College & Workforce Readiness

These Disciplinary Practices Can Lead Students to Drop Out of School

By Catherine Gewertz — July 11, 2018 4 min read
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Suspending students from school can make them more likely to leave altogether, feeling that no adult cared enough to understand their struggles or provide the support they need, according to a study published Wednesday.

“Disciplined and Disconnected” adds to the steady pileup of reports that raise questions about the use of “exclusionary” discipline practices such as expulsion and suspension in U.S. schools. A recent analysis of federal civil-rights data, for instance, showed that students of color and those in special education are disproportionately subjected to out-of-school suspension. A 2013 study of Florida students found that 9th graders who received out-of-school suspensions were less likely to graduate from high school.

What the new study adds to the conversation is the voices of students themselves. It was conducted by the Center for Promise, the applied-research arm of the America’s Promise Alliance, which studies high school graduation issues. Researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 38 Minnesota students between the ages of 11 and 19, in three cities, who had been suspended from school.

The students describe interactions with adults and disciplinary decisions that left them feeling misunderstood and wrongfully punished. Being suspended out of school doesn’t help them at all, they report, and it makes it tough to complete their work and graduate.

One student reported that she fell behind after being suspended for her involvement in a cyberbullying episode. Meetings about the incident, and subsequent days of suspension, meant she missed a lot of class time, and she found teachers uncooperative in helping her get her assignments to make up, said Elizabeth Pufall Jones, the lead author of the study. Her suspension dates extended into final exams, so she missed those, too.

Creating ‘An Opportunity to Thrive’

Schools need to create “a cohesive system” of discipline that prioritizes support for students’ ongoing schoolwork, so they have “an opportunity to thrive,” Pufall Jones said. Creating a culture in which students feel valued and welcome is also crucial to keeping them in school, she said.

One story in the report offers an illustration of what can happen when that inclusive environment is absent. A girl told the researchers that she had been struggling with a group of girls who’d been pulling her hair in class. Her teacher didn’t do anything about it, Pufall Jones said, so she took it upon herself to see the principal.

“I was like, you know what? All these teachers are being racist ... and ... they straight up say they have their favorites,” the girl says in the report. “Like ... this one teacher says to me, ‘Oh y’all Mexicans need to go back to Mexico.’ I was like ... no. I need to leave ... [S]o I went up to the principal. I was like, ‘This teacher’s being racist.’ He was like, ‘If you want to leave, then go ahead.’ So I left.”

To the report’s authors, those kinds of incidents represent a lost opportunity. Disciplinary approaches such as restorative justice, positive behavioral intervention systems, and social-emotional learning can dramatically change school culture in a way that enables students to feel better understood and supported, the report argues.

Schools often use forms of discipline that remove students from school, or from class, when they don’t have to, the study says. Some states have laws that require suspension for serious misdeeds, such as violence, or possessing drugs or guns. But lesser transgressions‐such as tardiness or defiance—can also lead to suspension, boosting the chances students will feel alienated from school, and be unable to complete their work and stay on track for graduation.

Unnecessary Suspensions

The stories in the study illustrate schools’ heavy reliance on tougher forms of discipline. For the Minnesota students, the three most frequently cited punishments were suspension, detention, and confiscating a forbidden item. Less often, they reported milder measures, such as mediation, meetings with parents or teachers, or community service.

Other studies have shown that schools often opt for exclusionary discipline, even when the underlying misbehavior isn’t extreme enough to require it. A 2011 study in Texas, for instance, found that only 3 percent of disciplinary actions were for activities that required suspension under state law, such as violence or possession of drugs or guns.

The Center for Progress team found that in 2016-17, 48 percent of the suspensions and exclusions in Minnesota schools were for minor, nonviolent student behaviors that did not endanger other people, such as verbal abuse, attendance issues, or disorderly conduct, Pufall Jones said.

The study urges states and districts to move toward a new set of priorities in shaping their disciplinary policies. In addition to making student learning the top priority and building a welcoming environment, educators need to learn to see students’ behavior as an expression of their needs, and respond with support, the study says.

Schools should also consider “sharing power” with students, the report says. What does “sharing power” look like? One principal described the fundamental shift required.

“It’s no longer, ‘I am the principal: you must listen to me because I’m the omnipotent,’ ” he said. "... It’s a culture of, ‘We are all in this together.’” When adults and students discuss students’ misbehavior, he said, "[I]t’s not me going to point in their face yelling ... but it’s a calm environment with which we ... directly identif[y] what was the issue, what do each of you need to have success in school, [and] how can we help you.”

Photo: Getty Images

For more stories about the link between suspensions and dropping out of high school, see:

Suspensions Linked to Lower Grad Rates in Florida Study

Study: Student Arrest Leads to Push Out, Low College Attendance

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.