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The Making Equitable Schools Audit: A partnership to reduce inequitable school discipline in Ohio

Midwest | October 04, 2022

Students in conversation at school

Students are more likely to succeed in school when they feel physically and emotionally safe, connected to school, respected by adults, and academically challenged.1 However, many students in Ohio—especially students of color and students who receive special education services—report that they feel neither safe nor supported at school.2 Research suggests that students’ experiences with being suspended or expelled play a role in how they perceive safety and support in school, and that students of color and students who receive special education services are more likely to face disciplinary action.3

Recent data highlight inequitable experiences with discipline in Ohio:

  • Black students in Ohio public schools are six times more likely to be disciplined than White students.4
  • Students with disabilities make up 16 percent of Ohio’s public school population but account for 32 percent of all suspensions.5

Key terms

Exclusionary discipline refers to disciplinary actions—including suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions—that remove students from the classroom.6

Sense of belonging refers to the extent to which students feel personally accepted, included, and supported at school,7 and includes school-based relationships and experiences, student-teacher relationships, and students’ overall feelings about school.8

Ohio district leaders, school leaders, and educators are aware of these challenges and working to foster school environments that better support all students. To advance this goal, REL Midwest and Akron Public Schools (APS) in northeast Ohio have launched the Making Equitable Schools Audit (MESA) partnership. This partnership will develop a data-informed approach for high schools to address inequities in school discipline practices. By reducing the use of exclusionary discipline policies and practices that inequitably affect students of color and students receiving special education services, the MESA partnership seeks to improve sense of belonging for all students in APS.

The Making Equitable Schools Audit approach

Research suggests that discipline is not a neutral or objective process. Rather, school discipline policies and practices are often influenced by biases and assumptions about students based on race, ability, and other characteristics.9 Accordingly, to advance equity, schools must reconsider their current practices and programs and develop new ones that recognize biases, reduce inequitable rates of discipline, and support all students.

REL Midwest will work with partners in APS to develop, test, and refine the MESA approach to address inequitable school discipline policies. This approach will bring together school community members over the course of one semester to identify potential sources of disparate discipline referrals. Informed by data from across the school district, the team of school leaders will discuss equity gaps, explore solutions, and develop a plan to assess policy changes. REL Midwest will support this equity audit by producing data summaries, developing training materials, and providing technical assistance. REL Midwest also will assist in the implementation of policy changes through ongoing leadership coaching for an additional 6 months. This collaborative partnership will enable APS to better meet the needs of students of color and students receiving special education services while improving school experiences for all students.

Looking ahead

The MESA partnership’s work will proceed in phases over the next 5 years. As findings become available, REL Midwest will collaborate with MESA partners to share lessons learned and key takeaways with collaborators in Akron and across the region. To inform these efforts, REL Midwest will conduct a study to better understand and improve the MESA approach and its components, followed by a second study to examine the impact of the MESA approach on student and school outcomes in Akron.

"We are excited to collaborate with Akron Public Schools to develop and refine the MESA intervention," said Jameela Conway-Turner, a member of the REL Midwest team leading the MESA partnership. "The district and school leaders are committed to improving school experiences for students, and we look forward to supporting their goals."


1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009); Morgan, Salomon, Plotkin, & Cohen (2014).
2 Chang, Osher, Schanfield, Sundius, & Bauer (2019); Cleveland Metropolitan School District (2019).
3 Lacoe (2013).
4 Sweigart (2018, August 26).
5 Paxson (2021).
6 Ohio Department of Education (2021).
7 Goodenow & Grady (1993).
8 Allen, Kern, Vella-Brodrick, Hattie, & Waters (2018).
9 Gullo, & Beachum (2020); Staats (2014); National Center for Learning Disabilities (2020).


Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30(1), 1–34.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). School connectedness: Strategies for increasing protective factors among youth. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Chang, H. N., Osher, D., Schanfield, M., Sundius, J., & Bauer, L. (2019). Using chronic absence data to improve conditions for learning. Attendance Works and American Institutes for Research.;

Cleveland Metropolitan School District. (2019). School safety research brief.

Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Goodenow, C., & Grady, K. E. (1993). The relationship of school belonging and friends’ values to academic motivation among urban adolescent students. Journal of Experimental Education, 62(1), 60–71.

Gullo, G. L., & Beachum, F. D. (2020). Does implicit bias matter at the administrative level? A study of principal implicit bias and the racial discipline severity gap. Teachers College Record, 122(3), 1–28.;

Lacoe, J. (2013). Unequally safe: The race gap in school safety (Working Paper #01-13). Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University.

Morgan, E., Salomon, N., Plotkin, M., & Cohen, R. (2014). The school discipline consensus report: Strategies from the field to keep students engaged in school and out of the juvenile justice system (p. 462).

National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2020). Significant disproportionality in special education: Current trends and actions for impact.

Ohio Department of Education. (2021). Ohio Compilation of School Discipline Laws and Regulations.

Paxson, A. (2021). The state of school discipline in Ohio. Children’s Defense Fund Ohio.

Staats, C. (2014). Implicit racial bias and school discipline disparities: Exploring the connection (Kirwan Institute Special Report). Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University.;

Sweigart, J. (2018, August 26). Disproportionate discipline keeping Black kids out of school more often in Dayton schools. Dayton Daily News.


Iszy Hirschtritt Licht

Iszy Hirschtritt Licht

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