School Climate & Safety

Survey: Teachers Are Conflicted About the Role of Suspensions

By Madeline Will — July 30, 2019 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Many teachers think out-of-school suspensions are racially biased and can be harmful to students—but many still claim they have a role in controlling student behavior, with about half of teachers saying that schools should suspend students more often, a new study finds.

The nationally representative survey was sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education reform think tank, and done in partnership with RAND Corporation, which surveyed 1,200 teachers in grades 3-12 on their views on school discipline through the American Teacher Panel. The researchers oversampled black teachers and teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

The survey is released just days after new federal data show that more schools are reporting serious violent incidents, including hate crimes and sexual assaults. The new data also show that more schools—42 percent in 2017-18 school year—are using restorative practices, which require students in conflict to come together to talk through a problem and find solutions.

The Fordham survey finds that teachers in high-poverty schools report higher rates of verbal disrespect, physical fighting, and assault from students—all factors they say make learning difficult. Many teachers said approaches to discipline like restorative justice are valuable, but they also say that suspensions can be useful and appropriate tools in some circumstances. The survey found that the majority of black teachers do think that exclusionary discipline is racially biased—but about half of black teachers surveyed say that suspensions should be used more often.

“I think at the end of the day, no matter what approach we take, there are going to be some inherent tradeoffs we need to consider,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate for Fordham and the report’s lead author. “We want to lower suspension rates, but at the same time we care an awful lot about racial achievement gaps and social-economic gaps. It’s going to be very hard to close those gaps if those classrooms are constantly being disrupted. I think teachers are really in a bind.”

Last year, the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance meant to reduce the disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color, particularly black and Latino students. Supporters of the guidance had said it helped them address implicit bias and rethink policies that led to overly harsh consequences, like suspensions and expulsions, for minor infractions.

But critics, including Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli, were concerned that schools had gone overboard driving down suspension rates without finding effective replacements. In a note attached to the study, Petrilli wrote that when the guidance was released by the Obama administration, he suspected “teachers would simply be told that students couldn’t be disciplined like they used to—and that they’d be on their own when it came to dealing with the consequences.”

‘You Literally Have No Support’

When teachers were asked who was most responsible for student behavior problems, 42 percent said “uninvolved parents or troubled families.” The next largest share—nearly a quarter of teachers—blamed administrators who enforced school discipline policies inconsistently. About half of teachers said they have put up with bad behavior in their classroom because of a lack of administrative support.

“Inconsistent discipline is causing students to have no respect for administrators, so if you have trouble managing your classroom you literally have no support,” one teacher wrote in the survey.

Another finding: 13 percent of teachers who work in high-poverty schools said they were physically attacked by students in the 2017-18 school year. Just 4 percent of teachers who work in low-poverty schools reported the same. According to federal data, more than 220,000 teachers were physically attacked by students in the 2015-16 school year.

The survey found that 41 percent of teachers say suspensions at their schools have declined in recent years—about a quarter of those teachers attributed the decrease to improved student behavior, while 38 percent attributed it to a higher tolerance for misbehavior.

Indeed, national data show that out-of-school suspension rates are dropping. Still, black students, especially black boys, are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their peers. Students with disabilities are also suspended at higher rates than their peers without disabilities.

However, the survey found differences in how white teachers and black teachers view racial disparities in discipline: About three-quarters of black teachers say black students are punished more harshly than white students, while nearly as many white teachers say that black and white students receive similar consequences.

Advocates fear—and research has backed up—that with every school suspension, students move further down the school-to-prison pipeline. A recent study found that after controlling for previous student behavior, the link between suspensions and future crimes got stronger, and a student’s risk of criminal behavior worsened with each subsequent suspension.

Alternatives, like restorative justice and positive behavioral interventions and support, are meant to address students’ actions without removing them from school, and hopefully make positive, lasting changes to students’ behavior. But those alternative approaches can be difficult to implement effectively. (For an inside look at the challenges of implementing restorative justice at a high school for young black men, listen to Education Week and NPR’s three-part podcast Raising Kings.)

In the Fordham survey, most teachers said alternative approaches to school discipline are at least somewhat effective, with the majority of teachers favoring trauma-informed practices that address the root cause of misbehavior.

The majority of teachers also reported concerns about out-of-school suspensions. Even so, most teachers agreed that suspensions are useful for some things—for instance, 86 percent said they sent messages to parents about the seriousness of bad behavior and 84 percent said they ensured that other students can learn without disruption.

“I do think it’s unrealistic to think you can take a restorative-justice approach when you’re dealing with what teachers would call tier-three behavior” like physical assault, Griffith said.

The survey found that black teachers who work in high-poverty schools were slightly more likely than their white peers to think there should be higher rates of suspension and referrals to alternative learning centers.

A Need for a Systemic Approach

José Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City who is an advocate for restorative justice, said he isn’t surprised by the findings. He frequently hears pushback from teachers about implementing alternative discipline practices in their classrooms.

“You have a large swath of people who have not been exposed to such practices,” he said. "[Often], people can only envision the types of schools they’ve been in.”

That can be especially true for teachers of color, he said.

“Too many of us are put in the very situation where we grew up in as students,” Vilson said. “Too many of us go into schools who are underresourced. We get put into situations where our schooling is reflected back upon us—we’re retraumatized, which often exacerbates so much of the situation.”

And if a teacher wants to implement restorative justice in his or her classroom, those practices will not always work if the teacher doesn’t have support from administrators and peers, Vilson said: “It has to be systemic; it can’t be one classroom.”

The Fordham Institute gave several recommendations, including giving teachers and principals greater discretion regarding suspensions, which is in line with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ reasoning for overturning the Obama administration’s guidance on school discipline. She thought the guidance was too heavy-handed and stifled local decisionmaking.

Still, civil rights advocates have said that too much flexibility in disciplinary decisions can lead to educators acting on unconscious biases.

“When a black child is misbehaving, we often times see that black child’s misbehavior as defiant and deviant. Whereas a white child is exploring, they’re testing boundaries,” said Tynisha Jointer, the behavioral health specialist for Chicago Public Schools who urged DeVos to keep the guidance, in a past Education Week interview.

Griffith, the Fordham report author, said he also hopes policymakers will spend money to improve alternative learning centers, such as hiring more counselors there. The report also recommends hiring more teaching assistants and mental health professionals in high-poverty schools.

“I think for me, the bottom line is that we all need to be more honest about the problem, more patient when it comes to solving it, and less stingy” when it comes to funding solutions, Griffith said.

Image via Getty; charts via Fordham Institute

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.