Methods: The sample included 135 1st and 2nd graders (44 White; 91 Black) with social-emotional difficulties (≥12 on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, SDQ; Goodman, 1997) from predominantly low-income schools in the southeast US. School staff entered ODRs monthly via an electronic data entry system developed for this project. Project staff observed students in the classroom using the REDSOCS (Jacobs et al., 2000) and on the playground (adapted COCA; Webster-Stratton et al., 2004). Both demonstrated adequate reliability (ICC=.81-.85). Teachers rated oppositional behavior on a composite of the SWAN ODD items (Swanson et al., 2012) and SDQ conduct problems subscale.
Results: Consistent with prior work, significant disparities were observed in rates of any ODRs (11% White, 51% Black; F=8.19, p=.00) as well as in teacher ratings of students’ oppositional behavior (t=3.22, p=.00), which were significantly correlated (r = .35, p = .01). No significant disparities were seen in observations of students’ inappropriate and noncompliant behavior in the classroom (t=-.90, p=.37, t=-.09, p=.93), or in their rule-following behavior on the playground (t=-1.67, p=.10). ODR disparities persisted even after accounting for child behavioral severity on the SDQ.
Conclusions: Early elementary Black students with social-emotional difficulties were referred to the office for disciplinary action almost five times as often as White children in the same schools. Disparities were also seen in teacher ratings, but not observed behaviors. These findings suggest bias in ODRs for early elementary students and raise questions about the validity of ODRs as an indicator of child behavior difficulties. Prevention efforts targeting student-level difficulties may not be as useful as policies and practices that promote equity.