Suspensions: The Wrong Answer for D.C. Students

Twelve-year-old Jasmine was suspended several times. She was later diagnosed with severe depression and, after treatment, became a successful student. Four-year-old Malik was suspended for kicking off his shoes and crying. These are just two examples of misuse of suspension by District schools. These are not isolated incidents. Nationwide, data from the federal Office of Civil Rights show that over 3 million children in grades K-12 were suspended during the 2011-12 school year. In Washington, D.C., District Discipline, a new report from the Every Student Every Day Coalition, of which Children's Law Center is a member, shows that 13 percent of students were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year, with some middle schools suspending more than two-thirds of their students.

The vast majority of these suspensions were for behaviors involving no drugs, no injuries, and no weapons. As District Discipline explains, the most common reasons for suspensions were "causing disruption on school property," "fighting with no injury," and "reckless behavior." Under current D.C. law, teachers and administrators have wide discretion in responding to these sorts of behaviors. For example, they can send a student to speak with an administrator, call the student's parents, request mediation, restrict the student's extracurricular privileges, or make a child stay after school. Even with these other options available, schools choose suspension with alarming frequency.

Why should we care? At first glance, it might seem that suspensions teach children good behavior and keep schools safe. However, the evidence tells a different story. In fact, rather than teaching students good behavior, research shows that a first suspension makes a student more likely to be suspended again. We see this effect in the data from D.C. Public Schools, which shows that 71 percent of suspensions were given to a student who received multiple suspensions. Further, research suggests that suspending the students who are the alleged "troublemakers" does not improve the school environment. As the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded, "Research has demonstrated ... that schools with higher rates of out-of-school suspension and expulsion are not safer for students or faculty."

Really, this should not be surprising. Suspension, by its nature, distances a child from school. Instead of helping children academically, suspension deprives them of instruction. Instead of the positive peer pressure from school-engaged peers, suspended students are sent home to socialize with whomever else is out of school in their neighborhood. When suspended students return to class, they are less focused, less engaged, and more likely to disrupt class.

It is worth noting that students in special education and students attending school in neighborhoods with high rates of child poverty are far more likely to feel the impact of over-suspension. In D.C. public schools, students in special education are suspended at three times the rate of their peers. A student attending school in the District's ward with the highest rate of child poverty is four times as likely to be suspended as a student attending school in the ward with the lowest rate of child poverty. The fact that special needs and poverty are so strongly related to the likelihood of suspension tells us that misbehavior is the symptom of a more serious problem, and punitive approaches focused on deterrence and retribution are unlikely to be effective.

Rather than suspend children, we need to focus on alternatives that empower teachers to figure out why a child misbehaves and equip him or her to do better in the future. These alternatives exist: Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, The Good Behavior Game, and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), to name a few. To improve learning for all students, policymakers, school leaders, parents, and community members should focus on developing school discipline that works. We need school discipline based on evidence rather than outdated notions of zero tolerance.