School Disproportionality and the Charleston Murders: Systemic Change vs. State Statutes

Why New State Discipline Statutes will NOT Solve the Minority/Special Education Disproportionality Problem in Our Schools. . . Connections with Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charleston, SC

Dear Colleagues,

This has been quite a week. . .

From Tuesday through Thursday, I had the great honor of presenting at the annual Maryland School Psychologists’ Association Summer Institute. On Wednesday, my entire presentation focused on explicit and field-tested solutions to address the fact that, across our country and in states like Maryland, minority (especially African-American) students and students with disabilities have been disproportionately sent to the “Principal’s Office” as “discipline problems,” and have been disproportionately suspended and expelled from school.

In fact, studies have determined that many of the precipitating “discipline offenses” are minor in nature, and that white students are not sent out of class for these same offenses- - even though the minority and students with disabilities are.that white students are not sent out of class for these same offenses- - even though the minority and students with disabilities are.

Maryland Schools are a Prototype of Schools across the Country

In Maryland, the most-recent “disproportionality journey” began with a March, 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education: Disproportionality in School Discipline: An Assessment of Trends in Maryland, 2009-2012 . This Report documented the disproportionality noted above by analyzing data from every county school district across the state during three consecutive school years. The study found that:

  • Disproportionalities between African-American and White students increased during the 2011-2012 school year despite an overall decrease in the number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
  • African-American students received out-of-school suspensions or expulsions at more than twice the rate of White students.
  • Students with disabilities were removed from school at more than twice the rate of students who were not in special education.

These results parallel those found over at least the past five years in other states and large cities across the country- - with the most recent reports coming from, for example, California, New York City, and Chicago.

Somewhat in response to this Report and as part of a Maryland law that directs the Maryland State Board of Education to establish “guidelines defining a state code of discipline for all public schools with standards of conduct and consequences for violation of the standards,” the Maryland State Department of Education published (on July 22, 2014) The Maryland Guidelines for a State Code of Discipline.

According to the Report’s Introduction:

“The purpose of these guidelines is to provide a framework for Maryland local school systems to use in establishing local codes of conduct and in development new discipline-related policies. These guidelines include behavioral expectations for all members of the school community who have a direct impact on creating healthy teaching and learning environments for promoting student success. They also provide suggested prevention, intervention, restorative, and incentive-based strategies to respond to student misconduct, detailed explanations of specific student behaviors that are not permitted, and other factors for local districts to consider in revising their policies.”

The Problem with Statutory “Solutions” to Disproportionality

While taking some positive steps by (a) conceptualizing students’ behavioral problems along a continuum of frequency and intensity, and (b) listing (albeit without any logical organization- - see below) a number of responding services, supports, strategies, and interventions, the Maryland Guidelines have a number of flaws that WILL NOT change the core nature of disproportionality in that state’s schools.

This is because the Guidelines document:

  • Focuses specifically on deficit student behaviors, and never describes/defines the specific prosocial or expected behaviors that help students to be successful in a school or classroom.
  • Does not differentiate early elementary versus late elementary versus middle school versus high school differences in student behavior.
  • Organizes misbehavior across five levels of intensity, but does not provide objective criteria to differentiate the intensity levels for some behaviors and, thus, leaves a suspension or expulsion as administrative options for some behaviors that may not warrant these actions.
  • Does not logically organize its different responses to inappropriate student behavior in categories like “Services or Supports,” “Strategies or Interventions,” “Consequences or Punishments,” “Problem-solving Actions,” and “Administrative Actions.” Instead, the document somewhat randomly lists a number of possible responses without providing any guidance to administrators or others as to which approaches will work best for what student problems.
  • Does not explicitly emphasize the importance of determining the underlying reasons for a student’s ongoing, significant, or unresponsive misbehavior so that strategic interventions can be implemented to decrease or eliminate the misbehavior, while replacing the behavior with appropriate, prosocial behavior.
  • Does not discuss the expertise or a specific ratio of personnel (e.g., behavioral intervention specialists and mental health staff) that districts and schools need at the prevention, strategic intervention, and intensive support levels in the areas of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management.

Beyond this, while Maryland’s disproportionality numbers may change because of this document, a broader and more functional perspective is needed.

My point here is that, in states and districts around the country (see those cited above), while the number of suspensions and expulsions have decreased due to state and district statutory changes, the disproportionality ratios have persisted or increased. Moreover, in some districts, while out-of-school suspensions have decreased, disproportionate in-school suspensions have increased. And nationally, requests to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate cases involving students with disabilities and school discipline actions have surged.

And so, in all states, districts, and schools nationwide, it is not simply about the disproportionality data- - it is also about a functional perspective that ensures that:

  • Students (and staff) are taught and use the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills needed to successfully function individually, in small groups, and in large groups;
  • The different peer groups (and staff) that exist in schools expect, encourage, and reinforce these prosocial skills; and
  • There is a consistently positive climate across the school and in the classrooms that is supported by positive student-student, student-staff, and staff-staff interactions and relationships.

These are the outcomes that need to be measured alongside the disproportionality data because (a) these characteristics will decrease student misbehavior, office referrals, and suspensions/expulsions for ALL students on the front-end; and (b) they are the REAL and TRUE indicators of student (and staff) success when students return from a “disciplinary event and action” on the back-end.

Indeed, while some states (like Maryland) are recommending district changes to their student discipline codes, other states (e.g., Connecticut, California) and districts (e.g., the District of Columbia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis) are simply prohibiting suspensions for students at specific age levels or who display certain inappropriate behaviors.

While this will change the disproportionality numbers, it will not improve how students are behaving and interacting in their classrooms- - nor will it impact their academic engagement or, ultimately, their academic success.

The Charleston Connection

This past Wednesday night, in between my Summer Institute session on disproportionality and my Thursday morning session on “Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Interventions for Disobedient, Disrespectful, Disruptive, Defiant, and Disturbed Students,” nine parishioners from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC were murdered as they attended their weekly Bible study class.

The assassin, a high school drop-out, had a Facebook page with pictures and symbols that have been adopted as emblems by modern-day white supremacists. The crime is being treated as a hate crime.

Significantly, this atrocity follows a spring-time (in fact, three or more years) filled with racial controversy, injustice, and death. From Trayvon Martin (over three years ago now) to (most recently) Michael Brown in Ferguson to Freddie Gray in Baltimore to others, the racial divide that has always existed in this country has been tragically and traumatically exposed.

And while the Charleston murders were committed by one individual allegedly due to racial hate, and the Ferguson and Baltimore losses occurred due to racial profiling and pre-judgement, we have still not confronted the fact that the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of African-Americans (for many decades) in our schools has many common racial roots.

Indeed, when I asked the Maryland school psychologists this past Wednesday to identify some of the reasons for disproportionality in schools, one of my good colleagues (who happens to be African-American) said immediately, “I’m just going to say it- - racial prejudice.”

And so, this is not simply about state statutes and school numbers. This is not simply about training the police to be racially sensitive while ensuring accountability. This is not simply about securing our churches, synagogues, and mosques- - or about gun control- - or about our lack of mental health staff or a sound community mental health system.

This is also about systemic and institutional change that involves our homes, schools, communities, and society. It is about beliefs, attitudes, discussion, debate, commitment, collaboration, and our ability to heal the past while establishing a new present.

This is about confronting reality, beginning to have uncomfortable conversations, and dealing directly with the issues. And yet, my Sunday paper today described Charleston as “genteel and- - because of the abundance of churches- - as ‘the Holy City.’” But strikingly, it went on to note that “(p)eople there say it’s awkward, if not impolite, to talk about race” there.

In many ways, the same is true of schools. Discussions about race and students with disabilities still are awkward in most schools. Educators would rather avoid, rather than embrace, the discussion. And even when the conversations occur across educators, they rarely involve students and families.

Some Systemic Causes of School Disproportionality: Starting the Conversation

I respectfully suggest that minority (especially African-American) students and students with disabilities have been disproportionately sent to the principal’s office for discipline problems, and disproportionately suspended and expelled from school for the following reasons:

* School, district, family, and community gaps in cultural competence; and the absence of ongoing and effective conversations about multi-cultural, racial, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, and disability-related similarities and differences in our schools- - from preschool through high school

* Flawed and short-sighted zero tolerance policies, perspectives, and related practices advocated for many years across the country by some legislatures, state departments of education, and national professional education associations (and others)

  • Teachers, administrators, and other educators not effectively trained in school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management approaches in their pre-service university training programs, or within their pre-tenure or post-certification professional development, supervision, or evaluation experiences in the field
  • The lack of a school and classroom focus on teaching and reinforcing students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development, growth, and learning; and the absence of an articulated, scaffolded preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” curriculum
  • District codes of conduct that (a) focus (almost) exclusively on deficit or inappropriate student behaviors and exclusionary practices (rather than determining the underlying reasons for students’ inappropriate behaviors that are then linked with strategic services, supports, strategies, and interventions); (b) do not specifically define and operationalize inappropriate student behavior along a continuum that discusses the frequency and/or intensity of the behavior; and (c) do not emphasize the specific expected individual, small group, and large group behaviors that all students need to learn, along with approaches to motivate and positively reinforce their occurrence
  • Teachers who are evaluated solely on students’ academic proficiency, rather than also being evaluated on establishing and sustaining positive relationships and classroom climate, positive classroom management systems and supports, and teaching and reinforcing students’ academic and behavioral self-management skills

In saying this, I am advocating a number of conversations that need to result in definitive actions with demonstrable results. Clearly, these conversations need to involve many community partners, educational institutions, and district and school stakeholders. Some of these conversations will need to be facilitated by trusted leaders. But all of these conversations are critical if we are going to address the root cause of our longstanding disproportionality problem.

But beyond these conversations, there are many strategies already available to address virtually all of the gaps noted above.


It is hard- - and maybe unfair or inappropriate- - to compare a suspended student with the loss of life in Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charleston. But, a predominant common denominator across these situations is historical and institutional prejudice.

If we do not address and begin to solve this denominator, the numerator will continue to proliferate.

There is no “silver bullet” here. . . but I hope that there IS a “silver lining” in the midst of these tragedies and injustices.

I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you. Please accept my best wishes as many of you are now “on vacation.” As always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas related to these discussions, please do not hesitate to contact me. Your comments are always welcome. Thanks for all that you do.