“For These Are All Our Children”: Equity, Agency, and Action to Create Positive School Discipline


Alethea Frazier Raynor is the co-director of district and systems transformation at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Ending identity-based discipline disparities will require transformative partnerships that focus on both school-level and systems-level change.

Across our nation, the lives of school-age youth, especially boys and young men of color, are affected every day by negative interactions with adults based solely on perceptions of their identity. Over the last twenty years, progressive school reform efforts have focused on equity, the belief that all American children – regardless of race, gender, class, or other identifier – should receive  a high-quality education in a safe and supportive environment. But sadly, this ideal too often does not match the reality for far too many young people who cannot find “safe passage” from early childhood to young adulthood – even in their public schools, institutions designed to serve the public good and promote the health and prosperity of communal life. 

In these young people’s communities, school is not a safe haven that nurtures their confidence, intellectual curiosity, or growth. More often, schools function for them like gatekeepers, limiting their possibilities and placing them at risk based on their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This is the experience that plays out every day for some students, and school discipline is an area where we see some of the most troubling evidence of disparity. 

Data from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Data Collection Center has shown that Black males are suspended at a rate more than three times higher (20 percent) than White males (6 percent), and American Indian/Native Alaskan males are suspended at a rate more than two times (13 percent) that of White males. Black girls are suspended at a higher rate (12 percent) than females of any other race or ethnicity and at a rate that is six times higher than White females (2 percent) (U.S. Department of Education 2014). According to the data, Hispanic students had the highest rate of school-related arrests (37 percent) among all groups and were arrested at a significantly higher rate than White students (21 percent) (U.S. Department of Education 2012). To put this in perspective, Hispanic students make up only 24 percent of total school enrollment in the database, Black students make up only  16 percent, and American Indian/Native Alaskan students make up less than 1 percent, while White students make up 51 percent. 

In addition to the widespread impact of racial disparities in school discipline, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely (13 percent) to receive an out-of-school suspension than students without disabilities (6 percent) (U.S. Department of Education 2014). And a 2010 independent study revealed that transgender and non-gender-conforming youth were three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment from school officials than their heterosexual counterparts (Hunt & Moodie 2012). 

In some schools, the experience of suspension and expulsion begins as early as pre-kindergarten. The OCR Data Collection Center and several publicized cases brought national attention to the unimaginable truth that 4- and 5-year-olds have their earliest schooling experiences marred by the trauma of harsh and punitive disciplinary practices. Though Black children made up only 18 percent of the pre-school enrollment, they made up 48 percent of the preschool children suspended more than once in one school year (U.S. Department of Education 2014). 

Beyond our debates about academic content or accountability standards, these data are part of the lived reality for students in our public schools, and they compel us to ask ourselves some tough questions: What kind of experiences are young people having in school? Why is it that certain students are targets for harsh and punitive discipline and others are not? What steps can we take to end harsh discipline that pushes students out of school? And what kind of discipline policies and practices  in schools and districts work well to educate and support students instead of punishing them?  

These are no quick fixes or easy answers to these questions, and we cannot get to them working in isolation. If our intention is to overhaul our institutions and address the harm they cause to students, then we have to be courageous enough to look deep within them to understand how we have constructed inequity in the very place we want to hold up as a beacon for opportunity. We must pay attention to the broader context and culture that inform school discipline, in particular the power of implicit and systemic bias, which informs individual action and causes adults to interpret the behavior of a Black male differently than that of a White male for the same or similar infraction. When the behavior is the same, other forces are clearly at work to make the outcome for each child depend so heavily on their racial or other identity. If it were simply a matter of changing student behavior, then we would see not only a steady decline in the rate of suspensions overall, we would also see shifts in the suspension of specific groups of students. But the data have consistently shown that even when the number of suspensions fall, certain students are still the targets of harsh discipline and are suspended or expelled from school at rates disproportionate to their enrollment. When a pattern of suspension starts as early as pre-school and continues over time, it is no wonder that low achievement, disengagement, and eventual school dropout are the outcomes; this, in turn, sets in motion the context and culture that have built a pipeline, particularly for young males of color, leading directly to prison. Interrupting these patterns ultimately transforms the lives and future for these young people and moves us further away from the unwelcome distinction of having the largest prison population in the world.

Efforts to address school discipline disparities throughout the country are being  led by a broad range of stakeholders – including community organizers, nonprofits, advocates, district leaders, teachers’ unions, researchers, funders, legislators, and other groups. In particular, there are promising small-scale and large-scale initiatives to abandon zero-tolerance discipline policies that rely heavily on suspension and expulsion and replace them with progressive discipline and restorative justice practices, which emphasize communication, prevention, tolerance, respect and repair between students and teachers as well as between students and their peers. 

In 2013, with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Annenberg Institute  for School Reform at Brown University (AISR) began to engage four urban cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City – in a pilot process with a different approach than previous efforts. The PASSAGE initiative, which stands for Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity, was designed to bring community organizers and district leaders together as stakeholders at the same table to examine identity-based disparities, exclusionary policies, and punitive practices and to work collaboratively toward designing interventions that would create a positive  and healthy school climate. 

By approaching the issue of school discipline collaboratively, multiple voices can  be heard in one space to create greater awareness of not just the statistical consequences of harsh and punitive discipline, but the social, emotional, and personal impact it has, especially for the students and families most affected by disparate treatment. Bringing multiple perspectives to the same table has the potential to generate a wider range of interventions and strategies for how districts could use existing resources; by thinking about options collectively, resources are identified within communities to support the healthy development of young people and adults.

PASSAGE is very much a work in progress; however, over the course of the last two years, one lesson we have learned is that while changing specific policies and practices are critical steps for districts and schools in eliminating discipline disparities, these changes alone are also insufficient. They must take place in the larger district and community context where policies, practice, and climate – both within and outside of schools – are still operating in ways that undermine the potential of any one reform. Entire systems – including the district code of conduct and discipline system, the attendance system, the teacher assignment system, student enrollment, the justice system, law enforcement, and others – must be examined in order to uncover the patterns and drivers of disparity that work in concert with one another to push  one child out of school while his peer receives only a small reprimand for the  same offense. 

A good example of this is the use of out-of-school and in-school suspension – both practices that are part of a larger system of discipline. Many districts have focused solely on reducing out-of-school suspension rates and accomplish this by simply putting more students into in-house suspension for the same infraction. What is missed here is the opportunity to fundamentally change a flawed discipline system that relies heavily on removing students from the classroom environment. Com-pounding the ineffectiveness of this practice, students often return to the classroom after a suspension without any other intervention, and so the cycle of suspension just continues. What at first seemed like progress on out-of-school suspensions becomes a re-routing of the problem to in-school suspension, and the overall flaws in the larger system of discipline and school culture never get addressed. 

By engaging in collaborative and transformative system-level work with equity at the center, district and community leaders are better able to deconstruct and then reconstruct the frameworks used at the core of these systems and to address the knowledge, skills, and resources that are needed in order to bring about real systems change. Working together, they can identify how bias and institutionalized racism work within and across systems to contribute to the grim data around identity-based discipline disparities. We believe that this approach will more effectively and permanently shift school culture and climate from one that is punitive to one that is positive. 

In this issue of VUE, we explore the work in progress in each of the four PASSAGE sites and in other cities, through the lens of many stakeholder groups. We hear from parents, teachers, youth, community organizers, district administrators, principals, youth agency leaders, funders, judges, police officers, and researchers – all of whom are addressing school discipline issues from their vantage point and engaging in ways that will create a positive and equitable school climate for all students. They explore both the challenges and the opportunities they face in moving their work forward and the various steps they have taken to transform systems.

Kavitha Mediratta of The Atlantic Philanthropies and Allison Brown of Open Society Foundations share their stories about what brought them into this work and what roles foundations can play to leverage their resources as well as their voice to create a movement that ends the disparities that limit the promise of a quality education.

Christopher Martin shares his perspective as a Denver teacher who was at first skeptical about trying restorative practices in his classroom, but then realized  that he might gain more than he would lose if he changed his approach. 

Maisie Chin talks about the PASSAGE work in Los Angeles through her role as  the leader of a parent organizing group that has focused on the issue of school discipline for many years. She shares the Appreciative Inquiry approach her organization has taken to lead courageous and collaborative conversations that reframe the road ahead and bring multiple stakeholders into a new process.

Tom Ward and Tony Majors, community and district lead partners in Nashville, talk about what PASSAGE has meant in their city. They share how and why their journey began by embedding the work to end discipline disparities across a broad, cross-sector table that includes a judge, a police commander, parents, principals, organizers, researchers, and civic and faith-based leaders.

Parent organizer Treyonda Towns, youth organizer Carlil Pittman, and Karen Van Ausdal, a district administrator, share the dynamics of the Chicago PASSAGE partnership that brought their three groups together. In this Q and A, they explore the different entry points they take as organizations to bring about equity and change for students and parents and what they see as essential to making their partnership work. 

In his opening story, Kesi Foster, a PASSAGE partner and coordinator with Urban Youth Collaborative, reminds us how students in New York City public schools are affected daily by punitive policies and practices, just by showing up for school. He goes on to share his view and the perspectives of young people from his organization about the promise and pitfalls of trying to make changes happen in the largest school district in our nation.

In his interview with AISR’s Richard Gray, Chris Chatmon lays out why he believes the African American Male Achievement program that he leads in  Oakland is essential to achieving success for young men of color and describes what he sees as the work ahead in which all educators should be engaged. 

This collection of articles and the Perspective pieces that support them demonstrate that if we care deeply about equity and justice, then we have to take on the challenge of making our educational institutions reflect the values, beliefs, and norms of a fair and just society. The school experience we provide to our young people certainly shapes them personally, but it also reflects our future and the collective consciousness of the nation. In the words of the great writer and social critic James Baldwin: “For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”


Hunt, J., and A. Moodie-Mills. 2012. The Unfair Criminalization of Gay and Transgender Youth: An Overview of the Experiences of LGBT Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. 

U.S. Department of Education. 2014. U.S. Office for Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline). Washington, DC: Department of Education. 

U.S. Department of Education. 2012. U.S Office for Civil Rights. Data Collection: Data Summary. Washington, DC: Department of Education.