Teachers are responsible for creating a safe, stable learning environment for their students through various disciplinary tactics. Suspending students from school is one of the most common forms of discipline, with the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reporting that 2.8 million K-12 students received at least one out-of-school suspension (OSS) in a 2013-2014 nationwide survey. A 2011 Council of State Governments study of one million public school students found that, in Texas alone, nearly 60% of students had at one point been suspended or expelled from school between their seventh- and twelfth-grade school years. Although the number of school suspensions across the U.S. has dropped slightly in the past decade (from 3.3 million in 2006 to 2.8 million in 2014), it is still nearly double that observed in the 1970’s.
The high numbers of suspensions in US schools have sparked an important debate among educators, physicians, and lawmakers on the effectiveness of OSS, with particular emphasis on whether it does more harm than good.
One of the earliest forms of school discipline was corporal punishment (spanking, slapping, etc.), though it has become increasingly phased out due to evidence confirming its harm. Despite this, federal law upholds the right of teachers to use corporal punishment as discipline (1977 U.S. Supreme Court case Ingraham v. Wright), and 19 states still allow it.
Major changes in school discipline arose in the 1990’s with the advent of “zero tolerance” policies. The increasing prevalence of youth drug use and violence in the 1980’s prompted most US schools to adopt the policy of automatic suspension for infractions such as drug and alcohol possession, fighting, weapons possession, and gang-related activity. Some schools have extended their “zero tolerance” policies to include suspensions for other offenses, including swearing, verbal disrespect, and violating school dress code. These strict policies are still in effect in most schools and have even been extended in part due to mass school shootings (Columbine, Sandy Hook, etc.)
As mentioned previously, the effectiveness of OSS and “zero tolerance” policies has been widely debated in recent history. Many studies have been published over the years demonstrating the hazardous effects of OSS on the entire educational ecosystem. First and foremost, OSS removes students from the classroom and frequently fails to provide other alternative education, resulting in learning deficits that can impact the student’s continued success in life.
The 2011 Council of State Governments report found that a single suspension or expulsion doubles the risk of that student repeating a grade, which is in itself one of the strongest predictors of dropping out. In addition, an American Psychological Association review in 2006 found that suspensions are also linked to behavioral problems, detachment from social interaction with peers and adults, and high rates of dropout from school.
The suspended student is not the only one significantly impacted by OSS. Educators, parents and other students are also affected. Parents of children that are unexpectedly suspended from school may be forced to stay home from work or find other childcare options, which results in an unanticipated loss of income. A recent study by Perry and Morris, in the American Sociological Review, has demonstrated that use of OSS also has a significant effect on nearby students, with schools having a high rate of suspension also seeing non-suspended students with lower math and reading scores.
The impact on both parents and students can then trickle down to compound the negative impact on educators that must make the tough decisions of removing a student from school and impeding their ability to learn and socialize. A 2009 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 12% of teachers left the profession due to issues with discipline within their last year of teaching.
Not only does suspension have a detrimental effect to learning ecosystems, but also disproportionately affects minorities and students with disabilities even when controlling for poverty. According to the U.S. DOE’s OCR, black K-12 students are 3.8 times as likely as white students to receive one or more OSS, while students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as students without disabilities to receive one or more OSS.
Other minorities are also disproportionately affected by OSS, including American Indians/Alaska Natives, Latinos, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, and multiracial boys. In preschools, black children also experience disproportionate rates of suspension, with this group alone comprising 47% of all preschool children with one or more OSS. These data confirm a bias against minorities in the use of OSS as a disciplinary tactic.
Considering the negative consequences of OSS, it is no surprise that the U.S. DOE has recently stated that OSS should be phased out of disciplinary policies. This is further confirmed by data showing that it simply does not work. A review by Skiba and Losen, in the Winter 2015-2016 edition of American Educator, cites data showing schools with higher rates of suspension have poorer safety and climate, and students with more suspensions are more likely to have future antisocial behaviors and more suspensions.
With this in mind, the U.S. DOE published guidelines in 2014 to deter schools from using suspensions and expulsions and instead focus disciplinary efforts around new evidence-based models, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative justice.
Even before the DOE guidance came out in 2014, states and individual schools began to reform disciplinary programs to remove some aspects of their “zero tolerance” policies and switch to more positive, supportive disciplinary tactics. These frequently include the use of evidence-based proactive, preventative approaches that tackle the underlying causes of misbehavior and provide positive reinforcement for behaviors that increase academic engagement and achievement. This shift has already shown promise in some schools, where use of the PBIS framework has improved school climate and academic performance, and reduced disciplinary referrals by 33%. Overall, the discontinuation of OSS and implementation of positive disciplinary protocols is becoming the preferred method for handling students that may be otherwise disruptive to the learning environment.