Do Suspensions Work? A Tool to Improve Student Behaviors and/or a Pipeline to Prison?

Once a month a thousand or so teacher unionists file into Shanker Hall at the United Federation of Teachers for the monthly Delegate Assembly, the elected delegates are incredibly diverse, by gender, race and ethnicity. After the president’s report the meeting moves to a question period, one delegate asked, “My principal asked me to raise an issue, a student came to school with a knife, the Department of Education would only allow a short in-school suspension because the knife was only 4” long, shouldn’t we be able to impose a longer out of school suspension? The kid has to learn a lesson?” The union president agreed, the Discipline Code , the size of a phone book, might be overly restrictive, and then asked, “Shouldn’t the question be why he brought the knife to school?”

On one side: “School is a pipeline to prison, suspensions are racist and must be eliminated,” on the other, “There must be consequences for inappropriate behavior and suspensions must be one of the options.”

The suspension question is complicated, and, the “sides” are deeply entrenched.

There are 14,000 school districts, fifty states and thousands of charter schools, all of whom have a discipline code, plus, the Department of Education (USDE).

Some school districts employ “exclusionary suspensions,” meaning out-of-school suspensions while others, including New York City, only have in-school suspensions.

Some districts employ “zero tolerance” policies, suspensions for low level behavioral infringements while others, including New York City, require a ladder of discipline culminating in a suspension and at the long-term level requiring a hearing with legal representation available.

The evidence that suspensions improve behavior is absent; the evidence that suspensions have negative outcomes is overwhelming.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA has published reports with significant evidence challenging the efficacy of out of school suspensions, aka, exclusionary suspensions.

Especially relevant is “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?”

In January 2014 the Obama/Duncan Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, a method of avoiding the lengthy process to change regulations, warning and threatening school districts with legal actions,

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. 

 … statistical evidence may indicate that groups of students have been subjected to different treatment or that a school policy or practice may have an adverse discriminatory impact. Indeed, the Departments’ investigations, which consider quantitative data as part of a wide array of evidence, have revealed racial discrimination in the administration of student discipline. For example, in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.

 This line of reasoning is called “disparate impact theory,” and has been primarily used in employment discrimination; Griggs v Duke Power Company (1970) is a unanimous Supreme Court decision barring the use of restrictive employment barriers.

One could argue that the Obama administration overextended its authority; suspensions are a state issue and fall beyond the authority of the federal government; however, I’m not arguing the role of the federal government; the data is overwhelming, students of color are suspended at rates far beyond other students, and, the consequences of suspensions are dire.

The Trump-deVos administration has withdrawn the Obama-Duncan “Dear Colleague” letter.

There is no evidence that suspensions work, that students who are suspended do not commit further “suspendable” offenses, or, that classrooms are more orderly after students are suspended.

Districts have moved to restorative justice  and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports strategies, (PBIS ) with mixed results .. In a major study in the Pittsburgh schools the results were both encouraging and depressing. In elementary suspensions decreased however the results in middle schools were disturbing.

 The policies appear especially unhelpful in middle school grades, where they didn’t reduce suspension rates but did hurt test scores. The shift did not boost student learning on the whole, and black students in particular actually saw significant reductions in test scores.

 In my own totally unscientific discussions with teachers the major complaint was time. Who is going to teach my class while I counsel the offending students, another, “They want to turn us into guidance counselors.”

System-wide professional development may, or, may not impact rates of suspension and academic outcomes; however, are there differences in comparable schools, schools with similar populations in similar neighborhoods, and if so, why?  Can it be the race of the teacher or school leader? A North Carolina study explored the race of the teacher,

Does having a teacher of the same race make it more or less likely that students are subject to exclusionary school discipline?

 In this study …we find consistent evidence that North Carolina students are less likely to be removed from school as punishment when they and their teachers are the same race. This effect is driven almost entirely by black students, especially black boys, who are markedly less likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline when taught by black teachers. There is little evidence of any benefit for white students of being matched with white teachers.

 Other studies support the North Carolina study,

… we provide a theoretical model that formalizes the notion of “role model effects” as distinct from teacher effectiveness. We envision role model effects as information provision: black teachers provide a crucial signal that leads black students to update their beliefs about the returns to effort and what educational outcomes are possible. Using testable implications generated by the theory, we provide suggestive evidence that role model effects help to explain why black teachers increase the educational attainment of black students.

 While studies are interesting none are dispositive.

Mike Petrilli in an excellent article entitled, “Humility When It Comes to Evidence-Based Practice” emphasizes “teacher buy-in and implementation.”

… the contexts of our schools… vary dramatically making the use of evidence an inherently complex and fraught challenge. Plus, in a field where implementation is everything, the only way “doing what works” can be effective is with teacher buy-in and engagement. They call it “winning hearts and minds” for a reason; we can’t expect that evidence alone will win the day.

“Comparable schools” schools with low suspension rates, in my experience, are schools that have strong cultures and are highly collaborative: a strong school leader with distributive teacher leadership.

Bottom lines:

  • Exclusionary (out-of-school) suspensions and zero tolerance practices have the odor of blatant racism and must be rejected.
  • All suspensions must be in-school or in an educational setting coupled with intensive counseling and educational supports
  • Restorative justice and other alternative strategies can be useful if there is teacher buy-in and engagement
  • Hiring more male school leaders and teachers of color are essential.
  • There are student behaviors that require the removal from a classroom setting, we cannot totally reject suspensions.

If we want students to change behaviors we must explore our own behaviors. New York State has released Cultural Responseness and Sustainability Frameworks for public comment.

Will these Frameworks change your relationships with students? At least, make you explore your view of classroom practices?

6 responses to “Do Suspensions Work? A Tool to Improve Student Behaviors and/or a Pipeline to Prison?

  1. When the question “do suspensions work?” arises, it begs the question, for whom?. First and foremost, they are not a road to prison. They are punishment for law breaking in schools. Yes they may be seen as optimum punishments for students who have behaved in a most offensive fashion, And yes I would venture to say that many youth who do prison, more then likely their school records will show suspended time, more then once. The worse thing this city did was to remove alternative school placement for recalcitrant students. No teacher or Administrator has in their preparation taken classes that inform them as to how to react with students who put hands on them, tell them to f..themselves, steal, bully, fight and now thanks to the open marijuana market, will come to school in a euphoric state. What happens when a Principal seeks the suspension of a student who calls calls him a mo…ther, and at his hearing, his advocate points out that he was not in his right mind owing to the fact that he had smoked a joint immediately prior to the incident. I believe that Suspensions do work in terms of what they are there for. Specifically to give relief to the issue that prompted the suspension.


  2. The California public high school where I taught in California’s Rowland Unified School District (I taught in that district for thirty years) the last 16 of the 30, had a BIC center for in-house period-by-period suspensions. BIC meant Behavior Improvement Center.

    But thanks to the pressure from NCLB and all the other toxic-sewer sludge from the corrupt top-down led war to destroy publicly funded, public education with locally elected school boards, and democratic teachers unions, BIC probably doesn’t exist anymore at that high school. I retired in 2005.

    Students that ended up being suspended all day from school usually had to do something extreme and have a record of causing problems. Most of them were on behavior modification contracts too.

    The teacher that ran BIC was a certified teacher and a site administrator. He could fill both roles as a teacher and an administrator. He was also one of the football coaches. Everyone called him Mr. D, even the students. He had a long last name so Mr. D made it easier.

    Mr. D kept track of the in-house period-by-period suspensions and issued a report at the end of each year. Every year, there were about 20k period-by-period suspensions to BIC and Mr. D. reported that 95% of them were earned by 5% of the students who were almost always suspended from every class almost every day.

    The HS counselors were also involved with the “regulars disrupters” and there were conferences with family and students and behavior modification contracts that were set up to lead to out-of-school suspensions were signed by student and parent/guardian that came with escalating consequences. The final step was expulsion from the district. If one of the “regular disrupters” was on a sports team, the coaches were also involved. If one of the RDs got kicked out of even one period, they would be benched during the next game. If their GPA dropped below 2.0 for academic classes, they would be benched or dropped from the team depending on the language of the BMC.

    The only downside was the amount of paperwork and the fact that ever step required every teacher to make a home phone call of home visit. Some teacher, to avoid that, didn’t write up the RDs to avoid all the paperwork and phone calls. If you called one of those teachers, they’d tell you the behavior hadn’t improved but they didn’t have time to feed the paper trail.


  3. The public schools, with their many curricular and extra-curricular opportunities, and important social experiences, could only be called a “pipeline to prison” by someone who has never taught adolescents in a high needs district where poverty, family dysfunction, and parental neglect are the norm.. For teachers, it is not uncommon to encounter rude, combative, profane, and even threatening behaviors on a daily basis from a small handful of chronically disruptive students. Referring to appropriate disciplinary actions as some kind of push into criminal activity – and eventually into prison – completely ignores the fact that for inner city students, a sound education is the only ticket out, the only way to break free from the cycle of generational poverty and dependence.


  4. Suspensions (and other school related matters) only work if there is a home that supports the school. I was never afraid of my teachers; I was afraid of consequences enforced by my parents. Unfortunately that’s not always the case these days, especially when there are no parents or parents who are themselves antagonistic towards teachers and/or schools.


  5. I really have an issue with the statement: “The evidence that suspensions improve behavior is absent; the evidence that suspensions have negative outcomes is overwhelming.”

    I detest the intermixing of a correlation and a cause-and-effect situation.

    It’s much more likely that students who commit behaviors that are forbidden have issues with rules, or have not been taught to follow rules while they were preschoolers.They could likely be committing behavior problems at home and in their communities as well when not in school. The fact that they get suspended in school and then fall into further trouble is much more easily explained as a correlation than a causal effect.

    I reiterate: CORRELATION AND CAUSALITY ARE NOT THE SAME! Prove that suspensions cause dire consequences. I submit that poor behavior causes the “dire” effects, not suspensions. PROVE YOUR POINT! (which is really not YOUR point, but the assertion of others).

    As a side issue, the other students are subjected to a loss of instruction, and when they see the ineffectual behavior of the adults dealing with miscreant behavior they may adopt such behaviors as well.


    • Not all children who are suspended from school are problem children. A few just made a mistake. A child without a paper trail showing they are a repeat offender probably will amend their behavior drastically when they are sent home for a few days and if the parents are parents that practice Authoritarian or Authoritative parenting styles, the child will come back and the odds are that they will not repeat that mistake every again.

      But children that are always in trouble in almost every class if not every class almost always come from dysfunctional homes where the parents are uninvolved or are permissive or indulgent parents or there is no parent around most of the day because they are working more than one job to be able to pay the bills. When one of these children is suspended to the environment that they grew up in, the odds are against that child’s behavior improving. Most of the children that fall into this niche don’t want to be in school anyway so they cause problems to be suspended. What’s surprising is that some gang members don’t want to be suspended because the only reason they are going to school is to recruit more gang members and/or find customers for drugs so they might not do the work to learn but they behave in class so they don’t get suspended.

      Having a period-by-period, in-house suspension system that is set up to identify the repeat offenders allows the school to have a plan in place that includes behavior modification counseling with parents/guardians and child. That should include a “signed” behavior modification contract that spells out in detail what happens every time the child breaks the contract. Before signing the counselor meets with the family and teaches them what it all means. The steps should include out of school suspensions and expulsion from the school district.

      In some cases, the repeater offender will have been through the juvenile court system d might be on parole. In those cases, the behavior modification contract should a have a stop that includes notifying the juvenile parole officer/court that the child has violated their parole. Parole for a juvenile almost always includes language regarding behavior at school and keeping at last a 2.0 grade point average in academic classes.


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