Study finds ‘robust evidence’ of persistent racial and ethnic disparities in discipline in secondary schools across the United States

Albert Ksinan found that African American students and students self-identifying as two or more r...
Albert Ksinan found that African American students and students self-identifying as two or more races were at greater risk for discipline actions across all disciplinary measures in both middle and high schools. (Courtesy photo)

A new study led by a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University analyzed school discipline records from 15,901 middle and 18,303 high schools and found “robust evidence” of persistent discrepancies in disciplinary practices across ethnic and racial groups.

Specifically, the study examined how ethnicity and race are associated with school exclusionary discipline practices, or when students are removed from school as a form of punishment. It found that African American students and students self-identifying as two or more races were at greater risk for discipline actions across all disciplinary measures in both middle and high schools.

The study, “National ethnic and racial disparities in disciplinary practices: A contextual analysis in American secondary schools,” was published in the Journal of School Psychology and was led by Albert J. Ksinan, Ph.D., a post-doc fellow in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“The most important finding for me is that the previously found ethnic [and] racial disparities in school discipline were robustly confirmed on a national level in middle schools as well as high schools,” Ksinan said. “These ethnic [and] racial discrepancies were observed above and beyond the effect of sex (where males are more likely to be disciplined) and disability status (where students with disabilities are more likely to be disciplined).”

The findings — based on the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for 2013-14 — indicate that ethnic and racial disparities are not an isolated phenomenon, but are in fact prevalent in schools across the United States.

The study additionally found that schools with greater levels of poverty had higher levels of discipline and were more likely to have greater ethnic and racial disparities in discipline for African American students and students self-identifying as two or more races.

“We hope that the scale of this research will provide impetus to the discussion of adequateness of disciplinary practices in the U.S. school system,” Ksinan said. “The current comprehensive evidence of persistent racial [and] ethnic discrepancies in school discipline shows that school discipline as it is currently administered might be at risk for targeting specific ethnic [and] racial groups, which might deepen the existing ethnic [and] racial gaps in achievement — [such as in] high school graduation rates — or in juvenile justice.”

Ksinan conducted the study as a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, where he earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Family Sciences in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Its co-authors are Alexander T. Vazsonyi, Ph.D., the John I. & Patricia J. Buster Endowed Professor of Family Sciences at the University of Kentucky; Gabriela Ksinan Jiskrova, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at VCU's School of Social Work; and James L. Peugh, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati.

Previous research has found higher rates of school discipline for African American students as compared to white students, and the current study confirmed that result. However, the researchers were surprised to see similar effects for students self-identifying as two or more races, and, to a lesser extent, among American Indian students.

Differences in school discipline disparities among regions across the country also were surprising.

“When we stratified the analysis by U.S. region (Northeast, South, Midwest, West), we were surprised to see that schools in the South did not have the highest levels of school discipline as might be expected from previous literature and that for several disciplinary measures, schools in the Midwest had rates higher than schools in the South,” Ksinan said.

While the data used in the study was from 2013-14, looking at the latest research articles relying on 2015-16 CRDC data also has found strong ethnic and racial disparities in school discipline, particularly affecting African American students.

“I do not expect these disparities to go away soon given that they have been observed in research for the past 20 years,” Ksinan said.

Ksinan launched the study as something of a “side project” at the University of Kentucky, and said it began to take on a life of its own.

“The whole project was quite demanding and I was glad to have it finally published. I hope that this article will serve as the ‘go to’ piece when talking about ethnic [and] racial discrepancies and school discipline,” he said.