The rate of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions has doubled since the early 1970s, even as rates for juvenile crime and violence in schools have both sharply declined.
In 2013, Washington state improved the laws that govern suspensions and expulsions. In recent weeks, The Seattle Times has highlighted how some school systems are rethinking discipline policies. These are hopeful signs, but some pervasive and persistent myths prevent our education system from truly facing up to the overuse of what should be a tool of last resort.
Myth 1: It’s rare that a child is suspended or expelled.
Last year, Washington schools levied more than 68,000 suspensions and expulsions, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Rates peaked at the end of middle school, with nearly one out of every 10 eighth graders suspended or expelled. One out of every 65 all-day kindergarteners was also excluded from school for behavior.
Myth 2: Most students are suspended or expelled because they’re dangerous.
Aside from fights — which made up 15 percent of suspensions and expulsions — only 7 percent of all reported suspensions and expulsions in Washington in 2013 and 2014 were for violence, according to OSPI data. More than half of all suspensions and expulsions fall in the discretionary “other behavior” category, which does not include alcohol, bullying, drugs, fighting or violence.
Myth 3: Suspending and expelling students keep schools safer and improve learning.
High suspension and expulsion rates can actually make schools less safe. Students — including the ones causing no trouble — experience overly punitive discipline practices as unfair and alienating. Several studies have documented how students in these schools are less likely to trust adults and thus less likely to share critical information with them that could help prevent incidents of acting out or violence. Findings from a study at Indiana University take this further and suggest that high levels of exclusionary discipline can negatively affect the academic achievement of non-suspended students.
Myth 4: Suspensions and expulsions teach kids a lesson.
Rather than preventing misbehavior, suspension and expulsion can reinforce it. A 2011 Texas study found suspensions and expulsions increased a child’s likelihood of being disciplined again, being held back a grade, dropping out or getting involved in the juvenile justice system — even when you hold many other factors constant.
Myth 5: Whether a child is suspended or expelled depends entirely on his or her behavior.
The Texas study describes school discipline as “multiply determined” by many factors. For example, a black student is three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than his or her white peer — even when the two are identical in every measurable way (including type of offense, discipline history and poverty level). Being a boy, in special education, or identifying as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or queer all increase a student’s odds of being suspended or expelled. Moreover, out-of-school discipline rates vary widely from school to school and teacher to teacher, even when demographics match. In 2013 and 2014, the range among districts in Washington state was zero to 19 percent of children suspended or expelled.
Myth 6: We don’t know how to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
There are several school-wide interventions that address the root causes of the behavior and successfully reduce the needs for high numbers of suspensions and expulsions. These interventions will not eliminate the use of suspensions or expulsions, as there will always be some children who cannot maintain their behavior in school. But fewer teachers and students will be put in this situation if we can curb the misbehavior before it happens.
Suspensions and expulsions should be what we do when all else fails. We must fund and support discipline strategies that we know are effective and keep kids in school. If we fail to act, the impact on our children would be irreversible, and the impact on the city and state, as well as the economy, could set us back generations.
Sarah Yatsko spent 10 years working in the juvenile criminal justice system before joining the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education as an education policy researcher.