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All discipline is not equal: Reducing district disparities in suspensions and expulsions

All discipline is not equal: Reducing disparities

By Sara Mitrano
June 25, 2020

Leaders in Minnesota are working to reduce disparities at school districts and charter schools that disproportionately suspend or expel students of color and students with disabilities. Research shows that such disparities increase student disengagement and dropout among these groups (Morrison et al., 2001; Gregory et al., 2010). To help the state address these disparities, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is coaching staff from 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.

Reducing disparities in discipline to improve student outcomes

In Minnesota, Black and Latino students represented 21 percent of public school enrollment in 2018/19 but accounted for 44 percent of students who received in-school suspensions. Similarly, students in special education represented 15 percent of the state’s public school enrollment that year but accounted for 35 percent of in-school suspensions (Minnesota Department of Education, 2019).

Recognizing these disparities, MDHR identified 43 districts and charter schools in 2018 that disproportionately suspended or expelled students of color and students in special education programs. The majority of these districts and charter schools entered into formal agreements with MDHR and developed plans that outlined specific actions they would take to reduce their discipline disparities. The participating districts and charter schools began implementing their plans in fall 2019.

These discipline plans focus primarily on addressing subjective disciplinary issues, such as when adults use their judgment to determine whether a student’s behavior (for example, a classroom disruption) warrants disciplinary action, as opposed to objective disciplinary issues, such as classroom tardiness. As part of their agreement with MDHR, districts and schools also must develop a process to collect and analyze student discipline data. This process will help leaders identify and understand the challenges that students face, the needs of teachers, and the areas where implicit bias exists.

Coaching state leaders on how to interpret and analyze discipline plans

Starting in early 2020, REL Midwest began providing a series of coaching sessions with MDHR and MDE staff to help them learn about and analyze each district and charter school discipline plan. Future coaching sessions will identify strategies and tools that agency staff can use to examine changing trends in suspensions and expulsions over time. At REL Midwest, Alicia Garcia, J.D., principal researcher, and Matthew Linick, Ph.D., senior researcher, are co-leading this coaching project.

“During the first several coaching sessions with MDHR and MDE, we worked with them to conduct an initial analysis of what interventions are included in each plan,” Garcia says. “The goal of this project, once we have the discipline data from MDE, is to correlate certain activities and interventions with decreases in disciplinary issues for disparate student groups.”

Once the project team has developed an analysis plan, REL Midwest will work with MDHR and MDE to identify behavioral interventions and activities most associated with reducing suspension and expulsion disparities and to coach staff on how to communicate these findings to districts and charter schools.

Measuring the impact of discipline plans on suspension and expulsion rates

In addition to providing coaching to MDHR and MDE staff, REL Midwest will use the same discipline data to conduct a quasi-experimental study. This study will measure the impact of districts entering into agreements aimed at reducing discipline disparities. The study also will compare participating districts’ suspensions and expulsion rates from before and after they entered into formal agreements with MDHR and examine which behavioral interventions were associated with a decrease in disciplinary issues for students of color and students in special education programs. The project team has adjusted its data collection plans due to the pandemic.

“We know that exclusionary discipline is connected to negative academic outcomes, such as lower graduation rates and test score performance,” says Dr. Linick. “So if our work with MDHR and MDE can inform policy that results in the districts’ lowering their use of suspensions overall and reducing disparities between special education students, indigenous students, Black students, and their White peers, we can make that inequity less exacerbated than it already is.”

Irina Vaynerman, MDHR deputy commissioner, notes that “this collaborative work is rooted in the vision that every young person in Minnesota should be able to thrive in school without being treated differently because of their race, national origin, or disability. This first-of-its-kind initiative brings together school leaders, data experts, and civil rights leaders who are committed to intentionally moving the needle on discipline disparity outcomes. By utilizing data and input from schools, we are working together to identify targeted strategies to reduce discipline disparities in Minnesota and give school leaders additional tools to make intentional decisions that are based in equity and inclusion.”


Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin? Educational Researcher, 39, 59–68.

Minnesota Department of Education. (2019). Minnesota Report Card. Retrieved on May 4, 2020, from

Morrison, G. M., Anthony, S., Storino, M. H., Cheng, J., Furlong, M. J., & Morrison, R. L. (2001). School expulsion as a process and an event: Before and after effects on children at-risk for school discipline. In R. Skiba & G. Noam (Eds.), New directions for youth development (pp. 45–71). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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Author Information

Sara Mitrano Staff Picture

Sara Mitrano

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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