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Editor’s note: Substituting for Jill Barshay is Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report’s investigations editor. Jill will return next week.

Every school day, thousands of students are suspended for vague, subjective reasons, such as defiance and disorderly conduct. Our investigative team recently took a deep dive into these punishments, based on 20 states for which we were able to obtain data. Our analysis revealed more than 2.8 million suspensions and expulsions from 2017-18 to 2021-22 under these ambiguous categories. 

Here’s a closer look at some of what we found:

1. Suspensions for these categories of behavior are incredibly common. 

Our analysis found that nearly a third of suspensions and expulsions reported by states was meted out under these types of categories, which also included insubordination, disruptive behavior, and disobedience. 

In Alabama, educators have 56 categories to choose from as justification for student punishment; a full third in our sample were assigned for one of four vague violations. This is what the state calls them: “defiance of authority,” “disorderly conduct — other,” “disruptive demonstrations,” and “disobedience — persistent, willful.” 

In North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon, about half or more of all suspensions were classified in similar categories. 

There are a few reasons why these categories are so widely used. For one, they often capture the low-level infractions that are most common in schools, such as ignoring a teacher’s direction, yelling in class or swearing. By comparison, more clearcut and serious violations, such as those involving weapons or illegal substances, are rarer. They made up only 2 percent and 9 percent of the discipline records, respectively. 

But experts also say that terms such as disorder or defiance are so broad and subject to interpretation that they can quickly become a catchall. For instance, in Oregon, the umbrella category of disruptive behavior includes insubordination and disorderly conduct, as well as harassment, obscene behavior, minor physical altercations, and “other” rule violations.

2. Educators classify a huge range of behavior as insubordination or disruption. 

As part of our reporting, we obtained more than 7,000 discipline records from a dozen school districts across eight states to see what specific behavior was leading to suspensions labeled this way. It was a wide range, sometimes even within a single school district. Sometimes students were suspended for behavior as minor as being late to class; others, because they punched someone. And it was all called the same thing, which experts say prevents school discipline decisions from being transparent to students and the greater public. 

There were some common themes though, behaviors like yelling at peers, throwing things in a classroom or refusing to do work. We developed a list of 15 commonly repeated behaviors and coded about 3,000 incidents by hand, marking whether they described that type of conduct. We used machine learning to analyze the rest. 

Related: Young children misbehave. Some are suspended for acting their age

In fewer than 15 percent of cases, students got in trouble for using profanity, or for talking back, or for yelling at school staff. In at least 20 percent of cases, students refused a direct order and in 6 percent, they were punished for misusing technology, including being on their cell phones during class or using school computers inappropriately.

3. Inequities can be even more pronounced in these ambiguous categories. 

We know from decades of research and federal data collection that Black students are more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers. In many places, that is especially true when it comes to categories like insubordination. 

In Indiana, for example, Black students were suspended or expelled for defiance at four times the rate of white students on average. In 2021-22, eight Black students received this punishment per 100 students, compared with just two white students. In all other categories, the difference was three times the rate. 

Research suggests that teachers sometimes react to the same behavior differently depending on a child’s race. A 2015 study found that when teachers were presented with school records describing two instances of misbehavior by a student, teachers felt more troubled when they believed a Black student repeatedly misbehaved rather than a white student.

They “are more likely to be seen as ‘troublemakers’ when they misbehave in some way than their white peers,” said Jason Okonofua, assistant professor at University of California-Berkeley and a co-author of the study. Teachers are usually making quick decisions in situations where they are removing a child from the classroom, he said, and biases tend to “rear their heads” under those circumstances.

Related: What happens when suspensions get suspended?

Similar disparities exist for students with disabilities. In all states for which we had demographic data, these students were more likely to be suspended for insubordination or disorderly conduct violations than their peers. In many states, those differences were larger than for other suspensions. 

4. Suspension rates vary widely within states. 

Further underscoring how much educator discretion exists in determining when or whether to suspend a student, individual districts report hugely different suspension rates. 

Take Georgia, for instance, which allows for students to be punished for disorderly conduct and “student incivility.” In 2021-22, the 3,300-student McDuffie County School System cited these two reasons for suspensions more than 1,250 times, according to state data. That’s nearly 40 times per 100 students. Similarly sized Appling County issued so few suspensions for disorderly conduct and student incivility that the numbers were redacted to protect student privacy. 

Editors’ note: The Hechinger Report’s Fazil Khan had nearly completed the data analysis and reporting for this project when he died in a fire in his apartment building. Read about the internship fund created to honor his legacy as a data reporter. USA TODAY Senior Data Editor Doug Caruso completed data visualizations for this project based on Khan’s work.

This story about school discipline data was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Proof Points newsletter.

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  1. “Every school day, thousands of students are suspended for vague, subjective reasons, such as defiance and disorderly conduct.”
    Nothing is vague or subjective about a teacher physically breaking up a fight and then having the mother/grandmother come to school and curse out the teacher. In urban schools, it happens many times a day.
    Please teach in an urban school for a year or two. Then, write an article.

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