Suspended Education

Daniel J. Losen, J.D.
Senior Education Law and Policy Associate
The Civil Rights Project at UCLA

Russell Skiba, Ph.D.
The Equity Project, Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University


Since the early 1970s, out-of-school suspension rates have escalated dramatically. In part, the higher use of out-of-school suspension reflects the growth of policies such as “zero tolerance,” an approach to school discipline that imposes removal from school for a broad array of school code violations - from violent behavior to truancy and dress code violations. 

There is no question that teachers and principals must use all effective means at their disposal to maintain safety and to provide the most effective learning environments practicable.  There is controversy, however, about the means to this end.  The advent of harsher approaches has resulted in a deeply divided national debate on school discipline.  Supporters of zero tolerance offer a host of reasons why frequent resort to out-of-school suspension is critical for maintaining order and discipline in our schools.1 While the philosophy and practice of zero tolerance has led to increases in the use of suspension and expulsion, recent examinations (e.g., APA, 2008; Skiba & Rausch, 2006) have raised serious questions about both the effectiveness and fairness of such strategies. 

Some have argued that suspensions remove disorderly students and deter other students from misbehaving, thereby improving the school environment so that well-behaving students can learn without distractions. Yet, despite nearly two decades of implementation of zero tolerance disciplinary policies and their application to mundane and non-violent misbehavior, there is no evidence that frequent reliance on removing misbehaving students improves school safety or student behavior (APA, 2008). Because suspended students miss instructional time, frequent use of out-of-school suspension also reduces students’ opportunity to learn. 

In order to better understand the issues of efficacy and fairness in the use of out-of-school suspension, we first must answer two questions: How frequently is suspension being used in our schools?  Are there significant differences in the frequency of suspension when we look at subgroups of children by race/ethnicity and gender? This report is designed to help answer these questions.

The Increase in Suspensions and the Racial Discipline Gap
Concerns about lost instructional time, as well as other possible harmful side effects from suspension, are amplified by consistent findings that African-American and Latino youth are over-represented in school suspensions and that the increased use of suspension has been largest for poor and minority children.

A review of national suspension rates since the early 70’s for K-12 public schools reveals a substantial increase in the use of suspension for students of all races, as well as a concomitant increase in the racial discipline gap.  

Figure 1 demonstrates that K-12 suspension rates have at least doubled since the early ’70s for all non-Whites. Equally noteworthy are the substantially different suspension rate increases experienced by racial/ethnic groups. The racial gap in suspension has grown considerably since 1973, especially for African-American students.  In the 1970s Black students had a suspension rate of about 6% - twice the likelihood of suspension as White students (about 3%). With the advent of zero tolerance, Black children experienced a 9-point increase in suspension rates, from 6% in 1973 to 15% in 2006. Meanwhile the White suspension rate also grew, but gained less than 2 percentage points. The Black/White gap has grown from 3 percentage points in the ’70s to over 10 percentage points in the 2000s. Blacks are now over three times more likely than Whites to be suspended.

Focus on Middle Schools
Middle schools were chosen as the focus of this report for several reasons.  One is the importance of a student’s middle school experience in determining future academic success. While the value of middle school is generally acknowledged, research suggests that suspension at the middle school level may have significant long-term repercussions. A recent study conducted by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University provides one of the most comprehensive efforts to connect the dots between youths that experience difficulty in school and those who wind up in prison. (Balfanz 2003).  By carefully chronicling the educational paths of over 400 individuals incarcerated in ninth grade in one major northeastern city, Balfanz found that the youths most at risk of incarceration were clearly identifiable by middle school, and that nearly all had “struggled profoundly” in school.  According to Balfanz’s research, the typical ninth grader who went to prison had previously attended school only 58% of the time, failed at least one quarter of their classes, and read at a sixth grade level at the end of eighth grade. Two thirds had been suspended at least once in eighth grade.  In his sample, 80% were black, and 85% came from neighborhood non-selective schools (Balfanz 2003).

Given the importance of the middle school experience, this report sought to reveal the extent to which school suspension is used in middle schools, and the extent to which the large racial disparities found in K-12 suspension rates exist at the middle school level. Unfortunately, although some middle school data are collected or reported by school, there are no aggregate public reports on discipline (covering all states) that break down the data by elementary, middle and high school levels. Nor is the federally collected discipline data publicly reported by grade level. Instead, when the U.S. Department of Education reports school disciplinary data, the only report it publishes on its website combines elementary school suspensions together with those of middle and high schools. Our analysis suggests this reporting practice has unintentionally masked consistently higher rates of suspension at both the middle and high school level. Earlier analysis of sets of individually reported high school and middle school data in Florida suggested that middle school suspension rates tended to be higher than high school rates (Florida State Department of Education, 1995; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). Therefore, our decision to focus this report on middle schools grew out of our realization that many educators and policymakers were unaware of the high rates of out-of-school suspension at the secondary level - especially for students of color attending middle schools.