School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center

How Much Educators Say They Use Suspensions, Expulsions, and Restorative Justice

By Caitlynn Peetz — April 19, 2024 4 min read
Audrey Wright, right, quizzes fellow members of the Peace Warriors group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Wright, who is a junior and the group's current president, was asking the students, from left, freshmen Otto Lewellyn III and Simone Johnson and sophomore Nia Bell, about a symbol used in the group's training on conflict resolution and team building. The students also must memorize and regularly recite the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Six Principles of Nonviolence."
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Nearly half of teachers and administrators say their schools are using restorative justice more now than five years ago, while many say their schools are also relying less on traditional discipline that removes students from classrooms.

In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, 48 percent of educators said their schools or districts are using restorative justice—which focuses on repairing harm and reconciliation through activities like small group mediation—more than in 2018-19, the last full academic year before the pandemic.

Just 8 percent said their schools use restorative justice less now, while 24 percent said it’s used about the same amount. One-fifth of respondents said their schools do not and have not used restorative justice.

Many respondents also reported that their schools are using expulsions less (35 percent), as well as out-of-school suspensions (44 percent) and in-school suspensions (36 percent).

The nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey was administered from Jan. 31 to March 4, with 953 educators participating.

The results come as schools have reported an increase in student disciplinary problems following pandemic school closures (70 percent of educators said students were misbehaving more last year than in the fall of 2019, according to a separate EdWeek Research Center Survey from 2023). Restorative justice has also, at times, been caught in the political crossfire, with a proliferation of legislative proposals in the past few years calling for a return to harsher discipline—some with the support of teachers’ unions.

At the same time, the results line up roughly with a general trend in recent years of schools moving away from the use of disciplinary measures that remove students from the classroom and their peers.

“There’s a much greater awareness now than, say, 25 years ago, of the harm that can be caused by taking kids out of school, and how it can be counterproductive to students’ learning,” said Dan Losen, the senior director for the education team at the National Center for Youth Law, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on litigation and policies affecting children. “What we know is that the kinds of things that improve teaching and classroom management can dramatically reduce teachers’ reliance on things like taking kids out of the classroom.”

Despite the movement away from exclusionary discipline, racial disparities persist in the use of exclusionary discipline.

While Black students made up 15 percent of K-12 students nationally in the 2017-18 school year, they accounted for 31 percent of students receiving in-school suspensions and 38 percent receiving out-of-school suspensions, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection from that year.

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Many teachers don’t receive classroom management training

While training in classroom management can reduce teachers’ reliance on discipline that removes students from the classroom, many never received it.

Thirty-nine percent of educators said in the recent EdWeek Research Center survey that they didn’t receive explicit classroom management training in their teacher-preparation programs, compared with 54 percent who said they did. Another 8 percent reported that they never participated in a teacher-prep program.

Work to strengthen relationships between teachers and students can go a long way to building mutual trust and respect, and in turn reducing disciplinary referrals, Losen said. Those are lessons teachers need to learn as part of their training prior to taking over a classroom, then revisit throughout their careers, he said.

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“The stronger and more positive those relationships are, the less likely it is that teachers are going to need outside help or referrals,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t behavioral issues, but they have developed skills to address those behaviors in ways that are really educationally sound and supportive of the student, while still seeking to teach appropriate behavior.”

Keeping programs in place during tough budget times

Losen said he was “encouraged” by the EdWeek Research Center survey results, particularly the indication that many schools are using suspensions and expulsions less, but said schools will need to find ways to continue investing in efforts to rely less on exclusionary discipline once federal pandemic relief aid expires this fall.

Many districts used part of their allocations to fund positions like restorative justice coaches, and for professional development opportunities, he said. Even cuts in staffing related to mental health services and social-emotional learning could jeopardize schools’ ability to rely less on suspensions and expulsions, because those services often help students understand and regulate their emotions and behaviors, he said.

“That’s where I get concerned that that could wind up translating to higher suspension rates as support services for students get cut,” Losen said. “We need to find the funds to make these things happen—it really is crucial.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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