How do harsh and zero-tolerance discipline methods work in California schools?
Currently, California schools issue more suspensions than diplomas each year. During the 2011-2012 school year, California schools issued more than 700,000 out-of-school suspensions, and more than 366,000 students were suspended out-of-school at least one time. “That’s enough students suspended out-of- school to fill every seat in all the professional baseball and football stadiums in the state, with no of any adult supervision.” In the same year, only 418,598 students received their high school diplomas.
Contrary to common perceptions, a significant number of California’s suspensions are unrelated to school safety but instead are for minor, vaguely defined behavior infractions.6 Disruption/willful defiance (often simply called “willful defiance”) was identified as the most “severe” grounds for 43% of all suspensions—more than any other grounds—and 6% of all expulsions in California in 2012-13.
Suspensions for “willful defiance” can include anything from chewing gum in class, to talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes. As a former Vice Principal in Los Angeles told the Associated Press when explaining why he took suspension off the quick-trigger menu, “willful defiance” is the big umbrella — anything can fit in that category.
Do suspensions and expulsions change and improve student behavior?
Two decades of research have clearly shown that “there is no research base to support frequent suspension or expulsion in response to non-violent and mundane forms of adolescent misbehavior;… frequent suspension and expulsion are associated with negative outcomes; and better alternatives are available.”
In fact, these strategies often have the opposite effect of exacerbating the problem, sending the student on an unsupervised vacation and further alienating him or her from the school environment.
Which students are suspended and expelled in California?
In California, students of color are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than white students. Students with disabilities and LGBTQ students are also suspended at rates much higher than their non-disabled peers.
Gender also plays a role in whether a student will be suspended. Nationwide, more suspensions are given out to males than females; males make up 66% of the students receiving a single out-of-school suspension and 74% of the students expelled.
In California, African American students are 3 times as likely to be suspended as their white peers (18% vs. 6%). In some districts, the disparities are more profound:
The out of school suspension rate for blacks in Los Angeles Unified is nearly 6 times the rate for whites (17.3% vs. 2.9%). The Latino rate is 5.2%.
For San Francisco Unified, black suspension rates are more than 6x the rate for whites (14.4% vs. 2.2%). The Latino rate is 5%.
For Sacramento City USD, black suspension rates are 3 1/2 times that of whites (21.2% vs. 6%). The Latino rate is 9.3%.
Research about student behavior, race, and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior. Instead African-American students are far more likely to be punished than their white classmates for reasons that require the subjective judgment of school staff, such as
disrespect, excessive noise, and loitering. For students with disabilities, the race disparities are even more glaring. In California, nearly 28% of African American students with disabilities are suspended at least once.
Children most likely to be suspended or expelled are those most in need of adult supervision and professional help because they have witnessed violence or been subjected to other major home life stressors and trauma. These children are also the most likely to have no supervision at home.
In San Mateo County, roughly one-third of the youth in foster care for more than two years had been suspended; foster children were also ten times more likely than their non-foster counterparts to be expelled from their school district.16 A study of middle school students in San Francisco found that one in every 6 students (an average of five or six children in every classroom) surveyed experienced at least one traumatic event, such as community violence, abuse, the death of a loved one, putting them at risk for mental health and trauma related symptoms that can manifest into difficult classroom behaviors.
Variation in suspension rates among schools is due as much to the characteristics of the school and behavior of school personnel as to the behavior of students; schools with high suspension rates typically have high student-teacher ratios, low academic quality ratings, reactive (as opposed to proactive) disciplinary programs, and ineffective school governance.
How does harsh discipline harm our students?
Students who have been suspended have far higher dropout rates and are significantly more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than their peers.
In one study, students suspended during the first marking period of 6th Grade had more than three times the odds of dropping out than students who were not suspended. For the first marking period of 9th Grade, being suspended nearly doubled the odds of students dropping out compared to students who were not suspended.
A recent comprehensive statewide study from Texas found that students who are suspended or expelled are 5 times more likely to drop out, 6 times more likely to repeat a grade, and also 3 times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year than similar students who were not suspended or expelled. High school dropouts are over 3 times more likely to be arrested, and 8 times more likely to end up in jail or prison.
Check out our data dashboard to learn more about how suspension impacts graduation rates in your school district.
How does this harm all of us and our communities?
There is little evidence that suspension and expulsion benefit students or their communities. Psychologists have found that disciplinary exclusion policies can increase “student shame, alienation, rejection, and breaking of healthy adult bonds,” thereby exacerbating negative mental health outcomes for young people.
Behavioral problems among school-age youth are associated with high rates of depression, drug addiction, and home-life stresses. For students with these mental health concerns, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has found that suspension can increase stress and may predispose them to antisocial behavior and even suicidal ideation.
Removing students from school through disciplinary exclusion also increases their risk of becoming the victims of violent crime. Rates of serious violent crime against school-age youth, including rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault, are more than twice as high outside of school as they are in school.
Of course, when harsh disciplinary policies push students to dropout, crime rates and juvenile incarceration rates increase and everyone loses. High school dropouts are over 3 times more likely to be arrested, and 8 times more likely to end up in jail or prison.
If we keep our students in school and increase graduation rates by 10 percentage points, we could prevent 400 murders and over 20,000 aggravated assaults in California each year.
Check out our data dashboard to learn more about how much your school district loses to suspensions every year.
How do I connect with other folks working on these issues in their schools?
Our Toolkit for Educators and Toolkit for Community contain semi-comprehensive contact sheets for California.
Members of the Philadelphia Student Union collaborated with film-makers Aidan Un, Lendl Tellington, and Sarah Milinski to create videos on issues that are relevant to the lives of young people in Philadelphia.