School Discipline (records)

Brief Description: This measure consists of school records of student discipline. These include both descriptions of the disciplinary incident or event (e.g., fighting, disruptive behavior) and corrective action taken by the school (e.g., detention, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsions).

Rationale: Evaluators and researchers frequently rely on students to self-report school misbehavior and discipline. However, the accuracy of such reports can be influenced by a number of factors, including student age, cognitive ability, and actual behavior. For these reasons, collecting records of school discipline is desirable where feasible.  

Cautions: When planning to collect school disciplinary records be sure to set aside adequate time and staff resources. Accessing school records can be complex, particularly when working with multiple schools and grade levels. Schools and districts may use different terminology and classifications of student behavior. Additionally, the frequency of office disciplinary referrals and formal disciplinary actions may differ across school districts or even within schools, which is critical to consider when using disciplinary data for program evaluation or research purposes. Interpreting school disciplinary records requires the ability to collate and analyze data. Programs without on-staff expertise may want to work with an external program evaluator.

Access and permissions: When working with an outside agency (e.g., a school or district) to collect school records, access to their data typically involves strict confidentiality conditions (see FERPA guidelines). You may be required to provide written parent permission with very specific information included (that can vary across schools or districts). Standard permission/consent language can be incorporated into program enrollment forms (see sample). Also, consider budgeting funds to reimburse time for school officials to gather needed data. More extensive guides on federal privacy guidelines and how to establish data sharing partnerships with school districts can be found in the Evaluation Guidance and Resources section of this Toolkit.

What to Collect: A formatted data collection guide of variables you might consider requesting directly from schools can be found here. If you are collecting data directly from parents/youth, this guide can be used to help structure your database for storage and analysis. 

How to Collect:

Sources: Programs can request student disciplinary records directly from schools or school district offices, in which case, a formal MOU will typically be required. Schools or districts may agree only to provide “deidentified” data (i.e., data that do not include student names or other identifying information).  If so, it is advisable in the data request to attach information to each youth’s name, such as basic demographics (gender or race/ethnicity) or program participation status so that the data once obtained (with this information attached to each line of data, but with the youth’s name removed) will allow you to use this information in analyses. Care must be taken, however, to ensure this type of attached information does not allow a youth to be inadvertently identified; a general rule of thumb is to ensure that the data once obtained do not include subgroups (e.g., male Native American youth) of fewer than 10 youth.

Additional Considerations: If you are interested in assessing changes over time, make sure to collect a "baseline" in the period before the student began program involvement. In addition, request disciplinary records for the entire time period of the student’s program participation and after the end of the program, as these data can help to assess longer-term program effects. And be sure to align data requests with the specific timeframe of program enrollment for each student (e.g., one student may need disciplinary records starting in the spring quarter of one school year through the fall of the next school year, whereas another student may have a very different time frame of participation). If possible, you may also want to consider collecting school discipline data for a comparable group of students not participating in the mentoring program. These data can be used to compare outcomes for program and non-program participants, which is a more robust evaluation design than simply looking at changes over the course of program involvement for program participants.

How to Analyze:

Scoring: It is important to work closely with school or district officials to interpret scoring differences across years, grade levels, and types of disciplinary incidents. If available, an annual district interpretation guide can be useful.

Disciplinary Action: Schools commonly report the number and type of formally recorded decisions that result from student behavior within a given term (quarter or semester). Here, it is helpful to distinguish between exclusionary or non-exclusionary actions (i.e., those that exclude or do not exclude the student from class or school). When comparing disciplinary action across groups, such as the groups receiving or not receiving your mentoring program, you may want to analyze differences in: (1) the percentage of students in each group receiving one or more disciplinary actions; (2) the percentage receiving each type of action; and (3) the average number of disciplinary actions received. Other disciplinary consequences, such as reports made to law enforcement, are important to include as well.

Type of Behavior: Student behaviors should be analyzed carefully, as they vary in severity and are associated in different ways with student risk. For example, class disruption leading to an in-school suspension is very different from aggravated assault that leads to an out-of-school suspension.

Subgroup Differences: Research has shown that some racial and ethnic minority groups, males, low-achieving students, special education students, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds experience disproportionate rates of school suspensions and expulsions, which is likely the result of decisions made by school administrators rather than actual differences in student behavior. Therefore, programs may want to analyze disciplinary actions separately for relevant subgroups and include findings from a similar group of youth that does not receive program services. 

How to interpret findings: A reduction in the number of disciplinary actions or in severity of behavior indicates better student behavior at school. Keep in mind, however, that serious misbehavior and more severe exclusionary disciplinary actions may occur infrequently, especially at lower grade levels. Moreover, disciplinary rates vary widely across schools, which could be due to a variety of factors in addition to student behavior, including referral processes and teacher tolerance for disruptive behavior. Detailed district-level data on discipline is available through the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. 

Alternatives: School disciplinary records are limited to incidences where a formal office referral was made. As such, they provide a good indicator of school discipline but may miss many instances of school misbehavior or problem behavior more generally. Office disciplinary referrals often focus on serious infractions and may undercount less serious behavior, such as classroom disruptions. Therefore, programs that want to assess a wider range of youth behavior may want to collect self-reports of misbehavior (a measure of self-reported school misbehavior can be found here).


Cholewa, B., Hull, M. F., Babcock, C. R., & Smith, A. D. (2018). Predictors and academic outcomes associated with in-school suspension. School Psychology Quarterly, 33 (2), 191.

DuBois, D. L., Portillo, N., Rhodes, J. E., Silverthorn, N., & Valentine, J. C. (2011). How effective are mentoring programs for youth? A systematic assessment of the evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 12 (2), 57-91.

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Huang, F. L., & Cornell, D. G. (2017). Student attitudes and behaviors as explanations for the Black-White suspension gap. Children and youth services review, 73, 298-308. 

Morrison, G. M., Peterson, R., O’Farrell, S., & Redding, M. (2004). Using office referral records in school violence research: Possibilities and limitations. Journal of School Violence, 3(2/3), 39-61.

Nishioka, V. (2017). School Discipline Data Indicators: A Guide for Districts and Schools. REL 2017-240. Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest.

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (n.d.). Civil Rights Data Collection. Available at

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