A common disciplinary tool used by educators across the country is both demonstrably racist and ineffective. So, why are we still doing it?
Students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to commit crimes, abuse drugs and alcohol, and spiral into low academic achievement and delinquency. Perhaps this would be acceptable if there were a clear benefit to this punitive disciplinary approach. There isn’t. Studies have repeatedly failed to show that removal from school deters bad behavior or does much at all to maintain classroom safety and decorum.
“Suspension predicts greater risk of arrest, conviction, probation, and lower educational attainment,” says Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “My research sees these effects as long as 12 years later.”
One third of U.S. students are suspended at some point during a K-12 career. Expulsions are less common, and presumably have more dire consequences. But most studies do not differentiate between the two, instead grouping them under the umbrella of “school exclusion.” Both practices are largely based on subjective teacher assessments and seem to disproportionately impact minority students. Experts agree that something needs to change.
How School Exclusion Hurts Students
The link between school exclusion and delinquency “is not too surprising,” says Paul Hirschfield, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who conducted one of the most thorough literature reviews of school suspension outcomes. “Given that suspension, like truancy, automatically increases one’s exposure to both criminal opportunities and police surveillance.”
“It has been fairly well established that school exclusion facilitates the ‘school to prison’ pipeline,” Krohn says. And the literature backs up her claim. In 2018, Rosenbaum published work showing that suspended youth were less likely to finish college and more likely to get arrested. Other studies have clearly identified a multitude of negative impacts: lower grade point averages, higher dropout rates, and risk of depression, aggression, and behavior problems in the short-term; economic hardship, marital conflict, and illegal activity in the long-term.
It is possible that some of these students are troublemakers to being with. It is not inconceivable that the same sort of student who causes problems in the classroom might get in trouble with the law. But researchers suspect that many students begin their downward spiral into delinquency when they are removed from school because the classroom is, itself, protective. Besides offering counseling to troubled students, school forces children off the streets and occupies them with academic work. There’s something to what they say about idle hands.
Suspensions And Expulsions Disproportionately Impact Minorities
Studies have shown that minority students are far more likely than others to end up on the wrong end of school disciplinary practices. Part of the problem is that state and local policies mandate suspension in many subjective cases. When teachers are asked to decide whether a student appears aggressive, for instance, Black students often get the short end of the stick.
“It seems like mandating a uniform punishment should be racially neutral, but in fact zero tolerance policies result in Black students being treated more harshly,” Rosenbaum says. “My research suggests that suspension is used in a racially discriminatory way. Being tall in height is a risk factor for suspension for Black males, but not Black females or non-Black students.”
Of course, discrimination is not the only explanation for why minority students may be removed from the classroom disproportionately. It is possible that Black students are more likely to act out in school for a variety of socioeconomic reasons, resulting in suspension or expulsion.
“Although qualitative studies make a compelling case that teachers and principals are more likely to misperceive African-American students as threatening or defiant, I don’t think racial prejudice is the most important explanation of racial differences in suspensions,” Hirschfield says. “Rather, I think that African American children are more likely to attend schools where the number of needy and academically struggling students exceed the resources available.” For a struggling school system, suspension is a quick and cheap way to remove disruptive students from the classroom. It’s possible that minority students are expelled more often because they tend to be in public schools that are less well-equipped to deal with problem students.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is clear: Minority students are more likely to get in trouble in school, and this sets them up for long-term failure. “It is hard to establish causation here,” says Beidi Dong, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at George Mason University. “But when they do get in trouble, research has shown that [minority students] are more likely to face serious consequences that lead to more trouble.”
Society as a whole, too, loses out when minority students are thrust from the classroom. One National Academy of Science panel found that the U.S. is producing fewer Black male doctors than in the past. When they tried to figure out why, several reasons surfaced but one resonated as particularly tragic — the disproportionate rate at which Black students are kicked out of school.
Do Suspensions Work?
Studies supporting suspension and expulsion are few and far between. “Some research indicates that exclusionary discipline used in moderation could be benign, but that overly punitive environments are toxic,” Dong says. As a rule, however, experts agree that even the most disruptive students are better served through discipline that keeps them in the classroom. “A positive school environment and greater student achievement may be attained through a host of programs that help students develop academic skills and career plans.”
The usual argument in favor of suspensions and expulsions is that they are a necessary evil, a tool that teachers can use to minimize the harms that disruptive students inflict on the larger number of striving students, and a way to remove dangerous students from the classroom. This makes intuitive sense. Kicking drug dealers and bullies out of school probably does make schools safer for the average student, and a handful of studies have shown that schools with high suspension rates have higher math scores and fewer disciplinary incidents. But throwing out the kid with the low scores is obviously antithetical to the idea of teaching.
And whatever is gained by kicking out disruptive students may be lost in other ways. Perhaps the sort of school that kicks out its problems rather than dealing with them fosters a toxic and underachieving student body, Hirschfield speculates. “Too many suspensions could also be disruptive and could undermine students’ perceptions of a caring, respectful, and supportive school climate,” he says, citing a 2013 study. “In schools with higher suspension rates, non-suspended students score lower on standardized tests.”
Unfortunately, the data puts educators in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, removing students from the classroom is the ultimate disciplinary measure and one of the best ways to keep dangerous and disruptive students away from sincere, well-behaved students. On the other hand, school exclusion punts problem students from the classroom and into the real world, where they end up causing evening more problems for themselves and society at large.
“I am not aware of studies showing positive outcomes,” Hirschfield says.
What Should Educators (And Parents) Do?
“I don’t necessarily think we have to pick a side,” Dong says. “It is possible that we can keep troubled kids disciplined by not by removing them.”
Dong suggests programs within the school, like detention and after-school tutoring and counseling, can reform students rather than toss them on the street. Although some students, particularly those threatening acts of violence, may need to be removed from school grounds, Dong, Hirschfield, and Krohn each maintain that school exclusion should be used very rarely, and only as a last resort.
Parents can be part of the solution, by pushing back against school exclusion as a policy and seeking professional help for children who are acting out. If a child is suspended or expelled, a parent’s priority should be getting them back in the classroom.
There’s hope for most disruptive students — as long as they stay in school and are given the chance to turn their lives around. “It’s normal in both childhood and adolescence developmental stages to test boundaries and experiment with risky behavior,” Rosenbaum says. “All children need second, third, and fourteenth chances to grow up to be responsible adults.”
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