We see a focus on equity sweeping the nation, and we hear that Americans agree that equity in education is important. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National School Boards Association have made equity a priority.

However, there may be differing definitions or assumptions in the term “equity.” In talking equity, a point of confusion we encounter is: Are we talking about equity across race and ethnicity or are we talking about equity across disability?

The flip side of equity is “disproportionality.” And, to be precise, when people talk about “disproportionality,” it is in the context of special education law. When students get identified and labeled disabled, placed in special education programs, and are disciplined, the goal is to do it in a way that is equitable. According to special education law, you can suspend as many black students as you want as long as you are not suspending more black students with disabilities than white students with disabilities. No other federal education law requires states or districts to measure for “significant disproportionality in discipline.” So, to be clear, it is not that certain racial groups are being over-disciplined in general, but that there is overdiscipline of certain racial groups within students who are already identified for special education services.

Concern over disproportionality in education is of special importance when looking at how discipline is administered in schools. The emphasis in special education law and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 on establishing multitiered supports is recognition that what may be effective for some students may not be effective for all students. When it comes to equity in discipline, teams at the school, district, and state levels need efficient and effective practices that are likely to improve outcomes for each student group. For any education unit (school, district, region, state) to produce real change, three things are necessary. Always start with your values. From there, make sure you are measuring what you value. Then, go looking for the practices and procedures that have been demonstrated to be effective and fit your unique social, cultural and organizational contexts.

Enshrine equity in your values

Part of achieving equity takes having the discipline to say, “What does that actually mean?” We recommend that administrators be public about the value foundation that will be used for moving the equity goal forward. We recommend that equity be defined from a technical perspective, as creating schools that actually work for all kids. How values are worded is up to each team. It could say something like, “We want to build a school environment that is effective, efficient, and equitable, so that it is a school that works for all the kids that come there .”

Enshrine equity in your policies and documents

Research on including equity in mission statements (most in business) has not been shown to be effective on its own. It might be necessary but insufficient. So, if equity has a particular meaning to you, then where in your values statement, mission statement, policies, procedures, and other official documents does it say this is what we are trying to create? For guidance, see the policy guide listed in the resource section below.

Measure what you value

If you value student academic engagement, then you will want to measure the disciplinary events that remove students from instruction (e.g., office referrals, suspensions, expulsions).

Achieving equity in discipline

All too often, the law falls into a morass when it tries to come up with the solutions. But, the law does a great job when it says in effect “this is a problem ... you need to work on it … you measure it ... you fix it.” This is what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 does. It obliges states and districts to measure disproportionality in discipline and to take remedial action when significant disproportionality is triggered. The regulations to IDEA layout the details on definitions, methodologies, and remedies.

How to measure disporportionality

In general, each state must provide for the collection and examination of data to determine if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring in the State and its local educational agencies with respect to the incidence, duration, and type of disciplinary removals from placement, including suspensions and expulsions.

States must use the methods in the IDEA regulations to determine if significant disproportionality based on race and ethnicity is occurring.

Definitions

Alternate risk ratio is a calculation performed by dividing the risk of a particular outcome for children in one racial or ethnic group within an LEA by the risk of that outcome for children in all other racial or ethnic groups in the state.

Comparison group consists of the children in all other racial or ethnic groups within an LEA or within the state, when reviewing a particular racial or ethnic group within an LEA for significant disproportionality.

Minimum cell size is the minimum number of children experiencing a particular outcome, to be used as the numerator when calculating either the risk for a particular racial or ethnic group or the risk for children in all other racial or ethnic groups.

Minimum n-size is the minimum number of children enrolled in an LEA with respect to identification, and the minimum number of children with disabilities enrolled in an LEA with respect to placement and discipline, to be used as the denominator when calculating either the risk for a particular racial or ethnic group or the risk for children in all other racial or ethnic groups.

Risk is the likelihood of a particular outcome (disciplinary removal) for a specified racial or ethnic group (or groups), calculated by dividing the number of children from a specified racial or ethnic group (or groups) experiencing that outcome by the total number of children from that racial or ethnic group or groups enrolled in the LEA.

Risk ratio is a calculation performed by dividing the risk of a particular outcome for children in one racial or ethnic group within an LEA by the risk for children in all other racial and ethnic groups within the LEA. Risk ratio threshold is a threshold, determined by the state, over which disproportionality based on race or ethnicity is significant.

Methods for determining significant disporportionality

In determining whether significant disproportionality exists in a state/LEA

1.1 Set standards. The state must set a:

  • Reasonable risk ratio threshold
  • Reasonable minimum cell size
  • Reasonable minimum n-size, and
  • Standard for measuring reasonable progress if a state uses flexibility (see 8. below)

1.2. Different standards permissible. The state may, but is not required to, set the standards in 1.1 at different levels for each category described in 3. (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals)

1.3. The standards in 1.1:

  • Must be based on advice from stakeholders, including state advisory panels, as provided in the IDEA, and
  • Are subject to monitoring and enforcement for reasonableness by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

1.4. Presumptions of ReasonablenessWhen monitoring for reasonableness, the U.S. Department of Education finds the following presumptively reasonable:

  • A minimum cell size no greater than 10, and
  • A minimum n-size no greater than 30.

2. Racial and Ethnic Groups. The state must apply the risk ratio threshold or thresholds to risk ratios or alternate risk ratios, as appropriate, in each category described in 3. (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals) and the following racial and ethnic groups:

  • Hispanic/Latino of any race; and, for individuals who are non-Hispanic/Latino only
  • American Indian or Alaska Native,
  • Asian,
  • Black or African American,
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,
  • White, and
  • Two or more races.

3. Determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals. Except as provided in 4 (determining alternate risk ratio) and 7 (exemption for determining risk ratio and alternate risk ratio), the state must calculate the risk ratio for each LEA, for each racial and ethnic group listed in 2 (racial and ethnic groups) with respect to disciplinary removals for children with disabilities ages 3 through 21:

  • out-of-school suspensions and expulsions of 10 days or fewer,
  • out-of-school suspensions and expulsions of more than 10 days,
  • in-school suspensions of 10 days or fewer,
  • in-school suspensions of more than 10 days, and
  • disciplinary removals in total, including in-school and out- of-school suspensions, expulsions, removals by school personnel to an interim alternative education setting, and removals by a hearing officer.

4. Determining alternate risk ratio. The state must calculate an alternate risk ratio with respect to the categories described in 3 (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals) if the comparison group in the LEA does not meet the minimum cell size or the minimum n-size.

5. Determining significant disporportionality. Except as provided in 8 (flexibility in determining significant disporportionality), the state must identify as having significant disproportionality based on race or ethnicity any LEA that has a risk ratio or alternate risk ratio for any racial or ethnic group in any of the categories in 3. (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals) that exceeds the risk ratio threshold set by the state for that category.

6. Reporting. The state must report all risk ratio thresholds, minimum cell sizes, minimum n-sizes, and standards for measuring reasonable progress selected under 1.1 (set standards), and the rationales for each, to the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Rationales for minimum cell sizes and minimum n-sizes not presumptively reasonable under 1.4 must include a detailed explanation of why the numbers chosen are reasonable and how they ensure that the state is appropriately analyzing and identifying LEAs with significant disparities, based on race and ethnicity, in the identification, placement, or discipline of children with disabilities.

7. Exemption. A state is not required to calculate a risk ratio or alternate risk ratio, as outlined in 3. (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals) and 4. (determining alternate risk ratios), to determine significant disproportionality if:

  • The particular racial or ethnic group being analyzed does not meet the minimum cell size or minimum n-size, or 
  • In calculating the alternate risk ratio under 4, the comparison group in the state does not meet the minimum cell size or minimum n-size.

8. Flexibility. A state is not required to identify an LEA as having significant disproportionality based on race or ethnicity until:

  • The LEA has exceeded a risk ratio threshold set by the state for a racial or ethnic group in a category in 3 (determining risk ratio for disciplinary removals) for up to three prior consecutive years preceding the identification, and
  • The LEA has exceeded the risk ratio threshold and has failed to demonstrate reasonable progress, as determined by the state, in lowering the risk ratio or alternate risk ratio for the group and category in each of the two prior consecutive years.

What action must states take?

  • Provide for the annual review and, if appropriate, revision of the policies, practices, and procedures used in disciplinary removals, to ensure that the policies, practices, and procedures comply with the requirements of IDEA.
  • Require the LEA to publicly report on those revisions of policies, practices, and procedures.
  • Require any LEA identified to reserve the maximum amount of early intervening services funds to provide comprehensive coordinated early intervening services to address factors contributing to the significant disproportionality.

What the law requires

The federal regulatory obligations outlined above are currently in effect while compliance with them has been suspended indefinitely. This is like having posted speed limits on the highway but law enforcement says it doesn’t plan to enforce speed violations.

In this environment, what are states and districts to do? States and districts are saying that there is agreement around equity being too important to set aside and are opting to move forward with their equity plans. They are also opting to move ahead with measuring disporportionality in line with the federal regulations even though compliance isn't required.

There are guidebooks on best practices which states and districts can provide their school-wide PBIS (positive behavioral interventions and supports) school teams to help with the use of discipline data (e.g., office discipline referrals, suspensions) in the area of racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline. The guide, listed in the resources section below, describes a framework and steps for identifying levels of disproportionality, analyzing data to determine solutions, and monitoring the effectiveness of action plans in addressing disproportionality. Specific practices to address disproportionality are described in other guides in the series.

Choosing solutions that work

The next step is for administrators to look for solutions that actually produce change. Say your goal is that “all the kids who come to school get an education that helps them to be more successful, integrated, and contributing adults.” Then the question becomes How do you adjust that for kids with significant disabilities, kids with minor disabilities, kids who come from different cultures, kids who look, sound, and act differently?

We recognize there’s no simple solution. And, accepting this value statement is hard because as laid out, it is a big task. Whatever the solution, we know that it must be comprehensive, multi-faceted, and will take time. We recommend the five-point multicomponent intervention described in the guide listed below in resources. It includes effective instruction, school-wide PBIS as a foundation for culturally responsive behavior support, use of disaggregated discipline data, effective policies, and reducing bias in discipline decisions.

The choice of solution is yours. The bottom line is whatever the solution, it must measure progress and show progress. The lack of research identifying evidence-based practices to increase disciplinary equity should not stop educators from taking consistent and persistent efforts to achieve their equity goals.

Resources

To learn more, visit www.pbis.org and check out these guides:

Key Elements of Policies to Address Discipline Disproportionality: A Guide for District and School Teams. By Ambra Green, Rhonda Nese, Kent McIntosh, Vicki Nishioka, Bert Eliason, & Alondra Canizal Delabra. September 2015.

Using Discipline Data within SWPBIS to Identify and Address Disproportionality: A Guide for School Teams. September 2014.

A Conceptual Model for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality in School Discipline. By Kent McIntosh, Erik J. Girvan, Robert H. Horner, and Keith Smolkowski.

Heidi von Ravensberg (hvr@uoregon.edu) is a faculty attorney for the national Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Technical Assistance Center housed at the University of Oregon.

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