CU Study: Data gaps make reasons for school-discipline disparity hard to discern
By Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post
Although some minority students tend to be overrepresented in school-discipline actions, key gaps in state data make it difficult to determine why, according to a study by two University of Colorado doctoral students.
Ryan Pfleger, who co-authored the report with Kathryn Wiley, noted that while their analysis looked at the most complete data available in Colorado, that data doesn't link specific behaviors and punitive actions taken by demographics.
"Definitely one thing we don't know is what causes the racial disproportionality we find," said Pfleger. "Is it a school practice? A difference in behavior?"
The CU students analyzed data from 2008-10 and found significant differences in the percentages of black, American Indian and Latino students disciplined compared with white and Asian-American students. For example, black students were given out-of-school suspensions at nearly four times the rate of white students.
That reinforced national statistics and what some local advocacy groups have been saying for years.
"So we know there's over-representation," Pfleger said, "but we don't know why. What's missing is a link in between behaviors, actions taken by schools and demographics. That's what we need if we're going to answer the question."
The racial disparity contributed to the introduction of legislation revamping the state's school-discipline laws to move away from "zero tolerance" and out-of-school suspensions and toward measures that keep students in the classroom.
But the new legislation, which adds helpful new data for students who wind up being referred to law enforcement and tracks it by gender and race, doesn't address linking the collection of initial transgressions and their outcomes with demographic data.
Pfleger said that while the law enforcement data hold potentially important information, the data that would get to the heart of the racial questions don't appear to be part of the discussion.
"We don't believe current (proposed) legislation is going to require the linked data reporting that would help us answer the important question of why there are racial differences in the way discipline is used in schools," he said.
Janelle Krueger, program manager for expelled and at-risk students at the Colorado Department of Education, echoed that the bill in its current form — it just passed the Senate and has moved to the House — does not contain that data link.
And to create it would be costly.
"The Department of Education could do that," she said, "but we don't have the resource people who have that much time for connecting the dots on all the data."
Among their findings, Pfleger and Wiley noted that 63.5 percent of disobedient or defiant behavior ends in out-of-school suspension — and out-of-school suspensions make up more than half of all disciplinary actions.
"It seems like an alternative to the discipline of out-of-school suspensions could lead to less lost class time and have an effect on racial over-representation," Pfleger said. "But that's an unanswered question."
Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of Padres Unidos, a group that pushed for school discipline reform, said that the revised school-safety law remains a work in progress.
"The bill as written is a really good start," he said. "Let's do it and see if we have to tweak some things.