Empty Class Room

Opinion

The Link Between Suspensions, Expulsions, and Dropout Rates

Elizabeth Pufall Jones

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

When schools began implementing zero tolerance disciplinary policies in the early 1990’s, they did so for one major reason: to make schools safer. If a student brought a gun to school or was violent, that student was automatically suspended or expelled.

More than two decades later, however, research tells us these measures have not succeeded in making schools safer. What they have done is increase the likelihood that students drop out of high school altogether, according to the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force

While the image of a young person getting into a physical fight with a peer or threatening a teacher are images that often comes to mind when one thinks of exclusionary discipline, most suspensions are handed down for minor rule breaking.  

Today, the majority of offenses that young people are suspended for are non-violent issues, including things like chronic absence and general classroom disruption, according to a 2014 systematic review

A 2017 report found that 43 percent of the serious disciplinary actions nationwide between 2007 and 2008 were for insubordination—nearly double the increase from the 1999-2000 school year. This dynamic can also be seen in California’s public schools, with the leading cause for suspensions (more than 50 percent) coming from “willful defiance.” This designation can include refusing to remove a hat or putting away a cell phone.

Further, black males and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students were almost four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection. Other reports indicate that nearly three quarters of students with disabilities have been suspended at least once in their secondary school career.

A preponderance of research also shows that suspensions and expulsions do little to change behavior and can push students out of school altogether.

For instance, being suspended just one time in the ninth grade is related to an increased risk of dropping out, according to a 2012 study prepared by researchers from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

That same study found that suspension increased the chance of leaving school prior to graduation from 16 percent to a 32 percent. Another study found that students who were excluded were 29 percent more likely to drop out at some point during their high school career. 

Importantly, the Everyone Graduates Center study also demonstrated that the effects of exclusion can be cumulative, with each additional suspension increasing the risk of dropping out by 10 percent. Further, in a 2014 study, researchers found that exclusion predicts school-level dropout rates, with high suspension rate schools having higher dropout rates.

Source: Everyone Graduates Center.
Source: Everyone Graduates Center.

Even school leaders don’t think suspensions lead to positive outcomes. A 2014 survey of 500 superintendents across 48 states by the School Superintendents Association found that 92 percent of superintendents believe that out-of-school suspension is associated with negative student outcomes, including loss of instructional time and increased disengagement, absenteeism, truancy and dropout. 

It should be noted that all of these studies caution that these are statistical associations—correlation does not necessarily prove causation. But the preponderance of associative data should give us all pause to think about why these associations might exist, and what could contribute to creating a better, safer, learning environment for our children.

Though exclusionary discipline policies started out with best intentions, it’s clear that they have gotten away from their purpose over time. As a result, these policies have not made school safer—but they have made students feel less welcome and less likely to graduate. 

It’s time to rethink our approach to discipline and find ways to address student behavior that won’t increase their odds of dropping out.

Wondering why exclusionary discipline practices may cause students to drop out? Read Three Reasons Exclusionary Discipline Can Cause Students to Drop Out.


This story is part of a special series on school discipline. Other stories in the series include Six Steps to Implementing Restorative Practices,  Youth Voice: Detention Never Stopped Me from Cutting Class. Here’s What Did, and Five Youth Quotes on What It’s Like to Be Suspended or Expelled.

For even more information, read the report, Disciplined and Disconnected: How Students Experience Exclusionary Discipline in Minnesota and the Promise of Non-Exclusionary Alternatives.


Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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