Why School Suspensions Backfire

March 15th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

When I was in high school, I was almost suspended twice. Bad to the bone trouble maker that I was, the first time was for being late to "zero period" (the optional early morning class for honors students) more than five times in one semester (I literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks and would get stuck behind long trains on my way to school). And the second time was for a stash of "drugs" that fell out of my backpack in front of a teacher. I carry pain pills on me at all times because I've always gotten debilitating migraines. So when a bottle fell out of my bag a teacher took pity on me and didn't report me... doing me a big favor because I went to a zero-tolerance school where I would have been expelled for a bottle of aspirin. In both cases, an exception was made to the zero-tolerance policy because of my good grades but... isn't it a little stupid to suspend kids for being late to school? The punishment for missing the first five minutes of class is to miss five days? And what genius decided to treat aspirin, weed, and cocaine with the same, one size fits all, zero tolerance drug policy? And why do kids with good grades get exceptions to a policy that is not supposed to have any exceptions? Aren't the kids with bad grades the ones who need to be in school the most?

The "Keep Kids in School Act" and why we need it

Zero-tolerance school policies have been on the rise since the 1990s, as have the number of students being suspended from school. This week, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa) introduced a bill (the Keep Kids in School Act) that would help schools reduce the number of suspensions, by encouraging them to collect more detailed and standardized statistics on discipline, and providing them with resources to provide discipline in forms other than removing students from school. 

Almost 3.5 million students were suspended in 2012 (the most recent year that information is available) nationwide. Students lost 18 million days of instruction to removal disciplines in that school year. Studies have shown that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school, and to go to prison. Not only are schools over-using suspensions as punishment, they are also disproportionately punishing students of color, disabled students, and LGBTQ students with suspensions.

"When students of color and students with disabilities commit the same offense as others, they are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, subject to physical punishment, and referred to the police," Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of  The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella group of American civil rights organizations said in a statement Thursday [according to the Huffington Post].

These disparities start a vicious cycle for these students, who fall further behind in class time, suffer from lower self-esteem, and either drop out or land in the criminal justice system," he continued. "Passage of the Keep Kids in School Act would be an important step forward in on the path to narrowing this deep-seated disparity and toward creating a more equitable education system."

There is evidence that suggests that these students are not punished more harshly because they break rules more often or more egregiously, but rather because of bias (conscious or unconscious) against them and a lack of educator training in dealing with students with different abilities and backgrounds. Harvard researchers have found that white people often judge black children as older than they are and less innocent than white children of the same age, which may lead to disparities in punishments. In Virginia, researchers have found that suspension rates become more equitable in schools that use "threat assessment guidelines" to determine punishments. Which suggests that the original disparity was based, in part, on bias more than differences in behavior. The guidelines allow educators to consider context, and compare behavior against more objective guidelines rather than having a zero-tolerance policy that over-punishes all students equally, or making subjective decisions about each individual student that have the potential to be shaded by bias against marginalized students. Senator Casey's proposal that schools collect statistics on their suspension practices, could be the first step towards this type of guideline being created in more schools. 

Suspensions should be reserved for extreme cases

Schools are doing a disservice to all students by denying them instruction days and introducing them to a criminal justice cycle that is very difficult to get out of. Even if suspensions were not being unfairly given to some students more than others, they are still being given too often. Students who are kept out fall behind in school, which may lead them to have more behavioral problems. Their parents either have to miss work (and wages) or leave them unsupervised- which could lead to them getting into more trouble. Either way, they are not learning. It can be argued that students with behavioral problems are the ones who need to be at school, learning, the most. In extreme cases, for students who are violent or bring illegal drugs or weapons to school, suspensions can prevent the problem it is meant to- keeping other students safe. But when suspension is overused to deal with students who are simply talkative, disruptive, dressed improperly, tardy or absent, nonconforming, or have behavioral issues, the student's issue is only made worse by the punishment. Some educators have said that suspensions are overused because budget cuts have left schools without other resources (counselors, school psychologists, social workers) for dealing with behavioral problems. The Keep Kids in School Act proposes to provide schools with those resources. So far, Senator Casey has not found any co-sponsors for his bill.