Rethinking School Suspensions

School suspensions have long been used by educators to discipline the most unruly of students, but a new study finds striking disparities between the number of white and minority students suspended from class—a process that ultimately undermines the academic success of minority students living in high-risk areas.

In their paper “Misbehavior, Suspensions, and Security Measures in High School: Racial/Ethnic and Gender Differences,” Dr. Jeremy Finn, a professor of education (quantitative methods) and associate dean for research at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo – SUNY, and his co-author, Dr. Timothy Servoss of Canisius College, find that minority students are suspended more frequently than their white peers who commit similar offences.

“African-American students and Hispanic/Latino students were suspended at higher rates than were non-Hispanic whites, differences in most cases not attributable to different levels of misbehavior,” the report abstract says.

The study was presented by Dr. Finn at the “Closing the School Discipline Gap” conference at the Gallup Center in Washington, DC on January 10th. The event, sponsored by the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, Education Week, Gallup, and the Equity Project at Indiana University, brought together educators and education-focused organizers from across the country to analyze and discuss ways of eliminating discipline-based discrepancies in schools based on race, gender, and disability.

Using a sampling of 8,775 10th grade students from 500 public schools across the country, Drs. Finn and Servoss found that, when compared to white students who misbehave in a similar fashion, Latino students were 1.6 times higher to receive out-of-school suspensions, while African-American students were 1.8 times higher to receive in-school suspensions.

The use of in-school suspensions was found to lead to a greater number of out-of-school suspensions, described by Dr. Finn as a “gateway” punishment. While in-school suspensions allow for students to be closely monitored by faculty, out-of-school suspensions, more often than not, push these already at-risk students onto the same streets that played a role in their suspension. Students living in high-crime neighborhoods are twice as likely to be suspended from schools that those living in low crime neighborhoods, a statistic that especially affects African-American and Latino learners.

“I would love to recommend that what we do is get rid of crime in the neighborhoods—that’s beyond the scope of our study—but when you’re considering suspending a student, you need to weigh carefully the environment a student is being placed in when he or she is excluded from school,” says Dr. Finn. “It may not be in his or her best interest.”

One potential cause for the racial disparity in suspensions seems to be the size, as well as level of security, at schools. Smaller schools with less security were found to have less minority students suspended; larger schools with more security protocols suspended minority students at a greater rate, while simultaneously suspending white students at levels even less than low security schools.

The report calls on educators to take a more holistic approach to suspensions that considers the out-of-school environment a student will be subjected to if they are barred from attending school. While suspension can be an effective tool for disciplining students that misbehave, schools officials need to be careful that the process is used effectively, as well as in a manner that does not single-out one race over another. Students should be protected in schools, but in a way that does not end with at-risk students being subjected to the very neighborhoods they should be able to escape. As the national conversation turns towards a greater increase in school security, the necessity for all students to thrive in the classroom should not be ignored.

“These kind of growing, and often well-intentioned interventions, raise the question of whether they’re actually helping us reach our goals of making sure all students are successful,” says Karega Rausch, a research associate with the Equity Project at Indiana University.