Addressing Ethnic Disproportionality in School Discipline through Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  Illinois Principals Association - Building Leadership - A Practitioners Bulletin.  
May 2010 - PDF of full Article

By Lucille Eber, Ed.D., Gita Upreti, Ph.D. & Jennifer Rose, M.Ed.


Educators have long grappled with the issue of how to effectively manage student behavior and encourage student achievement. Currently 30% of all Illinois schools are implementing a model of academic and behavioral supports known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Schools using the PBIS model to address student needs and promote pro-social behavior school-wide have well-developed behavioral expectations for students and staff, use a team-based distributive leadership model, gather relevant discipline data on students on a regular basis, and rely on the use of sound behavioral techniques to remediate student behavior rather than relying on more reactive methods such as referral and suspension, discipline practices which may remove students from the learning environment.

 Recent articles in the state and national press documenting the outcomes of inequitable discipline practices, or disproportionality, in Illinois schools have raised concerns regarding how schools intervene with students whose culture differs from teachers and administrators. During the past twelve years, consistent outcomes documented by the Illinois PBIS Network have demonstrated that schools implementing school-wide PBIS with integrity experience reductions in the number of discipline problems, increases in academic test scores, higher measures of school safety, and improved school climate.  In Illinois, schools implementing multi-tiered systems of support, such as PBIS, are beginning to reduce overreliance on punitive consequences for all students, and to reflect on school-wide discipline trends in ways that affect student behaviors pro-actively and preventatively. These practices, among others which make up the PBIS process, are currently being implemented in more than 1,200 Illinois schools and have been cited as a critical first step in addressing the over-representation of ethnic minority students in school exclusionary practices (Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC], 2010).

 The purpose of this bulletin is to provide information about the promising effect of PBIS on the disproportional use of punitive discipline practices. This includes a brief description of the PBIS framework, the problem of ethnic disproportionality in student discipline, a brief synopsis of research literature, and examples from Illinois schools employing a PBIS approach to reach more students by proactive, rather than reactive, means. Examples of the practices employed by staff and students to effectively reduce over-reliance on punitive discipline practices are provided and suggestions for the future are also presented.

 The PBIS Framework

A Response to Intervention (RtI) model, PBIS applies a problem-solving process within a three-tiered system of support that enhances the capacity of schools to efficiently address all students by applying a prevention-based continuum of instructional practices.  The application of this research-based model enables schools to create and maintain safe and effective learning environments by using early intervention and preventive teaching techniques, which encourage pro-social behavior among students.  PBIS offers the opportunity to strengthen our education system by making certain that all students have the social/emotional skills needed to ensure their success at school and beyond. Key components of PBIS include: a) data-based decision making, b) ongoing instruction of prosocial behaviors, c) continuous opportunities to learn about the role of culture in the classroom.

 PBIS provides the constructive behavioral supports and positive social culture needed for all students in a school to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.  By applying data-based decision making to operate evidence-based practices, PBIS allows educators to establish clear and consistent expectations for behavior which are taught, modeled, and reinforced across all settings and by all staff. This practice deters over-reliance on punitive consequences and promotes focus on a proactive and preventative (rather than a reactive and consequential) discipline approach.  PBIS also encourages and upholds family and community involvement at all levels of implementation.  By incorporating valuable perspectives from families and communities, PBIS can align school-wide expectations with communal standards of behavior, helping teachers and administrators to be more aware of possible cultural differences between themselves and the students.

 Data from the field show that in practice, Illinois schools implementing PBIS with fidelity have lower suspension rates, fewer referrals to special education, higher scores on standardized tests (e.g., ISAT), and better measures of school climate than schools only partially implementing (Illinois PBIS Network [IL-PBIS], 2009, p. 50-57).

Progress updates from the field which point to the possibility of success, however, can also provide vital information on the challenges schools face in implementing best practices, and how schools and districts can overcome those challenges.  However, the central strategy which holds the most promise for our schools lies in the embedded PBIS practice of using student data to make decisions and change perceptions.

 The use of data in making decisions regarding how to support children in schools is central to the principles of Response to Intervention (RtI) based models such as PBIS. Among schools implementing the PBIS model, many use the School-wide Information System (SWIS) to track disciplinary data on a school-wide basis. SWIS, or other data collection methods and analysis, is used to determine proactive responses to disciplinary issues. In the 2003-04 school year, schools using SWIS were able to take advantage of a new ethnicity tracking feature which allows building-level representation of student ethnic groups by proportion of population enrolled, as well as proportion of students in each ethnic group represented in discipline data.

 A soon-to-be released report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, 2010)  specifically lists PBIS as one of the top three strategies for reversing over use of punitive discipline approaches, along with restorative justice practices and school offense protocols. Spotlighted in the report is the need for schools to examine and reflect on school-wide discipline trends on a regular basis to first prevent over-referral of students of color, and then to implement practices which can correct such trends.

 History and Background of the Problem

A recent Associated Press (AP) analysis of Illinois discipline patterns appearing in the State Journal-Register (“Racial disparity,” 2009) brought to light patterns of ethnic bias with which researchers of school discipline have long been trying to capture the public’s attention, highlighting state-wide increases in the use of exclusionary practices, such as out-of-school suspensions, since 1999. The AP article followed a national story by The New York Times (“Regional shift,” 2009) which addressed the fact that in certain Midwestern states, gaps in academic achievement are greater between African American and White students than they are in Southern states.

Among the states with large gaps in academic achievement, Illinois figured prominently, with 2007 Math scores for African American students falling far below those of White students at both elementary and middle school levels. These troubling news stories point to the need for serious reflection within our schools and districts about the practices that lead to inequities in both academic and discipline outcomes for African American students.

Researchers familiar with the problem of disproportional representation of ethnic minority students at the national level offer additional evidence of patterns of bias in discipline. At the research level, years of study have yielded results which point to disparities in discipline practices and the unfortunate consequences for African American and Hispanic/Latino students. Key findings are:

  • African American males, irrespective of household income level, were more likely than White males to be suspended, and to have higher rates of office discipline referrals (ODRs) than their peers (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2000). 
  • African American students were three times more likely to receive short-term suspensions than their White peers (Wald & Losen, 2003).
  • African American students were typically referred for subjective behaviors like “disrespect” versus White students, who were more likely to be referred for observable behaviors such as “leaving without permission” (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2000).  
  •  Higher rates of referrals, especially for subjective disciplinary offenses meted to African American male students, suggest that teacher evaluations of student behaviors may contribute to disproportionality (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002).
  •  Second only to African American students, Hispanic/Latino students in grades K-8  received more total ODRs than White and Asian American students, and were more at risk for delinquency than White and Asian American students (Kaufman et al., 2010). 
  • The suspension rate for the most vulnerable students, youth receiving special education services for learning disabilities or behavior disorders, was twice that of their peers (SPLC, 2010).

 Initially, efforts addressing disparities focused upon the effects of disadvantage on learning and students’ lack of knowledge regarding the “hidden curriculum,” or standards for school behavior. Additional strategies included retention, individual counseling, and boot camps. During the 1990s, the zero tolerance disciplinary approach was adopted by school districts in response to the rise of the juvenile crime rate. Yet, none of these strategies were successful.

 The zero tolerance approach has been proven to actually exacerbate the problem of disproportionality in discipline and academics. The relationship between zero tolerance and disproportionality are the basis for phenomenon called the “school to prison pipeline” (Wald & Losen, 2003). It has been well-documented that when students are excluded from the classroom due to suspensions and expulsions, their association with anti-social peers actually increases and leads to involvement with the juvenile justice system.

 Overwhelming evidence of the differential treatment of African American and Hispanic/Latino students in the discipline systems of U.S. schools has recently come to light in both the state and national press (“Racial disparity,” 2009; “Regional shift,” 2009). Where popular media sources leave off, however, research on the issue of ethnic disproportionality in discipline has focused on evidence-based recommendations for practice in schools. The adoption of these critical best practices might enable schools and districts to see decreases in the proportions of African American and Hispanic/Latino students who experience punitive consequences such as office referrals or suspensions.

 Given the persistence of disproportionality and the failure of past efforts to address the problem, attention has shifted toward approaches that eradicate disparities in discipline and foster positive school environments. Emphasis on development of systems to support students and staff is characteristic of the Positive Behavior Supports (PBIS) framework and matches the overarching goal of addressing the institutional roots of disproportionality.

 In the PBIS model, behavioral expectations are explicitly taught to students who are positively reinforced by staff when they engage in appropriate behaviors. The development of a social culture with high rates of proactive adult-to-student interactions is central to PBIS. 

 The application of PBIS to a discussion of ethnic disproportionality is especially germane at this time and in the State of Illinois. To date, a record number of Illinois schools have now been trained in, and are implementing multi-tiered systems of support using the PBIS framework, making Illinois home to the largest statewide PBIS implementation project nationwide.

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