The high and disproportionate suspension rates being experienced by youth of color in most of these urban districts means that minority students are being removed from the opportunity to learn at a much higher rate than their peers.
Because the OCR survey does not measure the overall number of suspensions, but rather the number of students suspended at least once, these data likely underestimate the frequency of the use of suspension and the amount of instructional time these students lose. Given the importance of the instructional time in predicting achievement outcomes (Greenwood, Horton, & Utley, 2002; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1997), one might argue that concerns about high suspension rates should be treated with the same level of concern often expressed for low test scores, poor attendance, and high dropout rates.
Although the 18 school districts reviewed were not a randomly selected sample, the size and demographic scope of the sample also suggest that resorting to disciplinary removal from school is a deepening problem in urban middle schools across the country. It is critical to note that schools with very high suspension rates (e.g., suspending one-third or more of the student body at least once) are not receiving the kind of public attention or regular exposure that schools with low test scores receive.
The extreme disparities along racial and gender lines - especially the pronounced differences for Black males - also raise difficult questions as to what may cause these race/gender disparities. Although we did not perform a regression analysis, it seems unlikely that poverty could sufficiently explain the gender and racial differences in these current data. For example, if we assume that Black and Hispanic poverty rates are similar in these districts (as they are nationally), and if we assume that Black males and females have similar exposure to poverty, it becomes difficult to explain why suspension rates are so much higher for Black males than for both Hispanic males and Black females. Furthermore, previous research (Skiba et al., 2002; Wallace et al, 2009, APA 2008) has consistently found that racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline persists even when poverty and other demographic factors are controlled.
As to gender disparities, the sample showed males of each racial group were consistently at greater risk for suspension. Yet gender differences in this sample were far less salient than differences in suspension due to race. For example, we found suspension rates were consistently higher for Black females than for Hispanic or White males.
The profound race- and gender-based disparities found throughout the sample — most dramatically at the school level — raise important questions about both the condition of education in our urban middle schools and the possibility of conscious or unconscious racial and gender biases at the school level. Educators and policymakers should be concerned about the harms that overuse of suspension can cause to students and their academic careers. Where the data suggest that certain racial/gender groups are at far greater risk, the potential harm from harsh discipline policies becomes a civil rights issue as well.
As stated at the outset, the heart of the issue is not whether students should ever be suspended, but whether frequent suspension is an effective disciplinary tool that can aid schools in achieving the goal of a safe and productive educational environment. High rates of suspension, and even apparent race and gender disparities, would not be as problematic if research were to demonstrate that the frequent use of suspension compared to the costs, offered greater benefits in safety or improved instructional climate. As described in the next section, however, the research findings of the American Psychological Association (APA 2008) and others have consistently found otherwise. To provide additional context for the statistics discussed above, the remainder of this report reviews research on the efficacy of suspension as a means of improving learning for both suspended students and their classmates.
How is Suspension Used?
In reviewing studies of school discipline, it is clear that school suspension tends not to be reserved for serious or dangerous behaviors. Fights or physical aggression among students are consistently found to be among the most common reasons for suspension (Costenbader & Markson, 1994; Dupper & Bosch, 1996; Imich, 1994; Menacker, Hurwitz, & Weldon, 1994; Skiba et al., 1997; Stone, 1993).
Yet the majority of offenses for which students are suspended appear to be nonviolent, less disruptive offenses (Children’s Defense Fund, 1975; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). After fighting, the most common offenses appear to be abusive language (Imich, 1994; Kaeser, 1979) and attendance issues such as cutting class, tardiness, and truancy (Kaeser, 1979; Morgan D’Atrio et al., 1996). Other common reasons for school suspension are disobedience and disrespect (Bain & MacPherson, 1990; Cooley, 1995; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003; Skiba et al., 1997), and general classroom disruption (Imich, 1994; Massachussetts Advocacy Center, 1986; Morgan D’Atrio et al., 1996; Rausch & Skiba, 2004a; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003), often framed as a "catch-all category" (Dupper & Bosch, 1996). In an analysis of out-of-school suspensions in a single state, Rausch and Skiba (2004a) reported that only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions were issued for disciplinary incidents that are typically considered serious or dangerous, such as possession of weapons or drugs. The remaining 95% of suspensions fell into two categories: disruptive behavior and other. Concluding a review of a national survey on the disciplinary practices of 35 school districts representing over a million students, Donald Stone wrote, “It appears clear that on reviewing the data to determine if the crime fits the punishment, the answer is no." These data seems consistent with Stone’s conclusion.
How Effective is Suspension?
In an era of accountability, federal legislation has called for schools to use only those interventions that are research-based and proven effective. As some educators highlight harsh discipline policies as a means to improving student achievement, such policies should be supported by research documenting their effectiveness. Suspension and expulsion could be judged as evidence-based if their use was shown to result in lower rates of disruptive or violent behavior among students, improvements in overall school safety or climate, higher graduation rates, or other gains in academic achievement, including gains for the suspended or expelled students.
There are no data showing that out-of-school suspension or expulsion reduce rates of disruption or improve school climate; indeed, the available data suggest that, if anything, disciplinary removal appears to have negative effects on student outcomes and the learning climate (American Psychological Association, 2008).
Longitudinal studies have shown that students suspended in sixth grade are more likely to receive office referrals or suspensions by eighth grade, prompting some researchers to conclude that suspension may act more as a reinforcer than a punisher for inappropriate behavior (Tobin, Sugai, & Colvin, 1998). In the long term, school suspension has been found to be a moderate-to-strong predictor of school dropout (Balfanz 2003), and may in some cases be used as a tool to "cleanse" the school of students who are perceived by school administrators as troublemakers (Bowditch, 1993). Other research raises doubts as to whether harsh school discipline has a deterrent value (Raffaele Mendez 2003).
Perhaps counter-intuitively, purging the school of misbehaving students does not appear to improve school climate. Schools with higher rates of school suspension have been found to pay significantly less attention to school climate and have lower ratings in academic quality and quality of school governance (Skiba & Rausch, 2006). Perhaps most importantly, emerging data indicate that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion have poorer outcomes on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the economic level or demographics of their students. It is difficult to argue that disciplinary removals result in improvements to the school learning climate when schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates average lower test scores than do schools with lower suspension and expulsion rates.
At least some of the variability in schools’ rates of out-of-school suspension and expulsion appear to be attributable to differences in principal attitudes towards the disciplinary process. The national report, Opportunities Suspended (Advancement Project/Civil Rights Project, 2000), suggested that school principals used out-ofschool suspension in direct proportion to their stated support for zero tolerance policies and procedures. In a comprehensive study of the relationship between principal attitudes and disciplinary outcomes, Skiba et al. (2003) surveyed 325 principals regarding their attitudes toward zero tolerance, suspension and expulsion, and violence-prevention strategies. They found principal attitude and school disciplinary outcomes to be correlated: rates of out-of-school suspension were lower, and the use of preventive measures more frequent, at schools whose principals believed that suspension and expulsion were unnecessary given a positive school climate.
Regarding the causes for the disproportionately high rates at which students of color are suspended, some argue that minority children, particularly male students of color, tend to misbehave more frequently in school than do White children.
Research on student behavior, race, and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior (McCarthy and Hoge, 1987; McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1990; Wu et al., 1982). Skiba et al. (2002) reviewed racial and gender disparities in school punishments in an urban setting, and found that White students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for offenses that appear more capable of objective documentation (e.g., smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language). African-American students, however, were referred more often for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering - behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent. In short, there is no evidence that racial disparities in school discipline can be explained through higher rates of disruption among African-American students.
To the extent that safety is the motivation behind the use of suspension, it is short sighted at best to fail to understand that removing many students from school simply leaves them unsupervised on the street. The frequent use of suspension by schools may thus lead to a net reduction in community safety. One organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a non-profit organization of 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and other law enforcement leaders recently stated, "While school safety must be maintained and truly dangerous students removed from the school community as appropriate, suspension and expulsion often provide troubled kids exactly what they do not need: an extended, unsupervised hiatus from school that increases their risk of engaging in substance abuse and violent crime” (Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 2009). The statement goes on to cite the need for more data to "help educational authorities track suspensions and expulsions to evaluate their approach to school discipline and ensure students are not inappropriately placed at risk."
Adolescence is a time where youth can be expected to challenge authority, whether at home, or at school, and do not consistently exercise good judgment (APA, 2008). From a developmental standpoint, it is not surprising that students attending middle schools might be expected to misbehave more often than older and younger students. As a modicum of rule-breaking is normal for adolescents, some form of discipline is clearly necessary in order to teach appropriate behavior in school and society. Yet it also stands to reason that fair and effective discipline in middle schools would maintain safe and orderly learning environments without removing large percentages of students and "not be harsh and traumatic for minor incidents" (Comer & Poussaint 1992). The choice suggested by the research is thus not between frequent discipline and lax discipline, but between frequent use of out-of-school suspension that removes adolescents from the opportunity to learn, and strong but caring discipline that works to inculcate good behavior, while resorting to out-of-school suspension only rarely.
One of the goals of public schooling is to prepare children to participate in our democracy, and become productive law-abiding citizens. Disciplinary tactics that respond to typical adolescent behavior by removing students from school do not better prepare students for adulthood. Instead, they increase their risk of educational failure and dropout. Are there ways of educating adolescents - ways to structure the school environment - that yield less disruptive behavior than others? And when rules are broken, are there disciplinary methods that are developmentally sound and proven effective with regard to safety and achievement, yet keep the loss of instructional time to an absolute minimum?
While a full review of the research on effective schools and discipline is beyond the scope of this report, extensive research and policy studies on school violence and school discipline over the last decade have identified a host of effective alternatives to zero tolerance that are more likely to ensure safe and orderly schools while keeping students in school (Dwyer, Osher, & Warger, 1998; Gagnon & Leone, 2001; Gottfredson, 1997; Greenberg et al., 2003; Mihalic, Irwin, Elliott, Fagan, & Hansen, 2001; Elliott, Hatot, Sirovatka, & Potter, 2001; Thornton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch, & Baer, 2000; Tolan & Guerra, and Kendall, 1995; Zins, Weissberg, Wang & Walberg, 2004).
The disturbing data in this brief report suggest that, especially in urban districts, middle schools wishing to both diminish misbehavior and keep students in school may need more support. We believe greater awareness of the high rates of discipline and federal support for positive interventions could also help schools with the most frequent use of out-of-school suspensions to reduce their reliance on suspension while learning to utilize more effective forms of intervention that yield better academic and social outcomes.