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Suspending Kids Doesn’t Work. Why Are Schools Still Doing It?

For students who misuse substances, suspensions can do more harm than good.

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The Teen Intervene program helps interrupt the cycle of unhealthy and risky substance use and guides students to change their behaviors, so they can succeed. Get a free program sample .

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When Leigh M. Ragsdale-Knoderer took over as principal of Jefferson Elementary, a public school in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, she was committed to helping reduce disciplinary actions. With a background as a teacher at an alternative school, Ragsdale-Knoderer felt that discipline, such as suspension, wasn’t always the right response to negative student behavior like substance misuse or abuse. 

“It goes deeper than coming to school under the influence,” she said, noting that there were substance misuse concerns even at the elementary and middle school levels. “Suspension isn’t going to fix that. Treatment is needed.”

During her first year as principal, Ragsdale-Knoderer reduced disciplinary actions by 86.5%. She also helped the superintendent implement a system-wide program called Pathways. Among other positive attributes, the program provides students with access to mental health care and counseling. The program is young; however, she hopes it continues to evolve. She believes it has the potential to help many more students receive the help they need, rather than punishing them.

“It’s that restorative piece,” Ragsdale-Knoderer said. “Kids make mistakes, but how do we restore them and get them back with their peers?”

The Trouble With Suspensions

For decades, suspensions have been the go-to consequence for students who act out, especially those who use or abuse substances at school. But increasingly, research is showing that suspensions might do more harm than good.

A 2018 study published in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal found that suspensions have negative impacts on students’ math and reading achievement. Suspensions also negatively affect their peer achievement. Once a child was suspended, they were more likely to be suspended again during the year.

“Suspending students for non-violent classroom misconduct does not benefit either the suspended students or their peers,” Matthew Steinberg, study author and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told Future-Ed.

Ken Winters, a researcher in adolescent health at the Oregon Research Institute, agrees.

“The data suggest that just a punishment model might be more of value to the adults than the teenager who is the target of the problematic behavior,” Winters said.

The Case for Suspension Alternatives

With data mounting that suspensions do little good for students and may instead cause harm, more schools are reevaluating policies. They’re shifting to suspension alternatives. This has become especially important as schools take steps to end the school-to-prison pipeline and other racial inequities.

Rather than relying on suspensions—especially for kids who have underlying trauma or mental health concerns—a new approach, based in restorative justice, encourages educators to respond to the underlying issues.

However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, especially in severe cases like when a student is trafficking in school.

“It’s not necessarily eliminating a sanction or punishment option for some teens,” said Winters. “It’s about also doing what a school can to implement some kind of counseling or intervention approach.”

Winters is the author of Teen Intervene, A Brief Intervention for Adolescent Substance Abuse , a guide for schools and educators to respond to teens who are using or abusing substances, rather than just suspending them. Programs like that, as well as educational approaches based in restorative justice and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports can have a larger impact on students’ long-term health and success than suspensions, he says.

Crafting a More Just Response

For schools that are spread thin, intervening with therapeutic responses to substance misuse can seem overwhelming. But Winters says that a better approach to confronting substance use or abuse can start with just 15 minutes.

“What’s realistic for schools will vary,” he said. “Most schools can do the minimum.”

Here’s what Winters suggests at three resource levels:

  • Low resource: Schools with few resources can start by teaching basic motivational interviewing skills to existing health staff or teachers who are good at connecting with teenagers. Start with a 15-minute conversation to try to discover what is contributing to the student’s substance use.
  • Medium resource: In this approach, schools train staff-members to conduct a one-hour intervention with students. Using motivational interviewing, staff discuss responses and solutions that could work for the individual student.
  • High resource: This approach involves multiple intervention sessions with students and parents to get to the bottom of the issue. “It’s going to require someone with a lot of training,” Winters said.

Ragsdale-Knoderer says that implementing a system of suspension alternatives requires rethinking the allocation of time and resources. “People would say ‘we don’t have time for that,’” she said, “But I’d say, ‘You’re looking at time differently.’”

Winters adds that it’s important to recognize that schools will never be able to fully address substance misuse or contributing factors like poverty and trauma. However, every little bit helps. “Don’t get too frustrated that you’re not going to handle everything,” he said. “You’re still improving a young person’s health.”

Find suspension alternatives to help your students overcome substance misuse.

Whether it’s drinking alcohol, using drugs, or vaping, substance misuse often affects students’ school performance. Additionally, it can impact their physical and mental health and future jobs. It can also lead to future substance abuse. If your school uses suspensions to deal with substance misuse, it may be time to try an alternative approach.

Get a free Teen Intervene program sample . This research-validated program helps interrupt the cycle of unhealthy and risky substance use and guides students to change their behaviors, so they can succeed in school and in life.


Suspending Kids Doesn't Work. Why Are Schools Still Doing It?

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School Suspensions: How Effective Are They?

why in school suspension doesn't work

by Suzanne Capek Tingley, Veteran Educator, M.A. Degree

Teacher Talking to a Sad Student

School suspensions may be an unnecessary detour in a student's career.

School suspensions for disruptive students are fairly common. In fact, suspension has been one of the most frequently used  disciplinary tools  since the 1960s. The latest data from the  National Center for Education Statistics  show millions of K-12 students have been suspended yearly and thousands expelled.

Despite the widespread use of suspensions, however, a growing body of research shows that not only is removing students from classes not effective, but down the road, it can cause bigger problems for students, schools and the community.

Further Reading:  8 Classroom Management Mistakes Teachers Make at the Beginning of the Year

So why are kids suspended, and what other options, if any, do schools have to change a student's behavior?

Who Gets Suspended?

Reasons for suspensions vary greatly by school district. Fighting, drug possession, and disrespecting or challenging teachers can lead to a suspension in many schools. In other schools, failure to comply with  school rules  regarding clothing or hairstyle can have a similar result, according to the National Education Association (NEA).

In addition,  Education Week  notes that in 2016, Black students in New York City schools were 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Latino students were 1.7 times more likely. Black students tended to be suspended for longer than other students for the same infraction.

It's not just secondary students who receive suspensions. According to TV station  KSLA , the Louisiana Department of Education recently announced that 1,260 students in preschool, pre-K, and kindergarten were suspended during the 2018–2019 school year.

What About Special Education Students?

Students enrolled in special education programs can be suspended, but the  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  requires schools to follow specific steps when it comes to discipline. One important requirement is to hold a  manifestation hearing  to determine whether the child's misbehavior is a direct result of their disability. If so, the child may not be suspended but may be assigned another placement if parents and teachers agree to change the student's Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Despite these requirements, according to the  NEA , high school students with disabilities are at the highest risk for suspension nationwide. This statistic should be a major cause for concern for districts and lawmakers, notes the NEA.

What Are the Results of Suspension?

Research by sociologist Thomas Mowen suggests suspensions weaken a student's connection to school and strengthen the likelihood of their committing theft, assault, or other crimes in the future. On the  school-to-prison pipeline , school suspensions may be a key shut-off valve, according to Mowen. He argues students who are suspended are at an increased risk of experiencing an arrest across time relative to students who are not suspended; furthermore, with each subsequent year that the student is suspended, there is a significant increase in the odds of arrest.

why in school suspension doesn't work

In another study, education professor Andrew Bacher-Hicks looked at the student results of schools with  strict discipline programs  that include suspension. He found negative effects for all students. "Schools that suspend more students see a host of negative outcomes later in life," Bacher-Hicks says. Negative outcomes include lower educational achievement, lower graduation rates, lower college enrollment rates, and higher involvement in the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. "The harmful effects of suspensions were greatest for Black males," Bacher-Hicks adds.

Do In-School Suspensions Work?

Given the current research, many schools have adopted in-school rather than out-of-school suspensions. Whether this change is effective depends on what in-school suspension looks like, though.

In some schools, the suspension room is simply a place where kids go to sit or work on assignments. The proctor may be a teacher or a teacher's aide. But it's counterproductive for kids to "sit in a room with someone who's just there to babysit and they're not getting any  support ," says Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. "That could just trigger further problems. The goal should be to get to the root of the problem and get kids back in class as soon as possible."

Some schools have had success with in-school suspension programs, notes  EdSource , adding that successful programs tend to include counseling, academic help, and the opportunity for students to consider steps toward better behavior.

Does Restorative Justice Work?

Some  schools  have adopted restorative justice, a program that focuses on building healthy relationships and repairing damaged ones. It also helps students develop social and emotional skills. According to the NEA, common approaches to  restorative justice  include:

  • Restorative circles , a group activity that helps students process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Guided questions  that help to bring out the emotions and reasons that went into the student's behavior.
  • Peer-led mediation  led by trained students.

One strong supporter of restorative justice is New Jersey middle school math teacher Brenda Brathwaite, who believes it helps get to the root cause of student behavior. In addition, Brathwaite argues, kids grow socially and emotionally and learn how to navigate situations without resorting to violence.

How Do We Improve Student Outcomes?

According to  Education Week , over 20 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws limiting the use of  out-of-school suspensions , particularly as they relate to students of color. To identify root causes of disruptive behavior, schools are also examining whether academic opportunities like Advanced Placement courses are available to all students, including students of color. And another recent study shows when Black and Latino students have the opportunity to work with Black and Latino teachers,  disruptive incidents  diminish.

Further Reading:  How to Handle Plagiarism and Cheating in the Classroom

It's easy to understand why so many teachers and administrators support removing seriously disruptive students from the classroom. But what happens to them after they're removed can determine whether a student successfully returns to the classroom or disconnects from school completely and chooses another path, sometimes with grave consequences.


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Suzanne Capek Tingley

Suzanne Capek Tingley started as a high school English/Spanish teacher, transitioned to middle school, and eventually became a principal, superintendent, and adjunct professor in education administration at the State University of New York. She is the author of the funny, but practical book for teachers, How to Handle Difficult Parents (Prufrock Press). Her work has appeared in many publications including Education Week, and her blog, Practical Leadership, was featured on the Scholastic website. She has been a presenter and consultant, and with Magna Publications she developed videos on demand highlighting successful strategies for classroom teachers. Among her honors is a Woman of Distinction Award from the New York State Senate. She is a strong believer that all kids can learn and that teaching requires art, skill, and a good sense of humor.

Suspensions in schools are on the rise. But is that the best solution for misbehaving kids?

Hearing the phone ring during school hours used to send Destiny Huff into panic mode. 

She worried it would be her son’s school calling to say he was suspended again – a constant reality for Huff and her husband when her son began kindergarten at a Louisiana school in 2021. 

Huff said her 5-year-old son “would come back from suspension – the school day started at 7:45 – and by 9 o’clock, they'd already called me and he’d been suspended again.”

As schools struggle with behavioral issues and teacher shortages in the wake of COVID-19, pre-pandemic efforts to curb zero-tolerance school discipline measures that remove students from their classrooms have largely stalled, with more students being sent home for yelling in class, fighting on campus or talking back to the teacher. But many experts said time in the classroom is vital for students still reeling from the impacts of remote learning and such measures could make it even harder for families, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to help their child learn. 

“Discipline is becoming a real issue again and some things that we were hoping were getting better are starting to look like they might be getting worse,” said Jason Okonofua, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied discipline in K-12 schools. 

Experts have also expressed concern over what they call “soft suspensions,” which can include practices such as forcing children to spend time in seclusion rooms, constantly sending a child home from school early and requiring students to do virtual learning as a disciplinary measure. 

These practices are generally not recorded as suspensions, but are all detrimental to a child's learning, said Cheryl Poe, founder of Advocating 4 Kids, a nonprofit that advocates for neurodiverse students in public schools.

“The child is still removed out of the educational setting,” she said. “Those should count as missing seat instruction hours.”

Suspensions are growing in some states

Although the U.S. suspension rate has lowered from its peak of 7% in 2010, it plateaued at around 5% for the years leading up to 2018 – the most recent national data available from the Civil Rights Data Collection , a required survey by the U.S. Department of Education administered to public schools nationwide every other school year. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools nationwide in March 2020 and largely closed schools the following academic year, making more recent data collection difficult. Since then, agencies, school districts and states have been trying to catch up. 

More: Distracted students and stressed teachers: What an American school day looks like post-COVID

More recent analysis of state-level data does show some troubling trends. 

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, which researches social science issues relating to equity, analyzed California data from the 2019-20 school year. It projected what suspension rates would have been if the school year wasn’t cut short by COVID-19 and found that rates continued to stagnate. 

In many school districts – including Elk Grove Unified in Sacramento County and Oakland Unified School District in the Bay Area – there seemed to be an uptick in suspensions prior to the school closures, leading researchers to determine that if the school year had continued, suspension rates might have gone up in the state.

“Despite the strides that California has made in this area, there are many districts where there is no progress – that things have gotten worse,” said Dan Losen, a former director of the center who co-wrote the analysis.

In New York City Public Schools, more suspensions were issued during the first half of the 2022 to 2023 school year, a 27% increase from the same period in 2021 . An analysis of data from schools in Washington, D.C., also found that in-school suspensions increased by 16% during the 2021 to 2022 school year. 

Three years after schools shut down because of COVID-19, educators have been under pressure to get kids up to speed on the academic and social skills lost during the pandemic. Many students are still struggling with the mental and physical trauma that COVID-19 took on them, a time when they lost family members , witnessed or experienced abuse and spent countless hours on their screens in isolation. 

Many educators have leaned on school discipline to handle student misbehavior by suspending or expelling kids and sending them out of the classroom. In late May, the Biden administration issued a letter urging public schools to follow civil rights guidance and avoid discriminatory school discipline measures. 

More: American classrooms need more educators. Can virtual teachers step in to bridge the gap?

Why are children suspended from schools?

Huff’s son, who was suspended three times within two weeks, had never had drastic behavioral issues, she said. However, that changed in August 2021, when he began attending an elementary school in the Vernon Parish School District in Louisiana. 

“He started to really have some behaviors that we had never seen before,” Huff said, including throwing things and yelling when he would get upset, but not hurting others. 

Ellen Reddy, an advocate who fights against suspensions in Mississippi, said children are often suspended for subjective reasons that haven’t changed since she first got involved in this advocacy over two decades ago. Reddy said the children she works with get suspended for various reasons that can range from fights at school to getting on the wrong school bus home. 

“They’re still suspending kids for the very same thing – disobedience, talking back, getting out of their seat, going to the bathroom without permission,” Reddy said. “We should be asking more questions versus just right away suspending kids.”

States consider harsher discipline policies 

Several states, including Arizona and Nevada , have attempted to bring back harsher disciplinary policies , while others are utilizing practices like seclusion rooms and forcing misbehaving students into remote learning. 

Houston Independent School District, the largest district in Texas, drew criticism in late July when it announced they would be eliminating 28 school libraries and repurposing them into “team centers” where educators can host kids for discipline.

In a statement to USA TODAY, the district said these centers are a vital “hub of differentiated or personalized instruction.” Officials stressed a one-size-fits-all approach is not enough to “eliminate the persistent achievement gaps that have adversely impacted" disadvantaged students.

“When necessary, the Team Center will provide students who are struggling or disrupting the traditional classroom environment ... the opportunity to get necessary care and engagement while they access their classroom instruction remotely to ensure they do not lose even a few minutes of learning time,” the school district wrote.

Katherine Wiley, an assistant professor of education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said removing a student from their classroom in any way is still harmful because “we take them away from their peers, from instruction and we essentially stigmatize them by putting them into a different part of the school building.” 

A recent police and Department of Education investigation into McAuliffe International School, a middle school in Denver, found the school placed multiple students of color into seclusion rooms – reportedly referred to by the staff as “incarceration rooms” – without proper supervision last school year. An administrator would either lock the door or hold the door closed while the student was inside. 

The room at McAuliffe has “a bolt on the outside of the door and padlocks on the window,” said Pamela Bisceglia, executive director of AdvocacyDenver, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. 

Who gets removed from school the most?

Students with disabilities received nearly a quarter out-of-school suspensions during the 2017-18 school year, almost double the demographic’s overall share of student enrollment of 13%, according to the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. 

Black students were also disproportionately suspended, only making up 15% of student enrollment, but receiving 38% of out-of-school suspensions that same school year.

These disparities are worse for Black students with disabilities, who only account for 2% of the total student population but make up nearly 9% of out-of-school suspensions.

Okonofua, the UC Berkeley professor, co-wrote a study in April and found that school discipline rates fluctuate greatly throughout the school year and spike during the beginning of the year and after major school breaks. The data analysis also found Black students experience the steepest escalation of discipline compared to any other demographic.

Keith Howard, a civil rights and education law attorney based in Washington, D.C., said race is often intersected with poverty and disability status, making Black children with disabilities from low-income families the most susceptible to school discipline. 

“I've been doing this for a long time and so I've seen a lot of good kids getting pushed out of schools for really small reasons and they don't really have any recourse,” Howard said. 

Research shows that children’s behavior does not vary based on their race or ethnicity. Rather, “adults' responses to their behaviors are different and they are discriminatory,” which causes disproportionate discipline rates, said Paige Joki, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania. 

Normal adolescent behavior, like their tendency to take risks and experiment, is often criminalized for students of color, said Kristin Henning, law professor and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

“Everything you know – all the stereotypes tell you that Black children are angry and violent and threatening. So you're looking at these behaviors through that racially biased lens,” Henning said.

‘Not a safe space for him’

Huff and her family still carry the trauma from their experience, even after moving to a new school in Georgia last academic year, where Huff said her son “is doing great and is comfortable.” 

“The school psychologist said something really important for us to hear – that he doesn’t understand that school can be a safe space,” Huff said. 

Negative encounters with school authority at a young age can cause detrimental impacts to a child’s perception of law enforcement – views that are largely shaped for people during their adolescent years, Henning said. 

After her son’s third suspension, Huff, a licensed mental health specialist, and her husband – fearing their son could be permanently removed from the school- contacted the district’s superintendent.

“It was a trickle effect from there. They basically went into hyperdrive of saying ‘we’re sorry you experienced this,’” Huff said. Her son was eventually evaluated and diagnosed with autism and she said their “whole perspective, our whole world, shifted.” 

Suspensions largely impact a student’s academic achievement and increase the likelihood they’ll interact with the justice system, said Abigail Novak, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Mississippi. 

Novak’s 2019 study found that children who are suspended by age 12 are more likely to report justice system involvement at age 18. 

“I don't see the utility or the effectiveness of pushing a child out of education that is already at risk. It doesn't make sense,” Howard said. “You're just getting rid of the problem and that problem becomes a community problem.”

4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term

why in school suspension doesn't work

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High school students who get suspended out of school are significantly less likely to earn academic credits in the following year—and their peers get no academic benefit from their absence.

Those findings come from a new American Institutes of Research study that looked at more than a decade of discipline and academic data from New York City public schools , the largest district in the country, with more than a million students.

“You can’t replicate the classroom experience for someone who’s going to return to the classroom by removing him or her to some other place,” said David Osher, an AIR researcher and co-author of the study, “because the nature of good approaches to learning in schools these days is such that students are interacting with each other. That’s one of the reasons why we find out that kids who are suspended, when they return to school continue to do badly, because they’ve missed the dynamic of what’s going on in the classroom.”

These results build on a growing base of evidence that the use of so-called exclusionary discipline—removing students from classes for misbehavior via suspensions and expulsions—can backfire for educators hoping to improve student learning and get at-risk kids back on track.

Researchers led by Christina LiCalsi, a principal researcher at AIR, and Osher analyzed data for middle and high school students in the Big Apple from 2009 to 2018, including discipline actions, academic performance, school climate and safety, and ultimate graduation rates. They compared the outcomes of similar students who had in- and out-of-school suspensions. They also looked at outcomes for students with suspensions of varying lengths, from one to three days in school and one to 20 days out of school.

Their results, and those of other recent studies, highlight common myths and misunderstandings about how exclusionary discipline affects students.

Myth: Suspensions improve student behavior

Middle school students in the AIR study became more likely to misbehave in the future when they were suspended out of school rather than in school, and when they were suspended for longer periods of time.

“In out-of-school suspension, you are removing kids from the socialization of the school and ... you’re placing them potentially in a different environment at home alone or even out on the street with their friends,” Osher said.

Myth: Suspensions help get at-risk students ‘back on track’

Both AIR and a separate recent study by the Civil Rights Project find time out of class for suspensions caused damage to students’ academic progress similar to any other absences from class. For students with multiple and long suspensions, Osher noted, “they could end up having chronic absenteeism, just from the suspensions, even if they don’t miss any other days of school.”

AIR researchers found high school students who were suspended out of school were 3 percentage points less likely to earn academic credit in math and English/language arts the following year, compared to similar students who were disciplined in school. The longer the suspension, the worse its effect on students’ long-term academic prospects. Students who were suspended 21 days or more over the length of the study were 20 percent less likely to graduate high school in four years.

Myth: Excluding a troublemaker from class improves learning for the rest of the students

“That’s the argument that you hear, right: that it might be bad for the student in question [to be suspended], but what about all of the other students in the class? That’s removing the bad apple from the bunch ... But that’s not what we found,” LiCalsi said.

The study found that the number and severity of students’ suspensions had no effects on the behavior or academic performance of their peers in high school. In middle school, more and longer student suspensions were actually associated with more absenteeism and lower math and reading standardized test scores for their peers.

“When students feel that discipline is inconsistent or unfair, it gives them a more negative view of the schooling environment overall,” LiCalsi said. “That’s the case, I think, for middle schoolers, especially. In high school, you’re more likely to see students disengage or drop out ... but in middle school, they don’t have the option to drop out so it plays out differently. It’s having a negative effect on their feelings of connection and belonging, fairness and justice within their school that might be having some negative impacts on their behavior.”

Myth: The severity of a student’s behavior drives suspensions

In 2017-18, the most recent year of federal data , more than 2.6 million students nationwide received at least one suspension in school, and another 2.5 million served at least one suspension out of school. Suspensions continue to disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities or trauma, even when they engage in the same misbehaviors as their peers.

AIR’s study, like others , finds that exclusionary discipline hurt academic and behavior outcomes for students of all races, including those with and without disabilities. But students of color, particularly Black students, were significantly more likely to have more and longer suspensions than white students.

Moreover, a history of trauma can significantly increase a student’s likelihood of being suspended. A separate decade-long discipline study found that students who’d had multiple adverse childhood experiences—severe traumas including neglect and abuse or a parent’s death, incarceration, mental illness, or substance abuse—were nearly four times as likely to be suspended or expelled as students of similar backgrounds who did not have a history of trauma.

Administrators going into the third school year of the pandemic may face significantly more behavior problems related to children coping with trauma, but exclusionary discipline may also create difficult legal and academic issues. One recent analysis of discipline in Louisiana school districts found that several schools’ decisions to suspend students from virtual school based on behavior during videoconferences or items seen in the students’ homes during class have sparked lawsuits.

New Orleans civil rights attorney Victor Jones argued that as hybrid and remote learning continue to be used this year, school district leaders need to develop separate discipline policies for virtual classrooms, both to protect students’ privacy and to limit the amount of class time they miss during a period where instructional time is already limited.

A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students In The Long Term

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