School discipline disparities: How we can do better

Research continues to show significant racial differences in school suspensions and expulsions.

In general, white students tend to receive disciplinary office referrals for behavior that can be observed more objectively — e.g., smoking, vandalizing, leaving class without permission, making obscene comments — while in comparison black students were more likely to receive disciplinary office referrals for behaviors that can be interpreted more subjectively (e.g., disrespecting, threatening, making excessive noise).

Now, the Indiana Department of Education has published an online data portal where students, families, and community leaders can see the number and breakdown of disciplinary actions in Indiana schools. You can access this information by going to, typing in a school, and clicking on the “Environment” tab. The data is available for the 2017-18 school year broken down by school, school district and state numbers.

The statistics at the state level are as follows:

In-school suspensions:

Overall, 4.4% of Indiana students were suspended in-school across the state of Indiana.

Among Indiana students, black/African-American children were more than twice as likely to receive in-school suspension compared to their white peers (8.2% compared to 3.4%).

In-school suspension rates are highest among black students (8.2%), multiracial students (5.9%), Native American students (4.9%), and Hispanic students (4.7%) — and lowest among Asian (1.7%), white (3.4%), and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander children (3.5%).

Students with disabilities (6.5%) and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (6.2%) received suspensions at higher rates than all other races/ethnicities except for black.

Black (8.2%), multiracial (5.9%), and Hispanic (4.7%) were the three highest percentages of students. Asian (1.7%), white (3.4%), and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (3.5%) were the three lowest percentages.

Out-of-school suspensions:

Overall, 5.7% of Indiana students were suspended out-of-school across the state of Indiana.

Among Indiana students, black/African-American children were nearly four times as likely to receive out-of-school suspension compared to their white peers (15.4% as compared with 3.8%).

The rate of black/African-American students (15.4%) suspended out-of-school was nearly twice that of the next largest race/ethnicity (multiracial students, 7.9%).


Overall, 0.3% of all Indiana students received an expulsion.

Black/African-American students, along with Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, received more expulsions than any other race/ethnicity at 0.4%.

Asian students received the fewest expulsions at 0.1%.

Among all expulsions, 0.4% of students were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Recent research from the American Psychological Association suggests that many widely-used school disciplinary techniques are counterproductive and actually negatively impact student achievement, increase students’ risk of dropping out, and increase the likelihood that students disciplined in schools would become involved with the criminal justice system. When school disciplinary systems can be updated to include equity-focused interventions, as IDOE is working to do, schools can reduce the discipline gap, lessen the negative impacts of discipline, keep students in school, and improve the overall school climate.

Our State Legislature, recognizing the issue of disproportionality in school discipline, passed House Enrolled Act 1421 (HEA 1421), which requires IDOE to provide schools with training and information on evidence-based models for improving school behavior and discipline. The law’s overarching goal is to ensure that all students across our state have access to a “safe, respectful, culturally- and trauma-responsive learning environment.” Through these efforts, school districts will have quick access to the latest available data and receive the information and resources needed to review and update their disciplinary practices.

Now that the school year is in full swing, families should examine both the discipline numbers for their schools and the code of conduct. Child Trends has five questions they recommend asking your school about disciplinary practices, including:

What does my school do to prevent misbehavior?

What behaviors place my child at risk of removal from class or school?

How and when does my school involve police?

Does my school use corporal punishment or seclusion and restraint?

What is restorative justice and is it used in my school?

We all want schools where every student and staff member are safe and focused on learning. It is promising that our elected officials and IDOE are acting to reduce the disproportionate rates by which Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students are disciplined. With the data now easily available, we can all step up to understand the numbers and help ensure the next steps are more constructive ones. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to [email protected].