The Link Between Suspensions, Expulsions, and Dropout Rates
September 05, 2018
Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Ph.D, Qualitative Research Scientist, Center for Promise
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.
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.
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.
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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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These six platform areas are based on the collective experience and expertise of individuals at organizations engaged with young people across the country, the experience of young people themselves, and our own research. The platform areas are a statement of best practice – they are what has been demonstrated to work to improve graduation outcomes for young people:
Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Ph.D., is a Qualitative Research Scientist at the Center for Promise at Boston University’s School of Education. Her research focuses on the processes and contexts associated with a multicultural individual’s navigation and negotiation of the multiple cultural worlds in which they live.
Why does being suspended or expelled increase the odds that a student will drop out of school? A few months ago, my research team and I at the Center for Promise published a report about the impact exclusionary discipline policies have on students, which helped us answer this question.