Are Schools a Pipeline to Prison? Will Reducing Suspensions Improve Student Outcomes? Or, Have an Adverse Impact on Student Discipline/Student Achievement? What is the Purpose of Student Suspensions?

Elementary school teachers and parents commonly have a “time out” corner, if a child misbehaves, commits a misdeed, the teacher or parent will send the student to a table or chair in a corner of the room to “cool off,” sort of a mini-suspension; after  few minutes, a little counseling, the student rejoins classroom activities.

Even these typical teaching or parenting behavior is controversial.

“Time outs” are criticized; there are “positive” and “negative” time outs.

Most adults do not realize that children are constantly making decisions about themselves, about their world, and based on those decisions, about what to do to survive or to thrive.

Negative time out is based on the silly thought that in order to get children to do better, first we have to make them feel worse. Positive time out is based on the understanding that children “do” better when they “feel” better …

It is fun to ask, “How would you respond if you spouse said to you, ‘Go to your room and think about what you just did!'”? Most people laugh and say something such as, “I don’t think so.” Why do we think negative time out would be effective for children when it wouldn’t be effective for us?

Negative time out is certainly not effective if it perpetuates a child’s discouraging beliefs about herself and her environment. Nor is it effective if those beliefs increase her need for revenge or rebellion in whatever form it takes.

 Tina Payne, a psychotherapist and author agrees and suggests,

Instead of timeouts for a young child, what’s much more effective is to do three things. The first thing is, to address the feelings behind the behavior. Maybe the child is hitting because they are frustrated or angry. So address the feelings. “You are so mad, aren’t you?” Validate the experience, the feelings. The second thing is to address the behavior. “Hitting hurts. That’s not okay. I want you to be gentle and use your words.” Say what you do want them to do. The third thing is, move on to something else

  Suspensions are a type of “negative time out,” the suspensionincreases his/her need for revenge or rebellion in whatever form it takes.  In New York City the suspension, the “time out,” is either for a few days in the home school away from the classroom or a lengthier time in a suspension center. Ideally the student would receive intensive counseling and small group instruction. The Department of Education discipline practices are guided by Citywide Behavioral Expectations to Support Student Learning   (April, 2017), an extremely detailed discipline code. Unfortunately we have no idea whether any counseling occurs, whether the suspension is a positive or a negative timeout.

Fifty states and 14,000 schools districts, an endless array of regulations governing student discipline and suspension rules. Some districts employ zero tolerance rules, a suspension, commonly an out-of-school suspension for minor infractions, cutting classes, truancy, using profanity, etc. Zero tolerance is both ineffective and counterproductive, and, clearly targets students of color. For example, suspending a student for skipping school is idiocy.

Civil rights organizations, advocacy groups and researchers view the same data; black males are suspended far more frequently than others. The more frequently a student is suspended the less likely the student will graduate from high school and the more likely the student end up in the criminal justice system: the school to prison pipeline. The suspension is the result of an anti-social action, under the New York City Behavioral Expectations a suspension of more than five days, a superintendent’s suspension, is the reaction to a serious occurrence: “Aggressive or Injurious Behavior” and, the code lists specific infractions warranting suspensions,

*Taking or attempting to take property belonging to others

* Creating a substantial risk of serious injury by either recklessly engaging in behavior and/or using an object that appears capable of causing physical injury

* Inciting or causing a riot

* Possessing or selling any weapon (defined in specificity elsewhere in the code)

* Using a controlled substance without authorization or an illegal drug

And a long list of other infractions coupled with a wide range of interventions.

Is the suspension the “pipeline to prison,” or, is the anti-social act and the failure of the suspension to dissuade the student from re-committing the anti-social act the reason for the pipeline?

Schools are part of communities and the “rules of the streets” are commonly at odds with the rules of school; kids have to learn to “balance” the rules, the cultures of the streets and the school.

The Obama/Duncan administration, echoing the “school as a pipeline to prison” attempted to curtail suspensions and began with a “Dear Colleague” letter in January, 2014,

The Departments initiate investigations of student discipline policies and practices at particular schools based on complaints the Departments receive from students, parents, community members, and others about possible racial discrimination in student discipline. The Departments also may initiate investigations based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information, or as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities.

Although the “reserve clause” of the Tenth Amendment places education in the realm of states, (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”) the Obama administration continued increasing the power of the federal government, a classic struggle that is at the heart of our democracy.

Obama, through the use of the “Dear Colleague” letter, followed by reams of backup reports and documents used “disparate impact theory,”

 The plaintiff must prove, generally through statistical comparisons, that the challenged practice… has a substantial adverse impact on a protected group,

The burden is on the school district to show they’re are not discriminating, an extremely high burden.

Check out the US Department of Education site here and read a sample of the items on the site below.

Supporting and Responding to Behavior: Evidence Base Classroom Strategies for

Teachers (2015)

Suspension impacts everyone

  • In 2011-2012, 3.45 million students were suspended out-of-school.
    (Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011-2012)
  • Of the school districts with children participating in preschool programs, 6% reported suspending out of school at least one preschool child.
    (Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011-2012)
  • Students with disabilities and students of color are generally suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers.
    (Civil Rights Data Collection,2011-2012)

Suspensions don’t work—for schools, teachers, or students

  • Evidence does not show that discipline practices that remove students from instruction—such as suspensions and expulsions—help to improve either student behavior or school climate.
    (Skiba, Shure, Middelberg & Baker, 2011)

Suspensions have negative consequences

  • Suspensions are associated with negative student outcomes such as lower academic performance, higher rates of dropout, failures to graduate on time, decreased academic engagement, and future disciplinary exclusion.
    (Achilles, McLaughlin, Croninger,2007; Arcia, 2006; Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2005; Costenbader & Markson, 1998; Lee, Cornell, Gregory, & Fan, 2011; Raffaele-Mendez, 2003; Rodney et al., 1999; Skiba & Peterson, 1999)

There are effective alternatives to suspension

  • Evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral frameworks, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), can help improve overall school climate and safety.
    (Bradshaw, C., Koth, C.W., Thornton, A., & Leaf, P.J., 2009)
  • Interventions, school-wide and individual, that use proactive, preventative approaches, address the underlying cause or purpose of the behavior, and reinforce positive behaviors, have been associated with increases in academic engagement, academic achievement, and reductions in suspensions and school dropouts.
    (American Psychological Association, 2008; Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2005; Crone & Hawken, 2010; Liaupsin, Umbreit, Ferro, Urso, & Upreti, 2006; Luiselli, Putnam, Handler, & Feinberg, 2005; Putnam, Horner, & Algozzine, 2006; Skiba & Sprague, 2008; Theriot, Craun, & Dupper, 2010)


Faced with the threat of federal intervention school districts across the nation, especially in large urban districts, reduced suspensions; in New York City suspensions were reduced by 53%, the new chancellor reduced suspensions in a prior position in San Francisco.

Have the reductions in suspensions made schools less safe?

Max Eden, a researcher at the conservative Manhattan Institute argues in New York City, under the de Blasio administration, using student and teacher surveys, schools are viewed as less safe.  (Review the Eden report here)

The Trump/De Voss administration is beginning to back away from the Obama/Duncan regulations on suspensions.

Education Next hosted a forum: Debating Obama Era Guidance – Should the Trump Administration Retain/Reverse/Rescind School Discipline Regulations? Mike Petrill (“A Supposed Discipline Fix Threatens School Cultures”) and Dan Losen (“Don’t Walk Back Needed School Discipline Reforms“) in excellent essays debate their positions.

I ask a basic question: do suspensions work?  Does a suspension reverse anti-social behavior? Are there other interventions that are more successful? Are suspension “good” or “bad” time outs?

Suspension advocates argue that removing a disruptive student makes the class safer and more “teachable,” and improves outcomes for the remainder of the class: is there any evidence?

Two schools a few blocks apart, the students live in the same housing project, the schools are located in the same high crime police precinct, the neighborhoods are dominated by gangs, one of schools has high suspension rates and is disorderly, the other school, low suspension rates and is orderly: what’s the difference?  The difference is school leadership. The disorderly school is heavily invested in restorative justice practices, the orderly school a highly respected school leader, a role model for the school. Programs cannot replace school leadership.

Programs only work if they are well-implemented, you cannot parachute a program into a school. Threats of legal action will reduce suspensions, and will not make schools safer or cut the “pipeline” to prison.

Positive Behavior Instructional Strategies (PBIS) and restorative justice practices coupled with a collaborative school leadership can substitute for suspensions as a primary tool; they cannot replace suspensions in all instances.

Passing classes in the ninth grade is the prime indicator of on time graduation. Which kids are passing classes in the ninth grade?  In one school: the kids on the junior varsity football and basketball teams. For the kids it was simple: you don’t pass subjects you don’t play – you get “in trouble,” you don’t play. Kids on the teams tutored each other, the coach emphasized teamwork which edged into academics.

Programs are only tools, not “answers,” suspensions for serious offenses are necessary, positive time outs, rewarding positive behaviors, collaborative faculties building strong school student cultures, are essential.

Simply tightening the faucet to reduce suspensions does not make for safer schools; it’s the day-to-day hard work that builds safe and academically successful schools.

6 responses to “Are Schools a Pipeline to Prison? Will Reducing Suspensions Improve Student Outcomes? Or, Have an Adverse Impact on Student Discipline/Student Achievement? What is the Purpose of Student Suspensions?

  1. To me, when I was still teaching, student suspensions were a tactic to ensure a classroom where teaching and learning took place and not an unending war to deal with disruptions by children that did not want to be there, and/or were disturbingly dysfunctional.

    But the high school where I taught had an in-house suspension center, a classroom with a teacher-administrator where suspensions were on a period by period basis from regular classrooms, and the children/teens sent there knew that the next step was a Saturday school detention or a real detention where they would be sent home for a few days.

    That in-house suspension center was called BIC for Behavior Improvement Center.

    Mr. D. who ran BIC kept records and his annual report to the staff always pointed out that 5-percent of the high school’s students earned more than 90 percent of the period suspensions to BIC, about 20k annually, and those children were often repeat offenders from almost all of their classes on a daily basis. Mr. D got to know that 5-percent on a first name basis so did the high school’s few counselors. Each grade level had one counselor and their load was usually more than 500 students each and dealing with offenders that repeatedly disrupted learning environments was not their major job function.

    There is no such thing as a school to prison pipeline. That is a phrase coined by the greedy, autocratic, fascist, racist enemies of community-based, democratic, transparent, non-profit, unionized traditional public education. These freaks do not want children in the U.S. to grow up thinking for themselves. These few wealthy, powerful freaks like Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, Bill Gates, et al. want to think for the rest of us.

    The real pipeline goes by more than one name.

    It is the poverty to prison pipeline or the illiteracy to prison pipeline or the dysfunction home environment to prison pipeline.


  2. Please compare suspension numbers to absenteeism. School days missed by the relatively small percentage of chronically disruptive students who may receive multiple suspensions in any one school year, pales in comparison to chronic absenteeism. It is not uncommon to have students in high needs schools miss 20 to 40+ days of school each year. The whole school to prison pipeline meme suggest that these troubled youngsters are being deprived of educational opportunities. In many cases, they the very tiny minority are depriving the majority of a reasonably disciplined learning environment.


  3. We have excellent data on chronic absenteeism ( … closely correlated with risk load factors, poverty, single/no parent households, homelessness, unemployment, etc., I frequently read comments about disruptive kids in classrooms, suspensions are usually for out-of-classroom events, in hallways, cafeteria, etc., “Disruptive kids” require counseling and guidance, not suspensions, not exclusion from classes, Bottom line: suspensions don’t work.


  4. What happens when counseling and guidance do not work to correct chronically disruptive behaviors? Occasionally excluding a student who’s behavior makes learning nearly impossible, from a class of 25, can work wonders for the 24 left behind.


    • The problem is evidence – in the zero tolerance schools did achievement benefit from the exclusion of the “disruptive” student? I’m not aware of any studies, yes, anecdotally teachers make the claim; however, why are other teachers in similar classrooms able to maintain order?What does “occasionally” mean? If the student is continually disruptive is a referral for evaluation in order? And, of course, the racial disparities are troubling? Research does point to teachers of color having far fewer discipline issues with students …. complex issues.


  5. You did not address my first question. What is a teacher to do when restorative justice, counseling, PBIS, evaluations, behavior plans, etc. all fail to work? The benefit of removing a disruptive needs is self evident to any student or teacher that has to withstand a daily onslaught of rude and inconsiderate behavior; no evidence needed. Why should schools be the only public institution that has “infinite tolerance” for behaviors that are unruly, unsafe, unhealthy, and unfair to others.

    Liked by 1 person

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