Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a study documenting disproportionality in rates of suspensions and expulsions in public schools across the United States.

The report, which covered 72,000 schools across the United States, states that African-Americans only make up 18 percent of youth at the studied schools, but 35 percent of students suspended once and 39 percent of those expelled.

These findings mirror one aspect of a Texas study released last year, which found that African-American students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be disciplined in school, at least once, than otherwise identical Caucasian or Hispanic students.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board looked at these findings and deduced that this highlights the need for increased school choice. Just as importantly, it highlights another education reform priority – the overcriminalization of students of all races.

As zero tolerance policies have increased in both scope and consequences (now covering fish oil dietary supplements, asthma inhalers, oregano, and butter knives), more and more minor misbehavior spurs referrals to the justice system or triggers suspensions, when it previously would have been handled through parental involvement or traditional disciplinary methods, such as a visit to the principal’s office, after-school detention,  or requiring the student to perform school or community service.

However, too often schools simply kick students to the curb. For example, there were 22,080 in-school suspensions (ISS) and 22,530 out-of-school suspensions (OSS) in the Houston Independent School District in the 2009-2010 school year, while the Dallas Independent School District issued 11,485 ISS and 22,770 OSS in one year.

One must ask whether the 200,000 students in HISD and the 150,000 students in DISD committed behavior objectively deemed egregious enough to warrant suspension out of the classroom over 20,000 times in one year.

The issue is not who is being pushed out of school, but what they’re being pushed out of school for—and whether there is a better way to keep public schools safe while reducing unnecessary reliance on the justice system for discipline.

Schools and legislatures—such as in Maryland and Florida—are beginning to rethink discipline policies that have overcriminalized students and overburdened the justice system, and initial results are positive. In Clayton County, Georgia, for example, a tiered discipline system has replaced zero tolerance policies, and the result is an 87 percent decrease in reported fighting, a 64 percent decrease in disruptive behaviors, and 20 percent more students graduating from high school.

Moreover, the highly effective private and charter schools that Riley references rarely kick students out, and instead rely on innovative methods such as student behavior contracts and accounts, which involve a trivial amount of money added or deducted based on a student’s behavior which can then be redeemed for trinkets.

Concern over disproportionality in school discipline is an important issue, but it is separate from the truly compelling problem of ineffective discipline policies that are holding all students back.

This post can also be read at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Speaking Freely blog.