Why We Need Reform

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The Big Picture

As educators and advocates for youth, we are committed to the successful and safe development of youth. Of course, since schools are social settings, including many people, there must be an ongoing concern for maintaining the basic safety of all persons present. As a school leader, you know that one of the most important functions of public education is to lay the foundation for future opportunity and educational success for all students.  However, the way that many schools and districts are implementing discipline policies and practices has the opposite effect.  Instead of correcting students’ behavior and making communities and schools safer, the quick removal methods, such as out-of-school suspension and expulsion, deprive students of the chance to receive the education and help that they need, making it more likely that they will drop out of school, enter the criminal justice system, and place their future options in jeopardy.  There is a much better way to hold students accountable and keep schools safe.

Education and Zero Tolerance

Tolerance involves allowing something to continue, even if you don’t like or agree with it. The opposite of tolerance, from this perspective, is to not permit that behavior to continue.  It does not necessarily follow, however, that one must be negative, or punitive, towards that which you can’t, or won’t tolerate. If you read the mission statement of any school or school district, you won’t see the words punish, castigate, rebuke, reprimand, chastise or penalize. [1]  Instead, these guiding documents are focused around words such as learn, educate, support, develop, future and success. From this standpoint, zero tolerance commits us to intervening to support the successful development of the student – not punishment.

Why should your school or school district implement alternatives to out-of-school punishments?

Currently, California has an extremely high rate of suspensions, issuing more suspensions than diplomas each year.[2] During the 2009-2010 school year, California schools issued more than 750,000 out-of-school suspensions, and more than 420,000 students were suspended out-of-school at least one time.[3, 4] 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 guarantee of any adult supervision.[5] In the same year, only 408,861 students received their high school diplomas.[6]

Contrary to common perception, a significant number of these suspensions are unrelated to school safety issues and instead are for minor or trivial behavior.[7] As you may know, the most common reason a student is suspended out-of-school in California is for disrupting or otherwise willfully defying authority (48900(k)) — this is the grounds for approximately 42% of California suspensions.[8] Suspensions for “willful defiance” can include anything from chewing gum in class, to talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes. As one 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.  In a survey of school administrators conducted by EdSource, the majority of school administrators surveyed reported that this category — “willful defiance” -– was overused and misinterpreted.[9]

Do suspensions and expulsions improve student behavior or make our schools safer?

Two decades of research has now made it clear that school removals, “get tough” punishments, and zero tolerance strategies are not effective at transforming anti-social behavior into pro-social behavior; in fact, these strategies often have the opposite effect of exacerbating the problem, sending the student to an unsupervised vacation, further alienating him or her from the school environment and “pushing” him or her out of school.[10]

“Overall, the evidence shows … 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.”[10]

Which students are suspended and expelled in California? Which students are suspended and expelled in your school or district?

In California, students of color are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than white students. Students with disabilities are also suspended at rates much higher than their non-disabled peers. In addition, our most vulnerable children, those who have been subjected to violence or who have entered our foster care system are the most likely to be removed from school.

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%.[12]

In the 10 school districts with the highest rates of suspension, nearly 1 of every 4 students is suspended.  In these districts, average student suspension rates in 2009-2010 were: 41% for African Americans; 25% for American Indians; 21% for whites; 21% for Latinos and 14%for Asian Americans.[13]

Research of student behavior, race, and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior.[14] 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.[15]

For students with disabilities, the disparities are even more glaring.  In California, nearly 28% of African American students with disabilities are suspended at least once.[16]

In addition, our most vulnerable children in the state, with the least support, are most likely to be removed from school. 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. Yet, these children are also the most likely to have no supervision at home.[17]

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.[18] A recent 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.  Teachers reported that students were presenting with behaviors such as storming out of class for no apparent reason, overreacting to minor encounters, and withdrawing and refusing to participate.[19]

Gender also plays a role in whether a student will be suspended.  Nationwide, more suspensions are given out to males than females.  Male and female students each represent about half of the student population, however, males make up 66% of the students receiving a single out-of-school suspension and 74% of the students expelled.[20] African-American males make up 20% of all suspensions.[21]

Did you know that 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, administrative indifference to school climate, reactive disciplinary programs, and ineffective school governance.[22] The presence or absence of these school characteristics, along with the specific student demographic characteristic, such as race and gender, make a more significant contribution to predicting suspension than student behavior itself.[23]

How does harsh discipline harm our students?

What is suspended when we tell a student that s/he is not allowed to come to school?

  • Academic learning, both new and reinforcement, is suspended. Students might infer that either whatever is taught has so little value that missing lessons is not a considered a serious problem, or that their own learning is not highly valued by school officials.
  • Connection to the school community is also suspended while the student is away and often remains weakened upon return.
  • For some students, school is the only safe place in a normally hostile environment. For these students, suspension from school means suspension of safety from the outside environment.
  • Finally, while under suspension, the student is denied access to trained educational professionals who might have skills to help him or her (un)learn behaviors, as appropriate. The student still has full access to such “suspect influences” as possibly negative home and neighborhood environments, and peers (although the peers might only be accessible after school).

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.[24]

A recent comprehensive statewide study from Texas found that students who are suspended or expelled are 5 times more likely to dropout and 6 times more likely to repeat a grade.[25] They were 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.[26]

In another study, students who received an out-of-school suspension in middle school were half as likely to graduate on time as students who did not.[27] Research on the frequent use of school suspension has shown that even after race and poverty are controlled for, higher rates of out-of-school suspension correlate with lower achievement scores.[28]

How does this harm 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.[29]

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.[30]

The suspension process often does not include identifying the underlying causes of negative behaviors, instead just serving to temporarily remove the student and the negative symptoms from the campus. And often, when the student returns, there is no plan to support development and rehabilitation. [31]

Removing students from school through disciplinary exclusion also increases their risk of becoming a victim 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.[32]

Of course, when we push students to dropout, we also increase crime rates and juvenile incarceration rates 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.[31] If we increase graduation rates by 10 percentage points, we could prevent 400 murders and over 20,000 aggravated assaults in California each year.[33]


[1] Sackheim, D. (2009), Seeing the Best in Our Students: Asset Profiles, Zero Tolerance, Learning and Unlearning. Reaching At-Promise Students Association Journal, May 15, 2009

[2]California Department of Education DataQuest, available at http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/ (2012) [hereafter, CDE DataQuest].

[3]Id.

[4]Losen, D., Martinez, T., & Gillespie, J. (2012), Suspended Education in California, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project.

[5]Id.

[6]CDE Dataquest (2012).

[7]Skiba, R.J. (2000), Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice.

[8]Unofficial data from CDE (2011).

[9] EdSource (2012), Understanding School Discipline in California: Perceptions and Practice, available at http://www.edsource.org/pub12-school-discipline.html

[10]American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health. (2003), Policy Statement: Out-of-school suspension and expulsion, 112 (5), 1206-1209.

[11]Losen, D.J. (2011), Discipline Policies, Successful Schools and Racial Justice.

[12]Office of Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection (2012).

[13]Losen, D.J., Martinez, T., & Gillespie, J. (2012), Suspended Education in California, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project.

[14]McCarthy, J.D. &Hoge, D.R. (1987), The social construction of school punishment: racial disadvantage out of universalistic process, Social Forces, 65, 1101-1120.

[15]Skiba, R.J., Michael, R.S., Nardo, A.C., & Peterson, R.L. (2002), The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment, The Urban Review, 34. 317-342.

[16]Losen, D.J., Martinez, T., & Gillespie, J. (2012), Suspended Education in California, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project.

[17]American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health. (2003), Policy Statement: Out-of-school suspension and expulsion, 112 (5), 1206-1209.

[18]Castrechini, M. (2009), Educational Outcomes for Court-Dependent Youth in San Mateo County, John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

[19] Tucker, J. (2012), Studying Trauma in Middle Schools.

[20]Office of Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection (2012).

[21]Id.

[22]Christle, C.A., Nelson, M. &Jolivette, K. (2003), School characteristics related to the use of suspension.

[23]Wu, S.C., Pink, W.T., Crain, R.L., & Moles, O. (1982), Student suspension: A critical reappraisal, The Urban Review, 14, 245-303.

[24]Leone, P.E., Christle, C.A., Nelson, M., Skiba, R., Frey, A., &Jolivette, K. (2003), School failure, race and disability: Promoting positive outcomes, decreasing vulnerability for involvement with the juvenile delinquency system, The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice; Wald, J. &Losen, D. (2003), Deconstructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: New Directions for Youth Development.

[25]Fabelo, T., Thompson, M., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (2011), Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, Council of State Governments Justice Center.

[26]Id.; Skiba, R., Simmons, A., Staudinger, L., Rausch, M., Dow, G., &Feggins, R. (2003), Consistent removal: Contributions of school discipline to the school-prison pipeline, presented at the School to Prison Pipeline Conference, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[27]Balfanz, R. &Boccanfuso, C. (2007), Falling off the Path to GraduationEarly Indicators Brief, Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

[28]Skiba, R.J. & Rausch, M.K. (2006), Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion: Questions of equity and effectiveness.

[29]American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2006), Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools: An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations.

[30]American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health. (2003), Policy Statement: Out-of-school suspension and expulsion, 112 (5), 1206-1209.

[31]Dinkes, R., Cataldi, E.F., Kena, G., Baum, K., & Snyder, T.D. (2006), Indicators of School Crime and Safety.

[32]Catterall, J.S. (1985),On the social cost of dropping out, Center for Education Research; Bridgeland, J.M., DiIulio, J.J., & Morison, K.B. (2006),The silent epidemic: Perspectives of highschool dropouts, Civic Enterprises.

[33]Lochner, L. &Moretti, E. (2004), The effect of education on crime: Evidence from prison inmates, arrests, and self-reports, The American Economic Review94(1), 155-189.