Finding the Discipline Data

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Most everyone agrees that schools should be safe and productive learning environments for all students. Ideally, communities work with schools to develop and implement disciplinary policies that create such environments and are widely believed to be transparent, appropriate, and fair. For schools and communities that are struggling with discipline issues, getting to the ideal takes effort, time, and data.

We explain here what kinds of school discipline data typically exist and how communities can gain access to it.

The Local School and District Level

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school districts are required to publish school and district "report cards," usually available on the internet, which include academic, demographic, and disciplinary information. NCLB, however, gives states considerable latitude on what discipline data is reported so the detail level of reports varies widely.

Most states also require schools to maintain individual student records of enrollment that include attendance reports, academic transcripts, disciplinary incidents, and special education status, along with demographic information like gender and race/ethnicity. Typically, schools manage this data using computer software adopted for statewide use.

Once collected, this information can be aggregated and analyzed (usually by a school staff person) to produce school-wide reports that are useful for understanding school issues -- for example, how many students were retained in grade. The data can also, in most cases, be analyzed at a fairly detailed level for disciplinary information -- for example, how many times students of a certain demographic were suspended and for what offenses. Schools, however, are barred from releasing information that makes it possible to identify individual students.

School board minutes often include information on major disciplinary actions like suspensions, expulsions, and corporal punishment. Attending board meetings and reading board reports can provide community residents with information about disciplinary challenges, attitudes, and practices in their school.

Suggestions for accessing local school information:

  • Look at your school website and at your district website. (These may be separate or common sites.) It might take some exploration of the site to determine whether the data you are seeking is posted.
  • Look at your school and district report card. NCLB requires all public schools and each school district to produce individual school and district report cards. Most are posted on local school and district websites and can also be accessed through the website of the State Department of Education or through an internet search. Some states and districts report detailed disciplinary data on report cards and many do not.
  • Read your school and your districts code of conduct. Many times there is a district-wide code of conduct, but sometimes schools have individual codes or school-based provisions not included in the district code. Codes of conduct may be included in the school website. Oftentimes they are printed in the student handbook.
  • Read the Policies and Procedures section of your local Board of Education manual. This information is public and should describe the district's disciplinary policies; procedures for addressing specific infractions--particularly suspension, expulsion, and paddling; and policies and procedures for collecting data and reporting it to the state and to the public. By getting this information, communities can learn what provisions the local district has for making disciplinary decisions and who, including parents, are to be involved in those decisions.

At the State Level: Under NCLB, states are also required to publicly report data on school safety and to identify "persistently dangerous" schools. This list should be on the state's website. Again, there is latitude so state reports vary widely.

Many states also have state disciplinary policies that spell out whether corporal punishment is allowed and, if so, what provisions are required of schools and staff; procedures for suspensions and expulsions; a template for reporting disciplinary incidents to the states; rules for if and when schools must report or refer disciplinary incidents to the police or to juvenile authorities; state policies governing discipline of students in special education; and state resources and supports for schools and districts wishing to develop or alter disciplinary policies and practices.

Some state websites have downloadable data; others will provide data files for analysis upon request.

Suggestions for accessing state information:

  • Check the website of your state's department of education. Look for banks of data -- including disciplinary data, disciplinary policy information, formal discipline reports and resources. Try to identify if any program within the department has responsibility for working with schools on disciplinary issues.
  • Look at your state's NCLB report card. Determine if there are any persistently dangerous schools and the definition your state uses to identify such schools.
  • The Organization Dignity in Schools gathers information on state policies and support.

At the Federal Level: Discipline data for individual schools is not available from federal agencies, but the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) does collect data on school disciplinary actions and makes some of it available to the public in broad categories and in reports.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) also collects state and national data on suspensions, expulsions, and corporal punishment through its biennial civil rights survey. OCR publishes reports and makes some data available to the public.

Suggestions for accessing national information:

Suggestions for community activists who want to dig into the discipline data. Be sure to check out "Understanding and Improving Discipline Policy and Practice in Your School" in eRPM-Extras.

  • Seek out available data. Information from the sources noted above can help provide a more or less detailed picture of disciplinary issues in your school, district, or state. Some states provide more information -- for example, disciplinary action broken down by demographic groups, infraction, and disciplinary action -- than others. Some states or districts make detailed data easily accessible and some do not.
  • Assess the quality and quantity of the data that is immediately available. Ask yourself whether the data and information that is available is sufficient to answer your questions. Does it tell you how disciplinary actions in your school or district compare with others? Can you determine whether disciplinary action in your school/district appears to be distributed evenly among students on the basis of race, gender, disability, and family income? If not, can you identify the inequities? Are their patterns of offense and punishment? Answering questions like these can help your community determine whether your schools' disciplinary plan is helping or harming the learning process and whether and how you want to get involved.
  • Seek out the additional information you need, and organize with other parents and community members to get it. Unfortunately, there is no great repository of information that will provide all the answers you need. In nearly all cases, however, a good bit of useful information does exist. Getting a handle on it will mean engaging (or pressuring, if necessary) the leadership of the school and/or community to want to answer key questions with you with a willingness to study the disciplinary data the school collects for official purposes.
  • Dig deeper. When school leaders and community members, including students, are engaged with analyzing disciplinary data, it is important to begin looking at more specific circumstances in your school that might be contributing to problems or helping to improve the overall disciplinary climate. For example, are there locations in the school or times of day that students are most likely to misbehave? Do certain teachers, grade levels, or subjects have more trouble than others? Do students feel discipline is fair and transparent? Does disciplinary action help students learn and practice good behavior or is it primarily punitive? Do disciplinary actions make sense for the infraction? Is the overall climate of the school one that expects and promotes good behavior and mutually respectful interactions between adults and students? Do both teachers and students feel supported and accountable?

Understanding what's going on in your school is the first step toward helping the school develop or improve its disciplinary practice and ensuring that all students have a safe, productive, and supportive learning environment.

See also "More Options for Communities" for additional information about data questions to ask and actions communities can take.

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.