School Discipline?”

[CLICK HERE for Article]

   Much of this article provides an overview of the results of Sorensen’s research that will soon be published in the journal, Education Finance and Policy.

   This research correlated the school discipline records (both office discipline referrals and suspensions) of middle school students attending North Carolina public schools from 2008 to 2016 with other records that tracked these students’ later educational attainment, juvenile justice involvement, and adult convictions.

   The analysis additionally looked at the disciplinary decisions and actions by these students’ middle school principals relative to their disciplinary offenses, and how these correlated with long-term student outcomes. Here, “harsh” (high suspension) versus “lenient” (low suspension) discipline decision principals were identified, and the severity of the disciplinary offenses also were quantified.

   According to Sorensen, the results indicated that:

  • Stricter principal disciplinary approaches have especially disruptive impacts on students who commit minor offenses. Students who are reported for such minor misconduct under a harsher principal, as compared with those reported under a more lenient principal, ultimately show:
    • Higher likelihood of OSS or expulsion
    • More absences from school
    • Lower math and reading test scores
    • Higher likelihood of grade retention
    • Lower likelihood of high school graduation.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Under a harsh principal, student acts of minor misconduct turn into suspensions, which further detach the student from school. Under a more lenient principal, the student misconduct is dealt with in a less exclusionary manner, and students fare much better academically.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Our study also finds that, on average, principals are more likely to assign OSS or expulsion to a Black student than to a white student, holding constant both the severity of the disciplinary offense and the student’s prior disciplinary history.

However, the amount of racial bias exhibited in disciplinary decisions varies widely across principals. Principals who are more racially biased in their disciplinary decisions lead to improved educational outcomes for white students but worse outcomes for Black and Hispanic students.

Either the suspending behavior of principals itself has disparate effects on different groups of students, or principals who exhibit racial bias in their disciplinary decisions also tend to act in other ways that foster racial inequality in the school environment.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Stricter disciplinary practices do yield a small deterrent effect, decreasing minor student misconduct by 9%, but have no effect on the incidence of serious crime.

Further, there were no positive spillover effects of disciplinary severity on the learning of students who did not get suspended. If anything, these non-suspended students had slightly lower test scores and high school graduation likelihood under harsher principals.

_ _ _ _ _

  • Students with no discipline record are 2.1% less likely to graduate high school with a harsh principal than they would be with a lenient principal.

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   While these results may not generalize to other states or to elementary or high school principals, this research does demonstrate the potential that some disproportionate disciplinary decisions for students of color might be changed—especially for minor offenses like disrespect, inappropriate language, or showing up late to class—through principal training, discussion, coaching, and supervision.

   Parenthetically, in Sorensen’s study, there was no relationship between having a harsh middle school principal and students’ later incarcerations. However, higher-suspending principals referred a higher percentage of students to juvenile justice. Most juvenile justice referrals were due to in-school, rather than community-based, behavior.

   However, a separate study of middle school students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (also NC) School District—using a similar approach that compared high suspension versus low suspension schools, and that was published earlier this summer in Education Next, found that:

Our analysis shows that young adolescents who attend schools with high suspension rates are substantially more likely to be arrested and jailed as adults. These long-term, negative impacts in adulthood apply across a school’s population, not just to students who are suspended during their school years.

Students assigned to middle schools that are one standard deviation stricter—equivalent to being at the 84th percentile of strictness versus the mean—are 3.2 percentage points more likely to have ever been arrested and 2.5 percentage points more likely to have ever been incarcerated as adults. They also are 1.7 percentage points more likely to drop out of high school and 2.4 percentage points less likely to attend a 4-year college. These impacts are much larger for Black and Hispanic male students.

We also find that principals, who have considerable discretion in meting out school discipline, are the major driver of differences in the number of suspensions from one school to the next. In tracking the movements of principals across schools, we see that principals’ effects on suspensions in one school predicts their effects on suspensions at another.

   Perhaps the differences between these two North Carolina studies is that the first is a state-wide study, and the second was conducted in an urban school district where there are higher percentages of Black students.

[CLICK HERE for this Study]

Reason/Flaw #5. Schools and Staff are trying to motivate students to change their behavior when they have not learned, mastered, or cannot apply the social, emotional, and behavioral skills needed to succeed.

   One of the more popular national “solutions” to address disproportionality over the past few years has involved Restorative Justice programs or restorative practices.

   But it is hard to know what “restorative practices” are—as they are a collection of strategies. Moreover, there is no sound science-to-practice research that has validated how these strategies should be combined, sequenced, and implemented to effectively decrease disproportionate discipline referrals for students of color.

   Moreover, the restorative practice “push” has fostered a cottage industry of organizations and vendors who similarly have not independently or objectively validated their approaches using sound research methods.

   In the words of an Issue Brief (“Restorative Practices: Approaches at the Intersection of School Discipline and School Mental Health”) published by the Now Is the Time Technical Assistance Center which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

Restorative practices, a diverse and multitiered set of classroom and school-based strategies (all bolded words are my emphasis) that emphasize the importance of the relational needs of the community in fostering student accountability for behavior, have piqued the interest of educators and school-based Mental health providers alike. Interest across child-serving personnel has been stoked by emerging evidence that restorative practices reduce exclusionary discipline practices while also improving students’ social and emotional well-being and school connectedness.

Restorative practices are founded upon the conceptthat both individuals and relationships must heal after harm occurs in the school community. With roots in indigenous and Mennonite cultures, restorative practices uphold the concept that humans are social and communal and need to learn and grow through relationship and community. The philosophy (not science; my addition) behind restorative practices acknowledges that children and young people who are involved in bullying, violence, and school disruptions are themselves feeling unsafe and in need of an opportunity to reattach and re-engage.

Restorative practices are based on the premise that individuals and/or groups in conflict benefit from working together to find resolutions and repair the resultant damage caused to their relationship. Restorative practices focus on the relationship between the perpetrator of the “crime” (i.e., incident requiring disciplinary response) and members of the school community, including victims, bystanders, and their families. Restorative practices are designed to open up dialogue, give everyone an opportunity to be heard, and allow those impacted by harm to determine resolutions collaboratively.

Several types of Restorative Practices exist,including: restorative justice, communityconferencing, community services, peer juries, circle processes, conflict prevention and resolution programs informal restorative practices, and social-emotionallearning. Although Restorative Practices are diverse in nature, they are all designed for the same set of purposes: to repair relationships and trust, as opposed to distribute retribution or punishment; to improve of all parties in conflict resolution using fair practices; and to improve the social fabric of the school by sharing views and experiences and developing empathy for others in the school community.

   The Brief goes on to reflect that:

  • Restorative practices are based more on philosophy than evidence-based practice.
  • As with any framework, when districts or schools claim that “restorative practices” have worked to decrease disproportionality, they need to report exactly what strategies were used, and to demonstrate that these strategies caused (as opposed to contributed to) the perceived success.
  • Restorative practices depend on the students involved wanting to “work together to find resolutions and repair the resultant damage caused to their relationship.”

[In our experience, some aggressors will not engage in restitution, and some victims do not want to interact with their aggressors.]

  • Restorative practices are not preventative.  That is, they occur after an inappropriate behavior, disciplinary offense, or anti-social action has occurred.
  • Finally, Restorative Practice are consequential in nature, and they focus on holding students accountable for their already-demonstrated inappropriate behavior. 

But, if students have not learned and mastered the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional control, communication, and coping skills that caused the inappropriate behavior, no amount of restoration is going to prevent the same inappropriate behavior from re-occurring.

_ _ _ _ _

   As noted above, while restorative practices are once again being advocated by a federally-funded national Technical Assistance Center, the reality is that no research has yet validated either a Restorative Justice program, or any fixed set of restorative practices.

   This was clearly discussed in our last Blog (July 10, 2021):

“Reconsidering or Rejecting SEL/Character Education, Meditation/Mindfulness/Trauma-Informed, and Restorative Justice Programs:  Put on Your Hard Hat and Bring Your Lunch Pail”

[CLICK HERE for this Blog]

   Relative to the last bullet above, this Blog stated:

Not to over-simplify, but a foundational premise of Restorative Practices is that—when students commit a rude, crude, or anti-social act—they should be given the opportunity to restore, repair, remediate, re-pay, and/or apologize for their transgression with the party(ies) and in the settings involved. It is encouraged that these restorative acts take the place of an administrative or disciplinary response such as a detention or suspension.

Here’s the point: From a behavioral science perspective, restorative practices are meant to act consequentially, interpersonally, and motivationally with an expectation that students’ inappropriate behavior will change in the future.

The consequential premise is that the offending student views the (required) act of restoring, repairing, remediating, repaying, and/or apologizing for their transgression as so significant (aversive) that they never want to be in that position again (and, hence, will not re-commit the offending act).

The interpersonal premise rests with the belief that, if the offending student interacts personally to apologize to the offended party or victim, that that interaction will establish a (positive) relationship and level of accountability such that no future offenses will occur.

And, the motivational premise integrates the two premises above—expecting that the combination of (a) negative consequences for inappropriate acts, and/or (b) positive outcomes when developing personal, empathetic relationships with people will result, once again, in future prosocial student interactions.

But here’s the kicker that disrupts this thinking:

If the offending student has not learned and mastered the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, or emotional control, communication, or coping skills and abilities, then the restorative practice and experience will not result in changed behavior.

That is, regardless of the student’s remediation or apology, she or he will probably commit the same offense in the future, because there is no prosocial skill alternative.

Said a different way: You can’t motivate a student out of a skill deficit.

If, for example, a student has not mastered long division, and she gets a 40% on her Long Division Unit Exam. . . while she may be motivated to do better due to the low grade, she likely will do no better on the next test because she has not learned or mastered long division skills.

Motivation will not change her next test score; instruction and learning will.

If students are committing anti-social acts because they have not learned and mastered emotional control, communication, and coping... a restorative practice will not change their skill deficits.

Restorative Justice and Practice Programs simply do not account for basic behavioral science.

They also do not account for the complexities embedded in motivation.

For example, if there are competing motivations for an individual student, she or he will demonstrate the behavior that is most strongly reinforced.

That is, even when some students have prosocial skills, they will likely demonstrate anti-social skills if, for example, the admiration and acceptance of the peer group, clique (think “Mean Girls”), or gang they are in are more powerful than needing to apologize to a victim.

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   Restorative Justice programs or restorative practices simply do not have the research or track record to be seriously considered as a solution to the disproportionate disciplinary referrals for students of color. Districts and schools need to recognize this reality and stop utilizing this time- and resource-consuming approach.

Reason/Flaw #6. Districts, Schools, and Staff do not have the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement the multi-tiered (prevention, strategic intervention, intensive need/crisis management) social, emotional, and/or behavioral services, supports, and interventions needed by students.

   The last reason or flaw that explains why schools have been unable to eliminate disproportionate discipline referrals for students of color over the past 40 or more years involves the absence of comprehensive and effective multi-tiered systems of supports for students with social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.

   Disproportionate disciplinary referrals and actions (like suspensions) for students of color occur due to a combination of (a) district policy and procedures; (b) teacher and administrator interactions, reactions, and decisions; and (c) student behavior.

   In the latter area, administrators and staff need to discriminate between inappropriate student behavior that is disciplinary in nature versus behavior that is due to psychoeducational factors. While this is not always easy, and both elements could be present, this discrimination is critical to coming up with a plan to change students’ inappropriate behavior—the ultimate goal of any action or response.

   Quite simply, as described in Reason/Flaw #5, inappropriate behavior that is disciplinary in nature typically occurs when students have the social, emotional, and behavioral skills to demonstrate appropriate behavior, but choose not to.

   In other words, the student is somehow internally motivated (e.g., due to needs related to attention, control, revenge, anger) to “make a bad choice,” or is externally motivated (e.g., by peer pressure or reinforcement, to escape from academic failure or frustration) to make the same bad choice.

   From a cognitive-behavioral psychology perspective, teachers or administrators are “banking” on the fact that their behavioral incentives and disciplinary consequences are powerful enough to motivate students to “make good choices”—either the “first” time, or after making a “bad choice” and being held accountable for it.

   In contrast, inappropriate behavior that reflects a psychoeducational issue or problem typically occurs when students (a) have not learned, mastered, or are unable to apply needed interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention or resolution, or emotional control, communication, or coping skills; (b) are experiencing biological, physiological, neurological, biochemical, or other medically-related issues; (c) are or have experienced significant emotional, stressful, or traumatic events or life experiences; or (d) have some type of relevant disability or mental health condition.

   Critically, every school in the country should have a multidisciplinary Multi-Tiered Student Services Team (or the equivalent) that can help administrators discriminate between students who are discipline problems versus those who have psychoeducational problems.

   While they may still need to suspend a student for egregious behavior, school principals should make an immediate referral to their Multi-Tiered Student Services Team for an emergency assessment when they are not sure of the etiology of a student’s significantly inappropriate behavior.

   If this referral occurs at the same time as the suspension, the Student Services Team can begin (and maybe complete) the assessment during the suspension—for example, in a District-selected place that is not on school grounds.

   This way, intervention plans can be prepared and implemented—for students with psychoeducational issues—upon the student’s return from the suspension. Similarly, follow-up discipline-related strategies can occur for students whose inappropriate behavior is disciplinary in nature.

   To accomplish this, every school should have a comprehensive multi-tiered system of supports that begins with the professional development needed by all teachers and administrators in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral prevention and early response. This Tier I foundation should include professional development in classroom management, student engagement and motivation, stress informed understanding and strategies, emotional self-control and de-escalation techniques, and classroom-based behavioral interventions.

   As noted above, this multi-tiered system also should include a Multi-Tiered Student Services Team of related services professionals (e.g., counselors, school psychologists, social workers, special educators) who have the social, emotional, and behavioral assessment and strategic interventions skills to address students’ more intensive or complex psychoeducational (Tier II or Tier III) needs. This Team should also be used for students with persistent academic issues, and it should meet on a regular (weekly) basis and include a school administrator and others.

   The reality is that most districts and schools do not have these systems or professionals in place. And, at times, the systems are being guided, once again, by national frameworks that have significant flaws.

   These flaws, and effective practice alternatives, are discussed in a free White Paper:

“A Multi-Tiered Service & Support Implementation Blueprint for Schools & Districts: Revisiting the Science to Improve the Practice”


   If we are going to successfully address the issue of disproportionality in our schools, it will be through the strength of our comprehensive, multi-tiered systems of services, supports, strategies, and interventions.

   Clearly, policy-level changes and mandates have not solved this problem. It is now time to apply evidence-based practices that will not only solve the problem, but make students, staff, and schools more productive, safe, and successful.


   This is the first Blog in a two-part Blog series on how districts and schools can successfully eliminate disproportionate discipline referrals and actions for students of color.

   Beginning with a discussion of Critical Race Theory and a working definition of racism, we reviewed and provided important citations that identified:

  • The political nature of the Critical Race Theory legislation in a number of states;
  • The fact that most teachers are not teaching this theory in their classrooms;
  • Concerns that schools are going to be wasting a lot of time this year, because of the legislation and—on a local school board level—the misinformation in many communities, on Critical Race Theory  discussion, debate, professional development, lesson plan analysis, and administrative supervision (to ensure that teachers understand and do not include Critical Race Theory in their classrooms); and
  • The additional implications relative to teacher trust, academic freedom, and the potential that legitimate classroom instruction and discussion on issues related to race, racism, equity, and Black history will be reduced, sanitized, or eliminated because teachers are afraid to be unjustly accused of teaching Critical Race Theory, or triggering undue student controversy or emotions.
  •    Based on the information presented, we recommended that educators avoid wasting their time by looking past the Critical Race Theory politics and illusions and, instead, focus directly on how to eliminate the disproportionate disciplinary referrals and actions against students of color—a long-standing outcome of racial bias in our schools.

   Relative to this goal, we then discussed the different approaches that have been implemented in the past to address school-level disciplinary disproportionality—explaining why they have not worked and, hence, why they should be avoided in the future.

   This was presentation was organized through the following Reasons or Flaws:

  • Reason/Flaw #1. Educational leaders have tried to change the disproportionate numbers through policy and not practice.
  • Reason/Flaw #2. State Departments of Education (and other educational leaders) have promoted whole-school programs that are unproven or have critical scientific flaws.
  • Reason/Flaw #3. Districts and schools have implemented frameworks that target conceptual constructs, rather than instruction that teaches social, emotional, and behavioral skills.
  • Reason/Flaw #4. Districts and schools have not recognized that classroom management and teacher training, supervision, and evaluation are keys to decreasing disproportionality; and they are depending on Teacher Training Programs to equip their teachers with effective classroom management skills.
  • Reason/Flaw #5. Schools and staff have tried to motivate students to change their behavior when they have not learned, mastered, or are unable to apply the social, emotional, and behavioral skills needed to succeed.
  • Reason/Flaw #6. Districts, schools, and staff do not have the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to implement the multi-tiered (prevention, strategic intervention, intensive need/crisis management) social, emotional, and/or behavioral services, supports, and interventions needed by some students.

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   In summary, we have been unsuccessful in eliminating disproportionality in our schools because most previous and some current efforts have avoided analyzing the underlying student- and staff-focused reasons for this problem.

   Indeed, most districts and schools have not comprehensively and objectively identified the root causes of their students’ challenging behavior, and have not linked these root causes to strategically-applied multi-tiered science-to-practice strategies and interventions that are effectively and equitably used by teachers and administrators.

   This will be discussed in Part II of this Series, along with specific multi-tiered strategies and solutions that schools can use right now to address this issue.

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   I appreciate everything that you do to support our students and colleagues in the field. My Blog analyses and comments are not designed to emphasize what is not working in our field. Instead, they are designed to critique why some things are not working, and to provide field-tested, science-to-practice alternatives.

   Meanwhile, I always look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail.

   If I can help you in any of the multi-tiered areas discussed in this message, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students.

   I hope to hear from you soon.