Extension of retribution- and incapacitation-based criminal justice policies and practices to schools has exacerbated racial and ethnic disproportionality in school discipline, a serious and unsolved threat to equity in education and social opportunity. Common approaches implemented to reduce discipline disproportionality have not been shown to be widely effective. A more comprehensive, theory-driven understanding of the factors associated with disproportionate discipline is needed to enhance equity. In this article, we propose a conceptual model of how racial and ethnic bias affects school discipline, with direct implications for practical interventions. The model includes a multidimensional view of bias, informed by research from the field of social psychology, with multiple points identified for intervention to reduce disproportionality over time. The authors conclude with a proposed multicomponent intervention that builds on a foundation of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) and includes specific strategies for reducing the effects of explicit and implicit bias on school discipline decision making.

Key Take Away Points

  • Disproportionality in school discipline is a significant challenge to equity in outcomes for children and youth.
  • Understanding how explicit and implicit bias affect discipline decision making has important implications for intervention.
  • Reducing disproportionality requires multicomponent interventions, including effective academic instruction, school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports, policies with accountability, and training in reducing effects of implicit bias.

Author Biography

Kent McIntosh, PhD is Associate Professor in Special Education at University of Oregon and Associate Director of Educational and Community Supports. His research focuses on sustainability and cultural responsiveness of school-based interventions. He has authored over 40 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. He has successfully managed over $20 million of federal grant funding. He is a Co-Investigator for the OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Erik J. Girvan, JD, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where he is affiliated with the Oregon Child Advocacy Project. He earned his JD at Harvard Law School and PhD (Psychology) at the University of Minnesota. His field and laboratory research investigates when and how the attitudes and stereotypes individuals commonly hold about the members of various social categories (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender) impact decisions in professional settings, including labor arbitration, family court, universities, and primary and secondary schools.

Robert H. Horner is the Knight-Alumni Endowed Professor in the Department of Special Education and director of Educational and Community Supports at the University of Oregon. He has successfully managed over $100 million in federal grants and published over 150 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, books, and book chapters. He is Co-Director of the OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Keith Smolkowski, PhD is a Research Scientist at Oregon Research Institute. He has over 25 years of experience in social science, public health, and education research. As an investigator or lead methodologist, Dr. Smolkowski has overseen the design and research methods on over 36 funded research projects through IES, OSEP, NIH, and CDC. His PhD is in special education.


This work was supported by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (#H326S130004). The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Office or U.S. Department of Education.