‘Sent Home’ Shows the Disparate Impact of School Discipline

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New research by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University shows a link between suspensions in Florida and students’ failure to complete high school and enroll in college. The study finds more than a quarter of Florida’s high school students are suspended during their freshman year, with rates substantially higher for black and low-income students. But the authors of “Sent Home and Put Off-Track” stress that reducing the number of suspensions, without broadly considering other efforts to re-engage students in school, is only part of the solution to getting more high school students on the path to graduation and college.

Tracking a cohort of ninth-grade students in Florida for seven years, researchers find that 27 percent of students in the state are suspended in their first year of high school. Suspension rates vary from group to group: about 22 percent of white students, 26 percent of Hispanic students, 39 percent of black students, and 34 percent of low-income students receive at least one suspension during their freshman year.

These inequities are troubling because even one suspension in the ninth-grade year is a bellwether that a student is off track to graduate or, subsequently, to enroll in college. For example, three-quarters of students with no ninth-grade suspensions graduated four years later, compared to only half of students with a single ninth-grade suspension. Yet within this climate, high schools exhibit a wide range of suspension rates for black students. And the fact that this variation exists even among high-poverty schools suggests some schools are doing a better job than others of identifying non-punitive, inclusive approaches to behavior management.

According to the study, for about 20 percent of suspended students, the adoption of more inclusive approaches to discipline might help keep some on the path to graduation. This minority of all suspended students do not exhibit other indicators of disengagement in ninth grade, such as course failures or low attendance.

The majority of suspended students, however, do exhibit additional signs of disengagement beyond suspension. This frequent pattern of co-occurring suspensions, course failures, and subpar attendance rates suggests that changes to disciplinary policies, while worthy in terms of their potential to mitigate inequities, will not, on their own, get students on the path to graduation. Rather, educators must take broad actions that re-engage students in the school community, in an effort to reduce these early signs of falling off course.

— Marni Bromberg