Abstract: Racial Disparities in Office Discipline Referrals: Examining the Role of Social Emotional Competence (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Racial Disparities in Office Discipline Referrals: Examining the Role of Social Emotional Competence

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Monument, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
B. K. Elizabeth Kim, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Jennifer Fleming, MS, Research Associate, Devereux Foundation, PA
Paul LeBuffe, MA, Director, Devereux Foundation, PA
Valerie Shapiro, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Many studies have documented that students of color are disproportionately represented in school discipline (Wallace et al., 2008). Fewer studies, however, have examined potential mechanisms underlying these patterns. One possible explanation could be that students with lower social emotional competence might lack the ability to manage emotions and navigate social relationships, leading to more office discipline referrals (ODR). Emerging research has emphasized the important role social­ emotional competence plays in school success as well as positive school climate (Domitrovich, et al., 2007). In this paper, we examine the relationship between students’ social emotional competence as screened at the start of the school year and disciplinary records by the end of the school year, and the extent to which the relationship between race and disciplinary records is accounted for by social emotional competence.


Data come from a social emotional learning initiative designed to promote students’ Social Emotional Competence (SEC). All district students, kindergarten through Grade 8, were screened for level of SEC using the DESSA­-Mini and disciplinary records were obtained from administrative data. The two most serious levels were used to create a dichotomous variable representing whether or not a record of serious infraction was present because these types of ODRs are more likely to lead to a suspension or expulsion. Multilevel logistic regression models were used to assess the relationship between demographic characteristics (i.e. age, gender, race) and disciplinary infraction records controlling for SEC scores.


By the end of the school year, 10% of students had a record of serious infraction. Black students (OR=2.75, p<0.01) were more likely to have an infraction record and students screened to have higher SEC scores early in the year were less likely to have an infraction (OR=0.93, p<0.001). In the full model, given the same level of SEC, Black students (OR=2.68, p<0.01) were still significantly more likely to have an infraction record compared to White students.

Conclusions and Implications

Social emotional competence significantly reduced the likelihood of a student having an ODR. Nevertheless, overrepresentation of Black students with serious disciplinary records remained essentially unchanged even after accounting for students’ social emotional competence. Although preventive programs that enhance social emotional competence can be promising in reducing problem behaviors and potentially negative school discipline outcomes, the findings of this paper suggest that SEC insufficiently reduces the race effects to center interventions targeting racial discipline gaps exclusively on building SEC. More intentional and concerted effort should be focused on reducing existing racial disparities for interventions to dismantle the unjust status quo.