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School Suspensions Do Not Improve Student Behavior

DRNC strongly supports safe school environments where all children can learn, thrive, and be safe. Student suspensions do not help us reach that goal. Suspensions have the opposite effect from what (mostly) well-meaning adults intend; rather than teaching the student that they need to change their behavior to stay in school, suspensions teach students how to escape an environment that is not working for them.  

In most American schools, the primary response to behavior that violates the student code of conduct is a suspension – requiring the student to stay home from school for a few days, and sometimes many. Suspensions cause social-emotional isolation, impede academic progress, and communicate to the student that they do not belong, and cannot succeed at school. Numerous studies show that suspensions are counter-productive for all students, regardless of disability status, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. 

Students who are suspended or expelled are more at risk for school avoidance, academic failure, repeating a grade, behavior problems, substance use, dropping out, and court involvement. SJP; Lacoe & Steinberg; LiCalsi et al.; NBER; NEPC; USCCR. Schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates have lower academic outcomes on state-wide test scores regardless of student demographics. USCCR. A single suspension for a discretionary offense almost triples the likelihood that a student will enter the juvenile justice system in the following year. SJP; USCCR.  

In North Carolina, over 14,000 students were out-of-school suspended for more than 10 days during the 2018-19 school year. This includes students who received one or more long-term suspensions (575 students) and students whose combined lengths of multiple short-term suspensions exceeded 10 days (13,436 students). DPI. In that same school year, the average length of a long-term suspension was 73 school days – nearly 40% of the school year. DPI . 

Discipline disparities are evident and pervasive. Black students in North Carolina are disproportionally impacted. They are more than four times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers. SJP. Research has found no evidence that the over-representation of Black students in school suspension rates is due to higher rates of misbehavior. NEPC; USCCR.  Black students are more likely to be suspended for the same offense as white students. 

In NC, Black first-time offenders are more likely than white first-time offenders to be suspended for minor offenses like cell-phone use, disruptive behavior, disrespect, and public displays of affection. NEPC.  

Students with disabilities in NC are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities. SJP. These suspensions are often for behaviors related to the student’s disability.  For students with disabilities, exclusionary discipline, such as a suspension, does not reduce or eliminate misbehavior. Suspensions tend to exacerbate the underlying causes of disruptive conduct by: (1) disconnecting the student from their classmates, (2) reinforcing inappropriate behaviors, and (3) eroding instructional trust.LiCalsi. Based on DRNC’s experience with hundreds of students, if the student’s goal is to get out of the classroom, exclusionary discipline reinforces that behavior. It does not address the root cause of why the student wants to avoid the classroom (e.g., bullying, struggling academically).  

Black students with disabilities are almost four times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions and almost two times more likely to be expelled compared to white students with disabilities. USCCR.  Black and Native American students with disabilities are more likely than white students with disabilities to be expelled without educational services. USCCR.  

Suspension rates are largely the result of policies, not the student population. For example, a study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools found that even though half of all CMS students attended a new school for the 2002-2003 school year because of redistricting, the original suspension rates stayed largely the same at each school. NBER.  

There is solid evidence that alternative responses to misconduct yield desirable outcomes. Evidence-based strategies for responding to student misbehavior include Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), the School Responder Model (SRM), Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA), and restorative justice. SJP.  

Discipline referrals decrease by 20-60% in schools that implement evidence-based positive discipline strategies like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) NWLC; NBER. Schools that use alternative discipline practices have better student achievement results overall. NWLC. When implemented district-wide, PBIS has been shown to improve academic performance, reduce bullying, decrease rates of student-reported drug and alcohol use, reduce discipline referrals and suspensions, and improve teacher outcomes. PBIS.  Schools that participated in the NC PBIS Initiative in 2012-13 had lower rates of out-of-school suspensions than other schools. SJP 

Because suspensions do not improve student behavior, are generally used for non-violent behaviors (NEPC), and harm many students, DRNC supports removing suspension as a discipline tool, rather than excluding the misbehaving student. We support research-backed, alternative discipline practices that help keep schools healthy, safe, and accessible for all. 

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