Study finds Black students face higher rates of discipline in classrooms

New research finds the color of a child’s skin will influence how they’re disciplined at school.
Published: May. 9, 2023 at 10:07 PM EDT|Updated: May. 9, 2023 at 10:17 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - New research finds the color of a child’s skin will influence how they’re disciplined at school.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds Black students are disciplined at higher rates than white students.

Tamika La Salle-Finley, director of the Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate, and Classroom Management at Georgia State University, cites implicit bias and structural racism as reasons for the disproportionate discipline.

“When you look at Black students, schools were not inherently made for them,” said La Salle-Finley.

According to the PNAS study, discipline for all students escalates in the days leading up to major breaks. However, the day before the Labor Day holiday, Black students are disciplined at a rate four times higher than White students. The day before the Thanksgiving holiday, that disparity grew to more than seven times greater for Black students compared to white students.

La Salle-Finley said there is no empirical research proving Black students misbehave more frequently.

Disparities exist even in schools with high minority populations.

“In metro Atlanta, a lot of the districts have largely Black and brown populations, but we still see disproportionality,” explained La Salle-Finley. “Even in a school where they make up 80 percent of a population, they make up 90 percent of discipline referrals.”

Subjective behaviors like defiance, disrespect, and disruption are often difficult to measure. These behaviors can be catalysts for reprimanding Black students, while white students might not receive the same discipline.

“That has different interpretations culturally, contextually,” said La Salle-Finley.

Max Altman, director of research and policy at Atlanta nonprofit Southern Education Foundation said staff diversity is key in understanding cultural context in classrooms.

“It is very common for Black students to interact in a more narrative, storytelling way,” said Altman.

According to data from the state of Georgia, 37 percent of students in Georgia public schools are white. But white teachers make up more than two-thirds of the workforce. Bringing in more staff and educators of color can help minority students feel seen and heard, and cut down fears of punishment or failure.

“Black students who want to talk about the work they’re doing who are excited about the content,” explained Altman. “Are often treated as misbehaving. And that excitement is turned into something that is challenged and punished.”

La Salle-Finley said some districts in the Atlanta area are taking steps to improve diversity amongst educators. DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Paulding School Districts recently received grants to increase Black and brown student psychologists on campus.

The discipline disparity impacts families across the United States.

Altman called for a coordinated effort amongst schools, districts, families, media, and officials at local, state, and national levels to improve the discipline disparity. Adults should work together t acknowledge the problem, facilitate conversations, implement new ways of thinking about student discipline, and train those who work closely with students.

Several districts in the Atlanta area acknowledged the challenges involving school discipline in the following statements:


“Fulton County Schools takes a holistic approach toward student discipline aiming to treat all students firmly and fairly. The Student Discipline Prevention and Intervention Department (SDPI) has been intentional in its program goals and uses several guiding documents that inform student discipline responses. The progressive Code of Conduct provides administrators latitude to examine numerous factors in each unique student situation, understanding that a one-size-fits-all for discipline offenses doesn’t consider the nuances of student behavior. Fulton has also created a Student, Parent and Teacher Bill of Rights which outlines basic tenets of stakeholder rights. When discipline offenses involve threats, the district follows the Threat Assessment Protocol which provides schools a consistent response.”


“The DeKalb County School District (DCSD) is committed to providing safe and welcoming learning environments for all students and staff. To maintain this standard, we enforce disciplinary consequences without regard to a student’s gender, ethnicity, or any other particular criteria using the DCSD Student Code of Conduct, which is distributed to every family annually and readily available online.

In general, discipline is designed to promote positive behavior, correct a student’s misconduct, and encourage the student to be a responsible citizen of the school community.

The DCSD Code of Student Conduct identifies the rules of student behavior applicable to all students, the discipline approach used to promote and enhance positive behaviors, and the procedures for imposing disciplinary consequences on students who violate these rules. In every case, DCSD’s goal is to provide equitable, impartial, and proportional consequences.

Ultimately, by administering discipline impartially and in accordance with the DCSD Student Code of Conduct, the District is creating safe and inclusive environments that support the academic, social, and emotional growth of all students across Dekalb County Schools.”


Gwinnett County Public Schools’ (GCPS) is committed to ensuring its student conduct code and disciplinary process is fair and equitable for each and every student. We are aware that our own data shows African-American students represent a larger share of discipline than the overall student body. GCPS Superintendent Dr. Calvin J. Watts and the Gwinnett Board of Education are in agreement that the data is complex and concerning and have been working in tandem to address this issue. This includes reviewing and making changes to the student conduct code, and providing teachers and administrators with alternative disciplinary options through tiered interventions, with the ultimate goal of achieving zero disproportionality. During the June 2023 Gwinnett Board of Education meeting, the board will be presented with the latest disciplinary data, at which time the Board and Dr. Watts will discuss the next steps.


Atlanta Public Schools is not considered “disproportionate” by any state or federal monitoring entity. However, we are dedicated to fairness and equity in all aspects of our duties and responsibilities as a school system, including the application of discipline.

While schools have a degree of autonomy, APS is in the process of establishing a foundation for districtwide, across-the-board expectations to prevent disproportionality. This will include having each school develop a schoolwide behavior plan that identifies three discipline-based trends to address, conducts mid-year reviews on how those trends are being addressed, and sets goals for the following school year.

· The Center for Equity + Social Justice (CESJ) has developed Tangibles, Intangibles, and Systems (TI&S) Equity Index Tools which track specific measures that impact students’ educational experiences and outcomes and are meant to support organizational decision-making and resource allocation.

· The Tangibles, Intangibles, and Systems (TI&S) Equity Index Tools quantify the degree of educational equity within each APS school, and the district as a whole, as measured against the district’s eleven (11) Equity Commitments, one of which is “Addressing Disproportionate Discipline Practices”.

· A list and description of the district’s Equity Commitments can be found on page 9 of the 2020-2025 APS Strategic Plan

· The Tangibles, Intangibles, and Systems (TI&S) Equity Index Tools are currently in draft form and the measures within these indexes have been prioritized by district and school-based leaders with input from cross-functional stakeholders including staff and students. Current metrics include suspension risk rate for different student populations, the average length of suspensions, and how well school leaders are adhering to the discipline code when making disciplinary decisions.

· Principals will be provided with access to their school-level Tangibles and Intangibles (T&I) Equity Index Tools this summer for consideration in the 2023-2024 school year. The CESJ will also convene an Implementation Team in the early fall to plan and roll out the integration of the Equity Index Tools into the Cluster Strategic Plans, School-Based Continuous Improvement Plans (CIPS), and ACES (Accountability, Continuous Improvement, Equity, and Support) conversations (where Principals communicate their progress and aspirations for their schools to district leaders).

· CESJ’s goal with the T&I Equity Index Tool is for school leaders to review their data in a way that clearly assesses their school’s equity narrative and to identify bright spots, as well as areas of growth and opportunity to focus on in the next school year. The CESJ seeks to collaborate with all departments and divisions to provide support for schools as they tackle their greatest educational equity challenges.

In May of 2022, the APS Board of Education approved the reorganization of the Office of Student Discipline to provide proactive support to students and schools. Although the 2022-2023 academic year marked the first year of this redesign, the department wasted no time providing the following opportunities for wraparound services districtwide.

· The Office of Student Discipline is partnering with the Center for Equity and Social Justice to implement an equity analysis review for schools that allows for community reflection on behavior practices, data review of behavioral trends concerning student subgroups, and planning for action research and innovative design to address school needs.

· This year, the Office of Student Discipline supports THRIVE (Teaching Holistic Responses and Information for Violence Elimination) in three schools: Douglass Ninth Grade STEAM Academy, Washington High School, and Carver STEAM High School.

o Each THRIVE University graduate successfully completed six units of the Positive Action Curriculum verified by the U.S. Department of Justice to address diverse problems such as substance abuse, violent behaviors, social-emotional neglect, and bullying by promoting character development, positive thinking, and academics. In Cohort 1 (September – December), 47 students graduated by completing the program requirements.

o Students provided feedback that they felt empowered to make successful decisions and manage their emotions when faced with a conflict: Cohort 1 Thrive Graduation.

o In addition to student support, 29 teachers and staff at the school sites completed 6 hours of training to earn their certificate in First-Aid Mental Health. This training works to eliminate disproportionate discipline by heightening teacher awareness of students’ needs. First-Aid Mental Health Training Supports Teachers in doing the following:

§ Recognize common signs and symptoms of mental health challenges in this age group, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

§ Recognize common signs and symptoms of substance use challenges.

§ Support product interactions with a child or adolescent in crisis.

§ Build positive connections with the youth.

§ Expanded content on trauma, substance use, self-care, and the impact of social media and bullying.

· School-Climate Coordinators provide feedback to school leadership teams implementing behavior strategies and review data in partnership with leaders to ensure the use of restorative practices and compliance with district guidelines. To date, 39 schools have achieved a 0% suspension rate for level-one discipline offenses.

· The district Behavior Coordinator provides 1:1 coaching for schools to review their behavior data, identify student behavior trends, and formulate school-wide behavior plans that include strategies to support students. Schools receive support throughout the year and have mid-year and end-of-year reviews to determine if their interventions were successful.

o 40 schools submitted plans and participated in support sessions

· Additionally, the Behavior Coordinator is providing cohort transition support for high schools and feeder middle schools to ensure that schools have all pertinent information to provide students in need of a behavioral support plan tiered interventions based upon their individual needs day one of the new school year. Students matriculating from middle school to high school.

· This helps to bridge the gap between schools and decrease the likelihood of discipline disparities for students in need of intervention.

o Middle Schools receive support for 6th-grade students transitioning to 7th

o Middle Schools and High Schools receive support for 8th-grade students transitioning to 9th

o The following schools are receiving Cohort Transition Assistance: (High Schools) Carver Early College, Douglass, Mays, South Atlanta, Therrell, and Washington; (Middle Schools) Bunche, H. J. Russell, John Lewis Invictus Academy, Long, and Sylvan Hills.

· This year, the Office of Student Discipline partnered with Leadership & Development and Academics to provide all Assistant Principals training towards a micro-credential in Restorative Practices. Additionally, a list of tiered progressive discipline interventions was included in the 2022-2023 Student Code of Conduct to support school leaders in selecting the best practices as an alternative to discipline or as a compliment to restore relationships between students or students and faculty.

· District Hearing Officers review school discipline hearing submissions to identify opportunities for improvement and then provide training to Administrators to support the correct application of discipline. These learning opportunities have resulted in a stronger alignment between the school’s application of discipline and district guidelines.

· When schools implement PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) faculty and students experience a deeper connection as a learning community and are more likely to de-escalation strategies when faced with conflict. This year, the PBIS Coordinator has expanded the number of PBIS schools from three to 16. All schools will participate in a sponsored PBIS retreat this summer where they will have the opportunity to receive feedback for advancing their strategies as well as a $2,000 grant to finance their program launch and parent engagement for the 2023-2024 academic year.

· The Check and Connect intervention model has proved to decrease truancy, tardies, behavior referrals, and dropout rates. Schools interested in implementing Check and Connect as an intervention will receive free training and materials to support program implementation in the 2023-2024 academic year.