Suspensions Don’t Work. So Why Are States Aiming to Bring Them Back?

When Rachel Perera was in high school, she dyed her hair red.

Perera attended a Catholic school in Queens in New York City with a rigid disciplinary regime. The hair got Perera in trouble because the school said it was an “unnatural color,” she says.

“And I was like, well, unnatural for who? This feels really arbitrary,” Perera says.

It’s a feeling she recalls having a lot. She was getting good grades, and she didn’t understand what her hair color had to do with misbehavior or disrupting the learning environment. As an Afro-Latina, she came to the conclusion that it was about controlling how she presented herself. It felt capricious, but she came to accept it as something she had to suffer through, she says.

“I spent a lot of time in detention in high school for things that I would argue were unfair,” she says — adding that at least she was able to get homework done while in detention.

In the years since, in her role as a fellow for the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy research organization, she’s come to a deeper understanding of her time in school. It convinced her that many of her experiences were not unique but rather emblematic of how girls of color, especially Black girls, experience student discipline, she says.

One of those lessons: Suspensions don’t work. Not only that, but this kind of exclusionary discipline practice significantly influences how students experience school and can fuel worse outcomes for some students more than others.

Many teachers have come to adopt the view that suspensions are ineffective, Perera says.

A 2014 report from the Obama Administration — later revoked under the Trump Administration — even pushed schools to examine discipline practices that it suggested were reinforcing the school-to prison-pipeline, a response to data suggesting that Black students were more often punished.

But now, under the unique stress-test of the pandemic, a handful of legislatures are re-embracing suspensions. A recent report co-authored by Perera found that eight states introduced laws that remove restrictions on suspensions. At least four of those became law.

In Nevada, one of those states where the law passed, the pro-suspension bill revoked a 2019 law that required schools to favor restorative justice plans over suspensions. The new bill also lets schools suspend students as young as six. It was backed by the Clark County Education Association, a teachers union. In a letter in support of the bill, prior to its passing, Marie Neisess, the president of that union, argued that alternative approaches to suspensions had “contributed to the crisis of violence in our schools.”

Yet to Perera, strict discipline policies disproportionately increase racial discrimination, worsen academic performance and may not even help the other students in the classroom.

Tough Love

Part of the problem may be that alternative discipline models have been hard to carry through.

Unfortunately, the evidence on alternatives like restorative justice or positive behavioral interventions is mixed, says Chris Curran, director of the Education Policy Research Center at the University of Florida’s College of Education.

It’s really about how it gets put into practice, he says.

Only a few years ago, the most rigorous evidence for restorative justice models of school discipline was considered disappointing. Studies — including a study in Pittsburgh from 2018 and another from Maine in 2019 — suggested that, while the model held promise, implementation was precarious, leading to mixed results.

The resources and the training for schools trying to switch to restorative justice programs just aren’t there, Curran says.

Practices like restorative justice circles, where students sit down after an incident to repair their relationship through discussion, falls outside of what teachers were usually trained to do, he adds. It also requires dedicated time and space, and without trained counselors and support staff, when the teacher is responsible for 20 other students, it’s tough to pull off, Curran says.

Another problem? Timing. Schools started to shift to these models around the time of the pandemic.

Since schools have opened back up, there’s a perception that discipline problems have continued to get worse, with some teachers even reporting that they fear for their own safety. When schools are already facing staffing shortages, it adds another level of difficulty and uncertainty.

Some researchers think the evidence is becoming even more clear that these models are effective. For example, Perera argues, a study from this year in Chicago Public Schools found that restorative practices improved school climate without leading to more classroom disruptions. Suspensions declined, and arrests, both in and out of school, decreased.

The study was able to show that the biggest benefit from restorative justice programs occurred in schools with the most robust implementation, Perera says. While it’s not known yet what precise supports are most important, Perera thinks that it shows that schools will need dedicated resources to support educators.

Meanwhile, there’s pressure to act.

Post-pandemic, teachers are feeling stressed and overworked, and when schools haven’t been able to put a strong alternative discipline system in place, it can feel like there’s chaos in the schools, Perera says. It can fuel the impression that the systems aren’t working, she says.

But she argues that that’s a premature evaluation.

It’s a complete shift in the way schools approach discipline, and it requires a lot of resources, Perera says. Passing a law that greenlights suspensions is cheaper and easier for legislators than setting up a new paradigm, Perera adds.

There’s a lot of promise in those alternative approaches, and certainly more than in turning back the clock, Curran, of the University of Florida, says: “But we haven’t quite got it all figured out, or we haven’t quite put the investment to put the resources in place to do it.”

It’s important to step back and figure out the root causes of what schools are seeing, Curran argues. School leaders should think locally. He suspects that a lot of the uptick in misbehavior is being caused by the trauma from the pandemic when students were cut off from relationships with teachers and peers. In that context, he says, it’s more useful to establish a positive environment and to focus on really engaging instruction than to further isolate kids who are acting out by suspending them.

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