What effect do behavioral strategies have on disproportionate representation in special education?

Question: What effect do behavioral strategies have on disproportionate representation in special education?

Rus Skiba: I have a colleague at State Department of Education who says in contrast to issues like special ed. disproportionality or the achievement gap, making changes in discipline and racial and ethnic disparities in discipline ought to be fairly easy, we just stop suspending kids. There is some truth to that but also there is some complexities, and the complexity actually comes, in part, from our assumptions about suspension and expulsion and our assumptions about racial and ethnic disparities and suspension. Often times we assume that removing students from school is going to have a deterring effect on those students, and it is also going to improve the school climate by taking those students out who misbehave more and it will improve the climate for other students. In fact, the data shows that neither one of those assumptions has held up. The American Psychological Association did an extensive review of zero tolerance suspension and expulsion and they found out that in fact there is no evidence of deterring effect. In fact, kids who are suspended early on in their school career, between 4th and 6th grade, are actually more likely to be suspended or referred to the office by the time they are in 8th grade and this is controlling for the type and severity of behavior they engaged in originally. Also, schools that use suspension and expulsion more seem to have less satisfactory ratings of school climate, they tend to use school discipline more, have higher student-teacher ratios, and most importantly, there‘s data that’s accumulating that schools that use suspension and expulsion appear to have lower, less favorable outcomes as far as scores on achievement tests. That’s controlling for demographic, so it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about urban schools, rural schools, rich schools, poor schools, those schools that tend to use suspension and expulsion less have better outcomes as far as achievement.

We also make assumptions about racial and ethnic disproportionality in school suspension and expulsion because kids of color tend to come, disproportionality, from more disadvantaged, high poverty backgrounds, we assume, sometimes, that these issues are about poverty, not about race. So in other words, kids coming from disadvantaged homes or communities that may be more disrupted are going to come into school not really understanding the behavioral expectations, they’re going to be more likely to act out and hence be suspended and expelled more. Yes, we see more suspensions and expulsions among kids coming from poverty backgrounds, but that does not explain racial differences. So, in fact when we control for poverty, we see that kids in poor settings, African-American students are more likely to be suspended than other students, but also when we go to low poverty, suburban settings, we see the same racial and ethnic disparities.

The second part of that assumption is that African-American students may act out more, and hence earn more suspensions. But again, there is no data supporting that assumption either. In the same schools and the same school districts, you tend to find that African American and rates for other students tend to be the same. And in fact there is some data that African Americans might receive more serious consequences for the same behavior. A study done called “The Color of Discipline,” looked at differences in office referrals for white and black students. Out of 24 reasons for referral in a large urban district, there were only 8 differences. For a lot of things there were no differences: fighting or spitting or stealing. But there were a few differences. White students were more likely to be referred to the office for more objective reasons, things like vandalism or leaving without permission. In contrast, the black students in the 19 middle schools that we looked at were more likely to be referred for subjective reasons: defiance, threat. Now, when we look at threat, we say well, that’s pretty serious, it’s unclear is threat more serious than vandalism. But again, it is a little bit more subjective. It depends on the perceptions of the person who is being threatened. So, in short, we don’t have any data that says that African American students act out more to in order to receive more suspensions.

Finally, we have to understand that there are consequences to the use of suspension and expulsion. We know, one of the things we know most firmly from studies in educational psychology is that students achieve in direct relationship to the amount of time they are engaged in school. When we use suspension and expulsion, we are using procedures that have a certain amount of risk inherent in them because we are reducing the amount of time that students are spending in school and can put kids who may already be in some risk academically at further risk by removing them for days at a time from the opportunity to learn. In the long term, there is a moderate correlation between school use of suspension and expulsion and lower graduation rates and higher drop-out rates. We are beginning to see evidence of a school to prison pipeline, that districts that have higher rates of African-American disproportionality in suspension and expulsion also have higher disparities in terms of the arrest rate between black and white students. So these things are certainly not risk free and suggest that we always want to find alternatives to keep kids in school. So what are some of those alternatives? Certainly one of the most promising avenues right now is the technology of positive behavior supports. It has been implemented in over 12,000 schools around the country. It is a way for schools to restructure their school disciplinary systems. Often times we assume that we have common expectations and that kids just ought to understand those expectations when they come into a school. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that we don’t have either of those things in a lot of schools. The assumptions may differ from classroom to classroom about what expected behavior is, from location to location. Positive Behavior Supports is a way for us to get on the same page and to ensure that kids are getting the same message about what’s expected of them in all classrooms and throughout the school and that those expectations are very clear. So our expectations will probably differ quite a bit for the gymnasium as compared to a classroom as compared to a hallway as compared to a cafeteria. Positive Behavior Supports is a way for us to define those expectations across all the common areas. Furthermore, we teach those expectations to kids explicitly that those are framed in terms of a code that is easy to remember for kids. One of the schools that we worked with uses the acronym S.H.A.P.E, and so the kids will all get in shape, behaviorally. It is things like safety, honesty, achievement. Those programs have been very successful in reducing referrals to the office as well as suspensions and expulsions. There is beginning to be some data that schools that implement positive behavior supports with fidelity can also see some improvements in their overall school achievement. Will that work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities? I think the jury is out on that.

We assume that one approach may work for all students. In fact, we really need to monitor that. We need to disaggregate our data and make sure that our interventions are working for all students. Sometimes we may find that it works for white students, and because white students are the majority, we think we have reduced suspensions, but lo and behold, when we disaggregate our data, we find that out there are still significant racial and ethnic disparities, so we need to disaggregate that data. We also, and this is a very important point, we have to be willing to talk about race and ethnicity and what our assumptions are. We have a long and tortured history in this country of racial discrimination, oppression, and as a result we have very different experiences depending on our culture and, frankly, the color of our skin, about what racial disparities in suspension and expulsion mean. So we have to be willing to bring all of the voices to the table, and examine not only kid behavior, but also our own responses to issues of behavior, race, and culture. With those modifications, we believe that positive behavior supports can be an effective method for reducing ethnic and racial disparities. Right now, in fact, we’re piloting a cultural responsive positive behavior supports in a state-wide project in Indiana.