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New report examines the use of discipline reform plans to reduce inequities in discipline in Minnesota

New report examines use of discipline reform plans in Minnesota

By Sara Mitrano
November 22, 2021

Students across the country are losing valuable instruction time as a consequence of exclusionary discipline practices that remove students from the classroom, such as suspensions and expulsions. A new study from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest examined the use of discipline reform plans to reduce inequities in discipline based on race and disability. This study builds on a series of coaching sessions that REL Midwest provided to staff at the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) on how to use district and school discipline data to identify behavioral interventions and activities most associated with reducing suspension and expulsion disparities.

>> View the full report and companion infographic.

About the study: Developing and implementing discipline reform plans

Research shows that exclusionary discipline practices—suspensions, expulsions, and exclusions—in K–12 public schools disproportionately affect students of color, indigenous students, and students in special education (Osher et al., 2010). State leaders, principals, teachers, and community leaders in Minnesota are committed to reducing inequities in discipline. In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR), which is responsible for enforcing the state’s civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in schools, reviewed discipline data submitted by school districts and charter networks to determine how suspensions and expulsions affected student outcomes.

MDHR examined local suspension and expulsion rates, both overall and for specific groups of students (for example, Black students and students in special education). MDHR also looked at the rate of suspensions and expulsions for subjective infractions (for example, disrupting class) rather than objective infractions (for example, bringing a weapon to school or fighting). After reviewing the data, MDHR identified 43 school districts and charter networks (referred to here as “local education agencies”) with significant exclusionary discipline disparities based on race and disability.

MDHR worked with leaders from MDE and determined that each identified local education agency would develop a discipline reform plan to address their use of exclusionary discipline practices. In the 2017/18 school year, 41 of the local education agencies created discipline reform plans. These plans were designed to address both subjective and objective disciplinary infractions. All 41 agencies also were required to create or revise a process for collecting and analyzing student discipline data to enable agency leaders to identify and understand the challenges that students face, the needs of teachers, and areas in which implicit bias exists. Finally, each education agency was required to attend quarterly diversion committee meetings to provide information on implementing evidence-based nonexclusionary discipline practices and reforms focused on adult mindsets. To support this work, MDHR provided one-on-one feedback and training opportunities with an education expert to all local education agencies. Beginning in the 2018/19 school year, the 41 local education agencies began implementing their discipline reform plans.

Working with MDHR, REL Midwest researchers studied the 41 local education agencies’ use of exclusionary discipline actions over five school years (2014/15–2018/19) to understand the extent to which the creation and use of the discipline reform plans were associated with changes in student discipline outcomes. The researchers also compared the 41 agencies’ rates of discipline actions to those of other local education agencies in Minnesota that had not created discipline reform plans. Finally, the research team analyzed the 41 agencies’ characteristics (for example, location) and the types of reforms included in each agency’s plan.

For this study, researchers analyzed discipline data from one school year (2018/19), during which the 41 local education agencies implemented their discipline reform plans. Data from the 2019/20 and 2020/21 school years exist; however, due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, MDE was not able to provide REL Midwest with that data at the time of analysis.

What did the study find?

Although the study was able to examine the use of discipline reform plans for only one school year (2018/19), the findings offer initial insights into the extent to which the creation of discipline reform plans was associated with changes in discipline outcomes. In addition, the findings describe the types of reforms included in each plan and the characteristics of the 41 local education agencies that developed discipline reform plans.

Key findings include the following:

Between 2017/18 (when discipline reform plans were created) and 2018/19 (when those plans were implemented), local education agencies with discipline reform plans saw an overall decrease in the number of disciplinary actions per student, but the decrease was not statistically significant after adjusting for student and agency characteristics and exclusionary discipline trends.

After one school year, creating a discipline reform plan was not associated with a statistically significant decline in exclusionary discipline actions for students of color or students in special education programs. After adjusting for student and local education agency characteristics and trends over time, local education agencies with discipline reform plans used discipline actions at a higher rate than other such agencies. In the 41 agencies with discipline reform plans, students of color—particularly Black and indigenous students—experienced disciplinary actions at a much higher rate (7.8 disciplinary actions per 100 students) than their counterparts in other local education agencies (3.6 discipline actions per 100 students). In addition, students in special education in the 41 agencies experienced disciplinary actions at a higher rate than their counterparts in other local education agencies. However, in agencies with discipline reform plans, the disciplinary action rate decreased slightly from a high of 27.7 disciplinary actions per 100 students in 2015/16 to 23.1 disciplinary actions per 100 students in 2018/19.

Discipline reform plans included a wide range of reforms, and the description of each reform varied in the level of detail provided. Each local education agency’s discipline reform plan included at least seven and up to 18 reform components. Implicit bias training appeared in all 41 plans, followed by community engagement, which appeared in 38 plans. The least common reform was providing professional development on the discipline referral process. In addition, the level of detail in each plan was inconsistent across the 41 agencies, in large part because each agency had local control over how much detail to include in the plan. Further, without a uniform reporting system, it was difficult to examine differences in the discipline reform plan components across local education agencies or to understand their progress toward implementing their proposed reforms.

Alicia Garcia, JD, a principal researcher at REL Midwest and a coauthor of the study, noted that the partnership between two state agencies—MDHR and MDE—to address student discipline is unique to Minnesota. “The involvement of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights likely provided increased motivation for the local education agencies to address the issue of disproportionate discipline. Although the study results were not statistically significant, the engagement of the local education agencies in developing and implementing reforms and the initial decrease in discipline actions appear to be promising practices for improving student experience with discipline.”

What can we take away from the findings?

These findings indicate that after one year, there was no clear difference in student discipline outcomes between local education agencies with discipline reform plans and comparison agencies. However, the number of disciplinary actions per student did decrease in local education agencies with discipline reform plans, which highlights the possibility that discipline actions could decline further in future years if the agencies continue to implement the reforms in their plans.

More rigorous follow-up studies with additional years of data are needed to determine whether creating discipline reform plans leads to meaningful reductions in the use of exclusionary discipline. If future research finds that creating and implementing such a plan is effective at reducing the use of exclusionary discipline, leaders at MDHR and MDE may want to consider studying the types of reforms that are most effective. In addition, state agency leaders can use the experiences of the 41 agencies that developed and implemented discipline reform plans to support other districts and charter networks that are engaged in efforts to reduce their exclusionary discipline rates.

“Recognizing the persistent discipline disparities across the state, one of the priorities of the Minnesota Department of Education is to ensure every student learns in a safe and nurturing environment where discipline centers on growth not punishment,” said Stephanie Graff, assistant commissioner at MDE. “We’re committed to leveraging the learnings from this partnership as we envision and launch two new initiatives focused on anti-bias training and expanding the use of non-exclusionary discipline programs.”

State agency leaders may want to consider the following strategies:

  • Collect and report on data that measures the level of implementation of discipline reforms to understand what was implemented, how it was implemented, and whether it worked. For example, more detailed information is needed to understand the level and fidelity of implementation for each intervention or activity in local education agencies’ discipline reform plans. Without this information, it will not be possible to isolate the effects of specific interventions or sets of interventions on discipline outcomes.
  • Conduct further research to study the effects of discipline reform plans on student experiences, social and emotional well-being, academic achievement, and attendance.
  • Ensure the use of evidence-based discipline practices and reforms, such as those identified by the What Works Clearinghouse, to close gaps.
  • Provide more guidance to increase the consistency of discipline reform plans and ensure that local education agencies implement and monitor reforms with fidelity.

As state leaders engage in this work, they also may consider what resources are needed to build districts’ capacity to engage in these activities and support strategies to address disciplinary gaps on a long-term basis.

Related resources

To learn more about the study and its findings, read the full report. A one-page snapshot, four-page brief, and infographic also are available.

Check out the following resources from REL Midwest and the What Works Clearinghouse to learn more about increasing equity in student discipline outcomes:


Osher, D., Bear, G. G., Sprague, J. R., & Doyle, W. (2010). How can we improve school discipline? Educational Researcher, 39(1), 48–58.

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Author information

Sara Mitrano Staff Picture

Sara Mitrano

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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