Skip Navigation
Click to open navigation

Indicator 19: Serious Disciplinary Actions Taken by Public Schools
(Last Updated: March 2018)

During the 2015–16 school year, a higher percentage of high schools (78 percent) took at least one serious disciplinary action than did middle schools (61 percent) and primary schools (18 percent).

In the School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS), public school principals were asked to report the number of disciplinary actions their schools had taken against students for specific offenses. The student offenses reported by principals during the 2015–16 school year and discussed in this indicator were physical attacks or fights; distribution, possession, or use of alcohol; distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs; use or possession of a firearm or explosive device; and use or possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive device.

During the 2015–16 school year, 37 percent of public schools (31,100 schools) took at least one serious disciplinary action—including out–of–school suspensions lasting 5 days or more, removals with no services for the remainder of the school year, and transfers to specialized schools—for specific offenses (figure 19.1 and table 19.1).


Figure 19.1. Percentage of public schools that took a serious disciplinary action in response to specific offenses, by type of offense: School years 2003–04, 2009–10, and 2015–16

Figure 19.1. Percentage of public schools that took a serious disciplinary action in response to specific offenses, by type of offense: School years 2003–04, 2009–10, and 2015–16

1 Totals for 2003–04 are not comparable to totals for 2009–10 and 2015–16, because the 2009–10 and 2015–16 questionnaires did not include an item on insubordination. Schools that took serious disciplinary actions in response to more than one type of offense were counted only once in the total.
2 In 2003–04, the questionnaire wording was simply "a weapon other than a firearm" (instead of "a weapon other than a firearm or explosive device").
NOTE: Responses were provided by the principal or the person most knowledgeable about crime and safety issues at the school. Serious disciplinary actions include out–of–school suspensions lasting 5 or more days, but less than the remainder of the school year; removals with no continuing services for at least the remainder of the school year; and transfers to specialized schools for disciplinary reasons.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003–04, 2009–10, and 2015–16 School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS), 2004, 2010, and 2016.


Out of all offenses reported, physical attacks or fights prompted the largest percentage of schools (27 percent) to respond with at least one serious disciplinary action. In response to other offenses by students, 19 percent of schools reported that they took disciplinary actions for the distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs; 10 percent took actions for the use or possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive device; 8 percent did so for the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol; and 2 percent did so for the use or possession of a firearm or explosive device.

The percentage of schools taking at least one serious disciplinary action was lower in 2015–16 than in 2003–04 across all specific offense types except the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol, for which there was no measurable difference between the two years.83 In addition, the percentage of schools taking at least one serious disciplinary action was lower in 2015–16 than in 2009–10 for the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol (8 vs. 9 percent) and for use or possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive device (10 vs. 13 percent), but there were no measurable differences between these two years for any other offenses, including the total number of offenses.

During the 2015–16 school year, a higher percentage of high schools (78 percent) took at least one serious disciplinary action than did middle schools (61 percent) and primary schools (18 percent; figure 19.2 and table 19.2). This pattern by school level was generally observed for disciplinary actions taken in response to specific offenses as well. For example, 62 percent of high schools took serious disciplinary actions in response to distribution, possession, or use of illegal drugs, compared with 31 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of primary schools.


Figure 19.2. Percentage of public schools that took a serious disciplinary action in response to specific offenses, by type of offense and school level: School year 2015–16

Figure 19.2. Percentage of public schools that took a serious disciplinary action in response to specific offenses, by type of offense and school level: School year 2015–16

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
‡ Reporting standards not met. Either there are too few cases for a reliable estimate or the coefficient of variation (CV) is 50 percent or greater.
1 Schools that took serious disciplinary actions in response to more than one type of offense were counted only once in the total.
NOTE: Responses were provided by the principal or the person most knowledgeable about crime and safety issues at the school. Primary schools are defined as schools in which the lowest grade is not higher than grade 3 and the highest grade is not higher than grade 8. Middle schools are defined as schools in which the lowest grade is not lower than grade 4 and the highest grade is not higher than grade 9. High schools are defined as schools in which the lowest grade is not lower than grade 9 and the highest grade is not higher than grade 12. Excludes combined schools, which include all other combinations of grades, including K–12 schools. Serious disciplinary actions include out–of–school suspensions lasting 5 or more days, but less than the remainder of the school year; removals with no continuing services for at least the remainder of the school year; and transfers to specialized schools for disciplinary reasons.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS), 2016.


A higher percentage of schools with 76 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced–price lunch took at least one serious disciplinary action (44 percent) than did schools with 0 to 25 (25 percent) and 26 to 50 percent (34 percent) of students eligible for free or reduced–price lunch.84 The percentage was also higher for schools where 51 to 75 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch (41 percent) than for schools where a lower percentage of students were eligible.

A total of 305,700 serious disciplinary actions were taken by public schools during the 2015–16 school year for specific offenses (table 19.1). The largest number of these reported disciplinary actions were taken in response to physical attacks or fights (178,000 actions). Of the serious disciplinary actions taken during the 2015–16 school year, 72 percent were out–of–school suspensions for 5 days or more, 24 percent were transfers to specialized schools, and 4 percent were removals with no services for the remainder of the school year (figure 19.3 and table 19.1).


Figure 19.3. Percentage distribution of serious disciplinary actions taken by public schools, by type of offense and type of disciplinary action: School year 2015–16

Figure 19.3. Percentage distribution of serious disciplinary actions taken by public schools, by type of offense and type of disciplinary action: School year 2015–16

! Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation (CV) for this estimate is between 30 and 50 percent.
NOTE: Responses were provided by the principal or the person most knowledgeable about crime and safety issues at the school.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS), 2016.


Greater percentages of out-of-school suspensions lasting 5 days or more were imposed upon students in response to physical attacks or fights (79 percent) than were imposed in response to the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol (68 percent), and drugs (59 percent), and the use or possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive (63 percent). Greater percentages of removals with no services for the remainder of the school year were imposed upon students in response to the distribution, possession, or use of drugs (7 percent) than were imposed in response to the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol (4 percent), and physical attacks or fights (3 percent). Greater percentages of transfers to specialized schools were imposed in response to the distribution, possession, or use of alcohol (29 percent), and drugs (34 percent), and the use or possession of a weapon other than a firearm or explosive (31 percent) than were imposed in response to physical attacks or fights (18 percent).


This indicator has been updated to include 2015–16 data. For more information: Tables 19.1, 19.2, and Diliberti, Jackson, and Kemp (2017), (https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2017122).


83 Totals for 2003–04 are not comparable to totals for 2015–16, because the 2015–16 questionnaires did not include an item on insubordination.
84 The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced–price lunch programs is a proxy measure of school poverty. For more information on eligibility for free or reduced–price lunch and its relationship to poverty, see NCES blog post "Free or reduced price lunch: A proxy for poverty?"