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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


October 2020


What does the research say about how changes in policy for high school student behavior affect discipline rates?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on how changes in school policies can affect discipline rates. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to dress codes, hair codes, being tardy, and being truant. For details on the databases and sources, key words and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Anderson, K. P., Egalite, A. J., & Mills, J. N. (2019). Discipline reform: The impact of a statewide ban on suspensions for truancy. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 24(1), 68–91. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Chronic absenteeism and truancy have been linked to a variety of undesirable outcomes for students including increased risk of dropout, lower test scores, lower educational and social engagement, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. One controversial response to truancy is the use of exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions (OSS). Out of concern that such a practice is counter-intuitive and likely not effective at improving student engagement or academic outcomes, some states have recently banned this practice altogether. This analysis uses Arkansas as a case study to estimate the impact of a state-level ban on the use of OSS for truancy on attendance—an important measure related to student engagement and opportunity to learn. Using an eight-year panel of student-level data in a difference-in-differences framework, we find no evidence of improvement in attendance for truant students. Implications for policy design, implementation, and evaluation are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Baker-Smith, E. C. (2018). Suspensions suspended: Do changes to high school suspension policies change suspension rates? Peabody Journal of Education, 93(2), 190–206. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In recent years, the frequent use of suspensions and the racial disparities in their application, particularly for nonviolent behaviors, has created a maelstrom of public pressure for schools to adjust their suspension practices. In an era of increasing institutional accountability for schools, there is evidence that schools may be responsive to policy shifts when they are under institutional pressure to do so. Several school districts have recently revised their out-of-school suspension policies, but researchers know little about (a) if these changes in policy actually change students’ odds of suspension and (b) if so, how these changes might shift racial disproportionality in suspensions. This analysis examines the recent removal of suspensions for low-level infractions from the formal school discipline policy of a large, urban district. I use student-level data to compare the frequency and disproportionality of suspensions before and after the discipline code change. Findings suggest that although suspension rates decrease overall, multiple suspensions per student are more likely. With regard to disproportionality, black girls and white boys are more likely than expected to receive a first suspension in the post period as well. These findings highlight the importance of exploring heterogeneity in outcomes resulting from potential unintended consequences of policy change.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Brown, B. (2006). Controlling crime and delinquency in the schools: An exploratory study of student perceptions of school security measures. Journal of School Violence, 4(4), 105–125. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This paper provides an analysis of data on school security measures which were obtained from a survey administered to a sample of 230 high school students. The majority of students indicated that the school police officers and security officers help keep the schools safe and that the drug-sniffing dogs help reduce drugs in the schools, but there was no clear consensus among the students on the issues of whether the video surveillance cameras increase safety, whether the police and security officers should search students with metal detectors, or whether there should be more police and security officers in the schools. The only security measure which the majority of students disliked was the policy that all backpacks be translucent. An examination of gender differences in student perceptions of school security measures shows that males were significantly more likely than females to negatively evaluate the school police officers and to oppose the use of metal detectors in the schools. Finally, the data indicate that the aforementioned security strategies have little impact on the presence of drugs and weapons in the schools. The policy implications are discussed.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Camacho, K. A., & Krezmien, M. P. (2020). A statewide analysis of school discipline policies and suspension practices. Preventing School Failure, 64(1), 55–66. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The majority of the research on school suspension practices has focused on individual student-level factors and their relationship to school suspension practices. A substantial number of studies have examined race and/or disability status as predictors of suspension (Camacho & Krezmien, 2018; Krezmien, Travers, & Camacho, 2017; Sullivan, Klingbeil, & Van Norman, 2013; Vincent, Sprague, & Tobin, 2012; Wright, Morgan, Coyne, Beaver, & Barnes, 2014). They have consistently found that African American students and students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended from school compared to White students and students without disabilities. Fewer studies have focused on school-level factors that are associated with disproportionate suspension practices. These studies have found that secondary schools suspend more students than elementary schools (Butler, Lewis, Moore, & Scott, 2012; Camacho & Krezmien, 2018). Schools with lower academic achievement (Camacho & Krezmien, 2018; Skiba et al., 2014), higher retention rates (Christle, Nelson, & Jolivette, 2004), and more highly qualified teachers (Camacho & Krezmien, 2018; Losen, Simmons, Staudinger-Poloni, Rausch, & Skiba, 2003) had lower suspension rates. Schools with higher percentages of Black students (Skiba et al., 2014), higher dropout rates (Christle et al., 2004), and higher mobility rates (Camacho & Krezmien, 2018; Hemphill, Plenty, Herrenkohl, Toumbourou, & Catalano, 2014) placed students at higher risk for suspension. Despite these consistent findings, there has been relatively little research examining school discipline policies (Fenning et al., 2008) and the relationship between school discipline policies and discipline outcomes.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Fuentes, A. (2012). Arresting development: Zero tolerance and the criminalization of children. Rethinking Schools, 26(2), 18–23. Retrieved from Full-text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “Supposedly designed to improve student attendance, the aggressive truancy policing in Los Angeles (LA) has discouraged students from going to class and often pushes them to drop out and into harm’s way. Truancy tickets play a role in the school-to-prison pipeline. Students are being brought up in an environment that is a pre-prisoning of youth. LA is not the only place where heavy-handed policing has become a problem that advocates say puts students at risk of dropping out. From New York to Florida to Texas, the combination of zero tolerance policies and the increased role of police—in schools and on the streets—has led to an alarming number of suspensions, expulsions, and contact of ever-younger children with the criminal justice system. The high costs to students, teachers, and public education of zero tolerance discipline and policing in schools is causing a backlash in some districts where community organizing is targeting practices like LA’s truancy sweeps. After years of protests, the city’s Board of Education adopted a policy to implement districtwide a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a skills-building, nonpunitive strategy, as the official disciplinary policy, erasing zero tolerance from the books. Although it has been implemented only slowly and unevenly in the public schools, activists are hopeful that it can spark a culture change that will encourage students to stay in school. On policing, LA advocates have scored some success, too. Both the LAPD and the LA school police have announced that they will no longer conduct truancy sweeps during the first hour of the school day in order to avoid ticketing students who would be late for school, not truant.”

Gross, B., Tuchman, S., & Yatsko, S. (2016). Grappling with discipline in autonomous schools: New approaches from D.C. and New Orleans. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report profiles leading efforts by two cities to bring consistency and fairness to discipline practices in both district and charter schools—with promising early results: (1) Washington, D.C.—Leaders focused on boosting transparency and leveraging public scrutiny of high discipline rates in all public schools by producing School Equity Reports documenting school-level data on suspension, expulsion, student exit, and midyear enrollment. First published for the 2012-13 school year, the equity reports prepared through 2014-15 show citywide drops in suspension rates overall and among specific student groups, such as those with special needs. Expulsion rates fell by almost half, with D.C. charter schools showing sharper declines in expulsion than district schools; (2) New Orleans: The state-run Recovery School District instituted a centralized hearing process in 2012 to review and approve proposed expulsions for all the city’s public schools. Both charter and district public schools must abide by common, agreed-upon standards for expellable offenses. Overall expulsion rates appear to have dropped citywide since the centralized process began. Expelled students are tracked and supported to ensure that they receive appropriate educational services. Though still early in implementation, these cross-sector efforts suggest that city leaders can help reduce perceived or real inequities and unfair use of suspension and expulsion in charter schools without dampening the possibilities for innovation. Other cities struggling with discipline policies should look to these efforts to help guide them toward successful discipline solutions that can be shared across schools and sectors, to the benefit of all students.”

Hirschfield, P. J. (2018). The role of schools in sustaining juvenile justice system inequality. The Future of Children, 28(1), 11–35. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Children’s school experiences may contribute in many ways to disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, writes Paul Hirschfield. For example, research shows that black students who violate school rules are more often subject to out-of-school suspensions, which heighten their risk of arrest and increase the odds that once accused of delinquency, they’ll be detained, formally processed, and institutionalized for probation violations. Hirschfield examines two types of processes through which schools may contribute to disproportionate minority contact with the justice system. Micro-level processes affect delinquents at the individual level, either because they’re distributed unevenly by race/ ethnicity or because they affect youth of color more adversely. For example, suspensions can be a micro-level factor if biased principals suspend more black youth than white youth. Macrolevel processes, by contrast, operate at the classroom, school, or district level. For example, if predominantly black school districts are more likely than predominantly white districts to discipline students by suspending them, black students overall will be adversely affected, even if each district applies suspensions equitably within its own schools. Some policies and interventions, if properly targeted and implemented, show promise for helping schools reduce their role in justice system inequality, Hirschfield writes. One is school-based restorative justice practices like conferencing and peacemaking circles, which aim to reduce misbehaviors by resolving conflicts, improving students’ sense of connection to the school community, and reinforcing the legitimacy of school authorities. Another is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a multi-tiered, team-based intervention framework that has proven to be effective in reducing disciplinary referrals and suspensions, particularly in elementary and middle schools. However, he notes, if successful programs like these are more accessible to well-off schools or to white students, they may actually exacerbate inequality, even as they reduce suspension for blacks.”

Hotchkins, B. (2016). African American males navigate racial microaggressions. Teachers College Record, 118(6), 1–36. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Background/Context: High school educational environments find Black males experience systemic racial microaggressions in the form of discipline policies, academic tracking and hegemonic curriculum (Allen, Scott, & Lewis, 2013). Black males in high school are more likely than their White male peers to have high school truancies and be viewed as intentionally sinister (Allen, 2010; Osyerman, Gant, & Ager, 1995). African American males are labeled by White teachers and administrators as deviant for issues like talking in class, dress code violations and being tardy (Skiba et al., 2011). Deficit perceptions about African American students as held by White teachers and administrators serve as racial microaggressions within K-12 context. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Racial microaggressions based on prejudicial White beliefs of teachers impedes the learning process of participants. Racial microaggressive acts are problematic due to being a symptom of the overarching campus racial climate, which is often indicative of the negative historic treatment of Black males by Whites (Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2011). The cumulative impact of racial microaggressions on Black males negatively impacts self-image, academic performance, and social navigation skills (Sol√≥rzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995). Examining how Black males responded to racial microaggressions by White teachers and administrators at culturally diverse high school settings was the impetus for this study. Research Design: To understand how African American male students responded to racial microaggressions qualitative research was used. Conducting a study that focuses on multiple individualistic lived experiences, I am mindful that ‘human actions cannot be understood unless the meaning that humans assign to them is understood’ (Marshall & Rossman, 2011, p. 53). This comparative case study allowed for narrative expression, which informed the experiential meanings participants assigned to enduring racial microaggressions by gathering in-depth information through multiple sources to understand participants’ real life meanings to situations (Flyvbjerg, 2006; Merriam, 1998). Conclusions/Recommendations: Participants’ engaged in pro-active navigation strategies to minimize and counter racial microaggressions. Navigation strategies were influenced by in- and out-of-class interactions with White teachers and student peers. Analysis of the data gathered during interviews, focus groups, and observations confirmed the racial microaggressive lived experiences of participants. Three themes emerged: (1) monolithic targeting; (2) integrative fluidity; and (3) behavioral vacillation. Participants avoided monolithic targeted racial microaggression(s) by creating meaningful alliances within other racialized student populations by utilizing social and extracurricular relationships as protective barriers to lessen the adverse effects of racial microaggressive experiences.”

Patrick, K., Onyeka-Crawford, A., & Duchesneau, N. (2020). “... And they cared”: How to create better, safer learning environments for girls of color. Washington, DC: Education Trust. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Embedded within school discipline policies, dress codes, or codes of conduct are gender and racial biases that manifest in exclusionary punishments that have more to do with who girls are rather than what they do. Girls of color face some of the greatest barriers to educational opportunities and social emotional growth inside schools with poor school climates. Black girls especially face scrutiny, often encountering rules, such as hair codes, that target their cultural identity. This guide was created amidst the economic uncertainty of a global pandemic and the beginning of a historic public reckoning on racism in America. School districts are at a turning point in which they must make intentional and specific policy and financial decisions that address the legacy of 400 years of systemic anti-Blackness, including rectifying disparate discipline and criminalization experienced by Black girls in schools across the county. This guide aims to respond to this moment and provide decision-makers with a common language and practices that can be used to reform exclusionary discipline policies and improve school climate to help address the needs of girls of color—especially Black girls. It highlights steps taken in Oakland and Chicago at the district level and in Massachusetts at the state level. It includes the voices of girls who have experienced these changes firsthand and highlights where there is room for improvement—particularly the urgent need to shift resources away from law enforcement to restorative justice, counseling, mental health services, and/or other evidence-based approaches. There is also a checklist, so decision-makers can assess what changes they can make to create positive school climates at the school, district, or state level.”

Steinberg, M. P., & Lacoe, J. (2017). The academic and behavioral consequences of discipline policy reform: Evidence from Philadelphia. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “One important question about school discipline is whether it helps or harms those being disciplined. But a second, equally important question is whether a push to reduce the number of suspensions is harmful to the rule-abiding majority. This study examines outcomes in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), which made dramatic changes to its code of conduct during the 2012-13 school year. Specifically, it instituted a new ban on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) for low-level ‘conduct’ offenses—such as profanity or failure to follow classroom rules—and reduced the length of OSS for more serious infractions. To gauge the impacts of these changes, Matthew Steinberg (University of Pennsylvania) and Johanna Lacoe (Mathematica) examined data before and after they were implemented, and penned two scholarly papers: one that focuses on the district-level effects of the change in discipline policy, and a second that explores patterns of attendance and achievement at the school, grade, and individual levels. Here we combine those papers and synthesize their key findings for a lay audience, which include: (1) Changes in district policy had no long-term impact on the number of low-level ‘conduct’ suspensions, and most schools did not comply with the ban on such suspensions; (2) Changes in district policy were associated with improved attendance—but not improved achievement—for previously suspended students; (3) ‘Never-suspended’ peers (i.e., students who didn’t receive a suspension in any of the years considered by the study) experienced worse outcomes in the most economically and academically disadvantaged schools, which were also the schools that did not (or could not) comply with the ban on conduct suspensions; and (4) Revising the district’s code of conduct was associated with an increase in racial disproportionality at the district level, in part because schools with higher proportions of minority children were less likely to follow the new mandates. Based on these findings, we draw three conclusions: (1) Schools may respond very differently to district mandates, depending on their demographics, achievement levels, and prior suspension rates, as well as other factors bearing on policy implementation and compliance; (2) Top-down mandates can have unintended consequences—even when they emanate from local decision makers rather than distant state or federal governments; and (3) Policymakers should respect the wisdom of practitioners when it comes to school discipline. Simply changing a district’s policy on suspensions is unlikely to alter the underlying issues in tough schools. So trying to fix them with top-down decrees is impractical and potentially harmful, whether those decrees emanate from the district, the state, or the banks of the Potomac. If the goal is finding more effective ways to build a safe and strong school culture, it is far better to work with and support staff in high-poverty schools than to tie their hands with mandates that often work against them.”

Welsh, R. O., & Little, S. (2018). The school discipline dilemma: A comprehensive review of disparities and alternative approaches. Review of Educational Research, 88(5), 752–794. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In recent decades, K-12 school discipline policies and practices have garnered increasing attention among researchers, policymakers, and educators. Disproportionalities in school discipline raise serious questions about educational equity. This study provides a comprehensive review of the extant literature on the contributors to racial, gender, and income disparities in disciplinary outcomes, and the effectiveness of emerging alternatives to exclusionary disciplinary approaches. Our findings indicate that the causes of the disparities are numerous and multifaceted. Although low-income and minority students experience suspensions and expulsions at higher rates than their peers, these differences cannot be solely attributed to socioeconomic status or increased misbehavior. Instead, school and classroom occurrences that result from the policies, practices, and perspectives of teachers and principals appear to play an important role in explaining the disparities. There are conceptual and open empirical questions on whether and how some of the various alternatives are working to counter the discipline disparities.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “discipline policy” “discipline problems”

  • “discipline policy” “dress code”

  • “discipline policy” hair

  • “discipline policy” tardy

  • “discipline policy” truancy

  • “school policy” discipline rate/s

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.