Disproportionate Discipline & Restorative Justice Megan Boland


In K-12 schools across the United States, discipline referrals that lead to in school suspensions (ISS) and out of school suspensions (OSS) result in students missing valuable class time and can disrupt a classroom community. Research has found that such discipline referrals, as well as other exclusionary disciplinary methods, disproportionately affect BIPOC students- particularly male-presenting Black students- as well as students with disabilities. Examining and utilizing the data regarding discipline referrals from Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools for the 2018-2019 school year, this project will explore, using a foundation of critical race theory and equity literacy, a physical representation of the disproportionate discipline referrals and visualize potential outcomes of an alternative framework.

In conjunction with discipline referrals, this data physicalization will also explore the restorative justice method. Restorative justice is an alternative discipline method that intends to foster healing and a sense of community when addressing classroom and school incidents. Rather than students missing time learning in the group environment, restorative justice involves mediation and small groups, and is intended to empower students, raise their voices, and address harm in a community-centered way. Leveraging physical media, including yarn and wooden materials, to represent the students and student outcomes under the baseline and alternative approaches to discipline will allow for a deeper understanding of these issues. Equity and access for students of color has been, and continues to be, one of the most pressing concerns in education.

"Restorative justice and racial justice, it's creating something; there's nothing to restore here when we've always been oppressed—and this is the story of the kids in our schools, they've always been oppressed." -Erica Wright, 'Restorative Justice is Racial Justice' on the New Thinking Podcast

Before delving into this artifact as a whole, I wanted to briefly provide the context for this dataset and this project. This data is drawn from CHCCS school district’s evaluation of school discipline methods, as part of their 2018-2021 Strategic Plan. One of the goals of this plan is to “revise the existing Student Code of Conduct so that it is a restorative process that reduces discipline disproportionality.” The data collected during this period provides a baseline measure for discipline referrals at CHCCS schools, and the data (all discipline referrals/interactions) was collected by PowerSchool, a K-12 education technology company. This baseline measure and data will allow the CHCCS team to evaluate how they have met their strategic goal in decreasing the disproportionate discipline referrals for students of color and students with disabilities. CHCCS schools are looking implement restorative justice practices in their schools and classrooms in order to help create a more equitable and healing environment. The specific representation of the data I am examining is the number of unique students referred compared to enrollment across the entire CHCCS, pictured below in a capture from the CHCCS Strategic Plan.

Dataset capture from CHCCS Strategic Update

Looking solely at the number of unique referrals, it may not initially seem as if there is a huge difference in the number of unique referrals; 198 Black students received discipline referrals, and 172 white students received discipline referrals at CHCCS schools during the 2018-2019 academic year. However, when examining those unique discipline referrals in proportion to the total enrollment of black and white students enrolled at CHCCS schools, the disparity is striking. 14.5% of Black students enrolled at CHCCS schools received discipline referrals, while 2.7% of white students enrolled at CHCCS schools did.

The stakeholders in this specific dataset are first and foremost the students. In school settings, I always like to state that students are our first and most important stakeholders- they can and should be educators’ first consideration. Other stakeholders include educators, administration, families and caregivers, other district schools and partners, and the Chapel Hill & Carrboro community as a whole. Furthermore, this issue extends beyond this district and is a problem that schools across the country are facing.

Initial concept sketch on left; second concept sketch on right

The materials I used for this project include wood, yarn, glue, and beads. Two artifacts were created: one represents a school/classroom that utilizes discipline referrals being meted out and one that represents the restorative justice method being implemented. The five racial/ethnic groups that were described in the dataset are represented as each of the five columns in the classroom community. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Light Blue Yarn: Black students
  • Green Yarn: Asian Students
  • Red Yarn: Multiracial students
  • Yellow Yarn: Latinx students
  • Dark Blue Yarn: White students

Throughout the development process of this artifact, I did have concerns about determining the appropriate materials and method to develop the piece. Financial, safety, and time constraints were also a consideration; in the midst of a pandemic, I do not have access to the same resources I would usually have as a graduate student at UNC. I also wanted to utilize materials that may echo materials potentially found with teachers/in classrooms.

The Artifacts

When conceptualizing this artifact initially, my mind immediately hinged on vertical vs. horizontal lines. I pictured in my mind students walking out of the classroom space, down the halls of the school, to the principal’s office, where they may face an ISS or OSS resulting in time lost in the classroom with their peers. With vertical lines, I thought of how we can lift up our students and their voices- how can we as educators create an environment where addressing and repairing harm can be done in a community-centered way.

While crafting both objects, I had initially been conducting calculations of how to show this specific data to school- for example, if this data was representing a single school with 700 students, as opposed to a school district with over 12,000 students, how could that data be physicalized? I soon pivoted away from trying to exactly and entirely represent the data with its points; instead, I moved to a representation that may have be more broad in its interpretation of that data.

The beads on each yarn/column chosen helped represent each student, and that within these broader racial and ethnic groups, individuality exists. Our students' unique perspectives, personhoods, and experiences cannot be replaced or replicated in the classroom. If they are missing from the classroom community due to punitive discipline, the classroom community is not whole.

Images of the "discipline referral" artifact

The square-shaped artifact represents a traditional model of a classroom- a square space with that has lines, rows, and discipline referrals. As described above, each column on the artifact represents one of the racial/ethnic groups described in the initial dataset: White (dark blue yarn) , Black (light blue yarn), Asian (green yarn), Latinx (yellow yarn), and Multiracial (red yarn) students. Rather than remaining in the classroom community, yarn that represents students receiving discipline referrals leads away from the artifact. They are taken out of their learning environment. On the yarn not connected to the column, some beads remain, but may fall off; we risk losing those voices entirely.

White and Black students both had approximately the same amount of yarn leading away from the classroom; however, the column representing white students features more yarn, representing that they are more students enrolled at CHCCS schools. Black students are subject to disproportionate discipline referrals, and may miss class as a result. When that happens, we are missing their unique voices and perspectives in the classroom community. As educators, we must ask ourselves- are we perpetuating the systemic injustices and biases present in the educational system in our own spaces? How do we confront biases and inequities at a smaller and a larger scale, in the shorter term and the longer term? An alternative pathway must be explored.

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice has a basis in the criminal justice system, and increasingly, it has been used in schools across the country in an attempt to repair harm and hold students accountable in a productive way. While restorative justice can benefit the entire student community, it also is linked to racial justice and specifically can help address disparities regarding student discipline. Restorative practices can include:

  • Community building circles
  • Preventative and post-conflict resolution programs
  • Affective statements
  • Collaborative Community Agreements
  • Peer mediation

Restorative justice provides a framework for educators to examine, challenge, and pushback against those traditional models of discipline in an educational system that historically and foundationally stigmatizes and discriminates against Black and brown students. With this, we can hopefully better serve our students and our community.

"Instead of learning from our behavior, schools just force us out without real conversations and interventions. Suspensions don’t work, summonses don’t work, arrests don’t work. Keep us in the classroom, keep us accountable, and build relationships. That works." -Savannah, age 15, from "Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools"

The circle-shaped artifact representing the restorative justice framework being applied in classroom and school communities is shown here. The circular nature of the artifact represents how restorative justice methods utilize circles to recognize and repair harm. In this model, all of the students remain in the classroom community; all voices are heard; no strands of yarn are astray, all of the students unique perspectives and experiences (as represented by the individual beads) are included.

Images of "restorative justice" artifact


According to the CHCCS data, ELS students and students with disabilities also experienced very disproportionate discipline referrals compared to their peers. However, I was unsure if there was overlap between the discipline referrals enforced upon students of various ethnic backgrounds. For example, if a Black student with a disability received a discipline referral, were they were counted twice in the dataset (as a Black student and as a student with a disability) or only under a single category? With these questions about the dataset in mind, I did not feel comfortable representing that data in this artifact. While this data is not represented in my artifact, I did want to acknowledge that English Learners and students with disabilities also experienced disproportionate discipline referrals, and if I were to pursue further research regarding this dataset and topic, I would utilize a DisCrit framework to examine how students with disabilities are also disproportionately affected by discipline referrals.

Furthermore, CHCCS only had data regarding these five racial/ethnic groups: White, Latinx, Asian, Black, and Multiracial students. They did not have information regarding Indigenous students, or students from any other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Not including this representation of other racial or ethnic backgrounds or identities in my artifact is not meant to negate the presence and experiences of those students- merely, the specific dataset I was visualizing and physicalizing did not have that data.


Sources specifically cited on this page:

  • Schott Foundation for Public Education, "Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools: A Guide for Educators", 2014 http://schottfoundation.org/sites/default/files/restorative-practices-guide.pdf
  • Wright, Erica, Center for Court Innovation, "Restorative Justice is Racial Justice", New Thinking Podcast, July 2020, https://www.courtinnovation.org/publications/restorative-racial-justice

Please click here for a full list of sources consulted during the research, development, and production of this project.


Created with images by Taken - "classroom chairs tables" • terimakasih0 - "classroom playground school"