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The Suspension Debate: New Research Debunks the Myths

Jonathan Zaff Executive Director

Faulty reasoning is often used as the rationale for suspending students. Here are some common arguments:

  • Exclusionary discipline is used fairly to penalize problem behaviors.
  • Getting rid of the “bad” students enables schools to focus on the “good” students.
  • Suspending (and expelling) students is better for the school community and better for the broader society.

Two recently released reports poke holes in this reasoning, showing that exclusionary discipline is used too often, is biased based on race, harms all students, results in lower achievement among those remaining, and costs the country billions of dollars.

Despite improvements, suspensions are used too often.

The newest data from the U.S Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights show out-of-school suspension rates have decreased over the past two years by 20 percent. Still, 2.8 million k-12 students, or 6 percent of the entire k-12 public school population, is suspended.

There is substantial bias in suspensions based on who you are.

Black K-12 students are 4-times more likely than White students to be suspended. 

Black students are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement than White students.

American Indian or Alaska Native, Latino, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multiracial boys are also disproportionately suspended.

Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as those without disabilities.

There is substantial bias in suspensions based on where you live.

In Texas, 31 percent of students received out-of-school suspensions at least once between 7th and 12th grade. 

Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina mete out exclusionary discipline for their secondary school students at much higher rates than other states. 

Exclusionary discipline is not only the domain of the Southeast. Rhode Island, for example, has particularly egregious suspension rates for English Language Learners

Suspending students doesn’t work.

But what if kicking the “bad kids” out of school results in improved outcomes for the “good kids?” What if those “bad kids” learn their lesson and come back to school motivated to excel? Don’t get your hopes up.

According to a new report by nationally renowned scholars Russell Rumberger and Daniel Losen, suspensions of 10th graders alone would lead to 67,000 high school students dropping out, costing society $35 billion over their lifetime.

The “good kids” who remain aren’t helped either. Instead, according to an analysis by the Equity Project at Indiana University, students attending schools with high suspension rates, when compared to schools with similar demographics, perform appreciably worse than their peers at low-suspension schools.

Suspensions are the wrong hammer for the wrong nail.

We find in our own research that young people who leave school without graduating are impacted by numerous, severe adverse life experiences. A young person experiencing so many of these adversities (52 percent of these young people reported experiencing five or more adversities) has a higher likelihood of acting out, not paying attention in school, or otherwise being defiant toward those in power.

This doesn’t mean that the same young people are disaffected, lazy, vengeful, or lack empathy. Instead, we find that so many young people are supporting their families economically, helping to raise their siblings, and looking out for others in their communities.

What’s the answer then? What can schools do to resolve the issues of those who would have been suspended and create a positive learning environment for all students?

Supportive climates vs. punishing climates.

The Office of Civil Rights report notes that approximately one-quarter of elementary schools and two-fifths of high schools employ sworn law enforcement officers but no school counselors. If the school serves a predominantly African-American or Hispanic student body, more than half of such schools employ a sworn law enforcement officer. 

For the young person struggling every day to just get to school, find food to put on the family table, temper the anger that he or she may rightfully feel from the injustices being faced daily, who can he or she turn to? In all of those schools, law enforcement is the first responder in the school, when a caring and compassionate counselor, teacher, principal, custodian is what’s needed.

There are programs being implemented throughout the country that are doing away with zero tolerance policies and replacing them with more nurturing environments. This doesn’t mean that schools are condoning inappropriate behaviors. Instead, the schools are focused on more appropriate means for dealing with the behaviors, both reducing their prevalence and resolving their impact when they happen.

Restorative justice approaches, in which a young person works collaboratively with school staff to work through inappropriate behaviors at school, are a promising approach to provide more nurturing relationships that leverage the assets of students to resolve conflict. Other program types have similar philosophies, that when young people are brought into the discussion and engaged as partners, they are happier, better behaved, and more productive students.

The Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) program creates a culture of caring throughout a school, focusing on the assets of students instead of their deficits. Evaluations of BARR have found statistically significant improvements in grades, standardized test scores, and attendance as well as reduced rates of suspension.  Similarly, thousands of schools implement positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS), a model for rewarding positive student behavior instead of punishing negative behaviors; showing positive impacts on suspension rates and corresponding academic outcomes.

Importantly, schools and districts need to be careful in taking these and other programs to scale. BARR and PBIS need to be implemented with fidelity and adapted for the student populations being served.

State policies are needed to support districts.

Individual programs, as powerful as they can be, need to be complemented by policies that encourage support over punitive, often biased discipline. Many states throughout the country are either considering or have already implemented reforms to exclusionary discipline policies.

In California, for example, suspensions of young children are no longer allowed nor is suspensions for “defiance,” which includes not adhering to dress codes, forgetting to bring school supplies, and talking back to teachers. (Yes, forgetting to bring school supplies had been used as a reason for suspensions.)

Despite improvements in suspension and expulsion rates over the past two years and promising practices seen in states and districts, a discipline pandemic remains.  Pushing students out of school leads to students never coming back, costing the nation billions of dollars. With such promising programs and policy reforms available, there are better answers to supporting the welfare of all students.