Meaningful Conversations about Disciplinary Equity

I recently attended the “Closing the School Discipline Gap” conference organized by the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Research to Practice Collaborative on Race and Gender Disparities in Discipline. The school discipline gap, i.e., inequitable discipline outcomes for students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds and abilities, affects students across the country. News reports from Chicago Public Schools to San Francisco Unified School District and many school districts in between tell the same story. Losen and Gillespie (2012) summarized this story by disaggregating out-of school suspension data collected by the Office for Civil Rights by student race and disability status:

Impact by race and disability of the use of out-of-school suspensions, 2009-2010

CVG graph 2

Source: CRDC, 2009-2010 (numbers from national sample rounded to whole numbers)
From: Losen, D. & Gillespie, J. (2012). Opportunities suspended: The disparate impact of disciplinary exclusion from school. University of California at Los Angeles: The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Figure 2, Page 13.

The conference brought together researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and students, all committed to making a difference. It presented not only different perspectives, but offered a forum for open and honest dialogue and galvanized collaborations across disciplinary boundaries. The student voices set this conference apart from many others I have attended and brought its purpose to life. The immediacy, clarity, and openness with which the students shared their experiences were simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.

After the initial plenary session in which researchers presented the well-known numbers documenting disciplinary disproportionality and the dismal trajectories of students excluded from school, a young man stepped up to the microphone and started by apologizing for wearing his sunglasses. As it turned out, his sunglasses almost got him suspended from school when he refused to take them off in class after being asked by his teacher to do so. The teacher argued that he needed to see the students’ eyes in order to determine if he is academically engaged. The student argued that his work clearly indicated that he is academically engaged and that freedom of expression allowed him to wear his sunglasses. The issue was finally settled during a parent-teacher conference attended by the student, his mother, and the teacher. Not only was the student academically successful, but he was also a youth leader in his community.


A young woman responded to a number of presentations grouped together under the title “What policymakers can learn from data on disparities in discipline.” The presentations focused on disciplinary outcomes for specific groups of students, e.g. African-American males, Native Americans, and students with disabilities. The young woman said that she needed to go through a metal detector every day she entered her school, a process she found personally violating.  She described the heavy police presence at her school, and her efforts to get more people in her school and community involved in peace programs. “Whenever I ask for more peace programs, they tell me there is no money. But you’ve got money to put more cops into our school, right?” she said.

Another young woman, who identified herself as being openly lesbian, spoke about her experiences of being bullied and finding little support from adults. She recounted her struggles to build an identity in her school and community that was true to herself and living that identity despite the taunts of peers and teachers looking the other way when she asked for support. She underscored the need to recognize LGBTQ students because their school experience differs from many other students and deserves to be studied and improved.

curtisA young man and youth leader in his community spoke up in response to several presentations outlining the efforts of researchers to train teachers and administrators to respond to disciplinary incidents in a manner that minimizes bias. He highlighted the fact that much of the research and policy efforts presented focused on adults, and that “culture” seemed to be interpreted as synonymous with race and ethnicity. “Perhaps you all should pay a little bit more attention to youth culture,” he said to applause and cheers from the students in the audience.

Listening to the students’ experiences, opinions, and insights made me realize how difficult—and at the same time how crucial—it is to look beyond the data at the real experiences of individuals our data represent. As a researcher, I spend much of my time looking at rows and columns of data, tables, and graphs, and I do so in comfortable offices in safe neighborhoods. The professional and personal resources I have access to likely exceed those of many of the students who spoke at the conference. Given the glaring difference between the environment the students described and the environment I work in, can what I do be truly impactful? Does it have the necessary ring of truth? Can I contextualize it appropriately when I share it with my colleagues? How and when can I share it with students? What is my reality check?

At too many conferences, researchers or policymakers only talk to each other and the conversations rarely leave well-defined comfort zones.  The “Closing the School Discipline Gap” conference, however, brought us face to face with the students whom we are researching and for whom we are designing policy. And their main messages were: No need to be afraid of us, don’t waste money on what doesn’t work, and listen to students and not only to yourselves. Points taken.