Students who were suspended from school between ages 12 and 18 are significantly more likely to report that they committed later offenses, such as assault, carrying a gun, selling drugs or theft. And students who experience multiple suspensions report higher levels of delinquency, according to study released Friday.
Appearing in the journal Justice Quarterly, the findings — based on a sample of 6,876 students participating in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 — suggest “school discipline can serve as a negative and harmful turning point in adolescence that increases offending ... over time,” the authors write.
Youth in the sample who associated with peers committing similar offenses were more likely to report committing such acts, but having tighter bonds to their school — often called school connectedness — was associated with lower levels of reported offenses.
While having a close-knit family is often considered a protective factor for adolescents, the researchers found tight family bonds were not able to prevent future delinquency once a student experienced a suspension. Future studies, they write, should take a closer look at the impact of suspension and other school disciplinary practices on family relationships.
The study, led by Thomas J. Mowen of Bowling Green State University, comes as states and districts nationally have moved to reduce suspensions. Some even prohibit them for students in the lower grades for most infractions in response to data showing students of color and students with disabilities are far more likely to be removed from school. Combined with the increase in recent years of police officers on school campuses, such discipline practices have facilitated what many call a school-to-prison pipeline.
This is the second study this year linking suspension to negative outcomes for students. A February paper, also appearing in the same research journal, showed a student who is suspended or expelled from school is more likely to use drugs than a student arrested by police. While being arrested is certainly a negative event, the researchers suggested being removed from school results in “more time away from adult supervision and greater opportunities to engage in problematic behaviors.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s oversight of school discipline data drew national attention during the Federal Commission on School Safety meetings held last year. Several advocates pleaded with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other administration officials to preserve the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce disparities in school discipline outcomes. But ultimately, the department did rescind guidance that some school officials viewed as limiting their authority to handle local behavior issues.
‘A negative impact on student achievement’
Suspension, many experts say, does not improve behavior.
“One of the more consistent relationships found in research on students' academic achievement is that time actively engaged in academic activities is predictive of positive academic outcomes,” said Russell Skiba, a school psychology professor at Indiana University. “So we would expect that interventions that remove students from the opportunity to learn would have a negative impact on academic achievement.”
The results of in-school suspension programs aren’t much better, Skiba said, largely because such models are not implemented consistently.
“While some applications of [in-school suspension] are run with a dedicated and well-trained staff and have consistent rules requiring students to continue their work, others are little more than holding tanks for misbehaving students,” he said.
Mowen and his co-authors cite Skiba's work, saying that while school leaders should not abandon the use of suspensions completely, school leaders should have more options available to them.
One widely used model that received attention from the Federal Commission on School Safety is Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which focuses on creating positive behavior norms and using a tiered process for working with students that get in trouble. Past research by Catherine Bradshaw of the University of Virginia has linked PBIS to fewer discipline referrals at the elementary level, but less is known about the impact of the model on older students.
A recent evaluation of a restorative practices initiative in Pittsburgh Public Schools shows those models can also reduce the number of days students are suspended, as well as racial disparities in discipline. But teachers say they need ongoing support to implement such models once schools eliminate zero-tolerance policies.
Other strategies, Skiba said, include implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, revising codes of conduct to clearly state which responses are appropriate for different levels of disruptive behavior, and focusing on students’ rights and responsibilities in school and at school-related events. The Indianapolis Public Schools’ Student Code of Conduct is one example.
The authors suggest that the study’s findings may underestimate the impact of suspension on later delinquency because “school security and discipline has intensified” since the surveys were conducted.
But more schools are now implementing SEL and restorative practices — and some are beginning to limit the presence of police at schools. A few states have also increased spending for school counselors and other mental health professionals, suggesting some policymakers are responding to recommendations from researchers.