Since the heyday of zero-tolerance student discipline policy, concern has grown, and research has tended to confirm, that excluding students from school, through suspension or expulsion, in many cases does damage to their later lives while yielding no overall benefit for students.
An extensive study by the Center for Court Innovation of New York City (NYC) school students found that, once disciplined in school, students were more likely to face further discipline or justice-system involvement if they were male, Black, Hispanic, disabled, or poor — even after accounting for students’ conduct and other factors. For those with at least one prior disciplinary incident, being Black was the strongest predictor of future school suspensions and incidents, the report said, with being Hispanic close behind. The research team concluded that a student’s conduct alone may not inform the decision to impose school discipline, as school staff decision-makers may be swayed by implicit biases pertaining to students’ demographic traits or stereotypes tied to those traits.
Future arrests, however, were most strongly associated with school suspension rate, rather than any demographic factor. Students in schools with high suspension rates were more likely to face later arrest, according to the study.
In a separate element of the study of NYC schools’ discipline, safety, and climate, the researchers broke new ground in finding that local schools have potential to be safe spaces for children, regardless of the relative safety, or negative influences, of the surrounding neighborhood. In that vein, the researchers found that factors inside the school — for example, use of restorative and positive approaches to discipline — likely influence overall school safety and school climate more than factors in the surrounding environment.
The research design was groundbreaking both in its population sample — with more than half a million city schools student records screened — and in the breadth of its data sources — with both school system and criminal justice system data reviewed to measure outcomes over time for disciplined students.
The study’s purpose was two-fold:
- To isolate the impact of student suspensions on later student outcomes (up to two years later), including future suspensions after an initial school incident, and future juvenile or criminal arrests, and grade advancement.
- To understand student, school, and neighborhood characteristics associated with school suspension.
The Center for Court Innovation team focused on student suspensions in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years and then followed any further school discipline or arrests experienced by the same individuals through 2015. The 87,401 students who experienced initial suspensions represented 17% of all students in 804 middle and high school students in the nation’s largest school system.
In addition to the quantitative portion of the study described above, a qualitative portion of the study —the segment using interviews and focus groups — gathered and synthesized impressions of school community members on school climate and safety and the impacts of restorative justice practices and positive practices designed to improve school climate and safety. Positive practices may include restorative practices, mediation, conflict resolution, trauma-informed practices, and counseling.
School Suspensions Led to Undesirable Outcomes, and Student Demographic Characteristics Predicted Suspensions
An initial school suspension increased the likelihood of subsequent arrest as well as failure to advance academically to the next grade, or to graduate.
Further, Black students and boys were overrepresented among those students subject to formal disciplinary responses such as suspension. The study found that:
- Black students made up 45% all students with a formal disciplinary incident, despite comprising just 29 % of the overall population.
- Boys were involved in 61% of all incidents, yet represented only half (51%) of that population.
But being Black was found to be the single strongest predictor of future disciplinary incidents, including suspension, followed closely by being Hispanic. In addition, Black and Hispanic students were found to be significantly more likely than others to have future school suspensions. Students with a disability, economic disadvantage and those who were chronically absent were also more likely to have a future suspension.
With respect to future arrests of those having an initial disciplinary incident, being male was the strongest predictor of arrest. Blacks and Hispanics, again, were significantly more likely than others to later have a criminal or juvenile arrest, the researchers reported.
A School’s Neighborhood is Not Related to Its School Climate or Suspension Rate
Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis, neither neighborhood disadvantage nor neighborhood crime rates significantly predicted high school suspension rates, when accounting for school-level variables. Further, neighborhood disadvantage and crime did not significantly affect school climate, when accounting for school-level characteristics. Neighborhood disadvantage was measured using multiple variables, including, but not limited to, poverty, education level, and unemployment. School climate pertained to student, teacher, and parent perceptions of school safety and being treated with respect.
Interviews and Focus Groups Found Positive Practices Well Received in Select Schools
The qualitative study segment analyzed personal impressions of students, staff, and parents in a sample of schools where positive practices such as restorative justice were largely adopted in place of exclusionary practices such as suspension and expulsion. The research found those practices were well received by students, parents, and school staff and held promise as models for all city schools.
Major implications of the study as a whole included a need for school-based solutions to respond to students involved in a disciplinary incident. Such solutions, the report said, could include:
- Resource reallocation and greater investment in and supports for young people dealing with multiple layers of disadvantage who are being suspended from school.
- An infusion of critical thinking by school administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and students about underlying factors causing Black students, especially Black boys, and poor students to be disproportionately disciplined, regardless of a school’s climate of use of suspension.
The study commenced amid mounting national concern over negative consequences of school disciplinary practices that exclude students from their schools through suspension and expulsion. Exclusionary practices were prevalent forms of discipline under zero tolerance policies.
Putting the Study Data into Context
New York City has the largest school system in the United States, educating over 1.1 million students.
The study’s unique combination of criminal justice and education data yielded important insights on the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon. In fact, the unique dataset from an enormous school system can enable researchers to track student outcomes over time and, “essentially, test the existence and impact of the school-to-prison pipeline,” the report said.
Developments since the 2011-2013 study period, however, reflect significant change in schools’ approach to discipline in New York City and elsewhere, as the study report noted. Total suspensions peaked in the city in 2011, before steadily declining through 2019. In 2015, the mayor’s office announced restrictions on suspension, limitations on handcuffing, and new training for school safety. School-based arrests declined to an all-time low in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the report, citing a report from the New York City mayor’s office.
The research team reported noteworthy study limitations in five general areas:
- Matching Data - The matching process between large criminal justice and education datasets was likely less than perfect, given a lack of common identifying numbers in the systems.
- Statistical Analysis - The vast number of students can be problematic statistically. Thus, the team focused on magnitude of effects and not significance alone.
- Analysis Limitations - For example, the researchers were unable to include an incident severity variable for future suspensions.
- Limited Staff Viewpoints - Interviewed school staff were associated with select schools with positive school climates. In that sense, the sample was likely did not include all perspectives.
- The study was unable to rigorously test the impact of restorative justice and positive practices in school.
The NYC school study’s exceptional size allowed unique insights into the connection among school, neighborhood, and student characteristics on exclusionary school discipline and justice system involvement. Suspensions from school were associated with negative school and criminal justice outcomes. Certain students, even when accounting for their behavior, were more likely to receive suspensions.
Importantly, the neighborhood where a school was located did not impact the school’s climate or use of suspension, suggesting schools can protect students even in tough surroundings. The research also enabled a better understanding of how restorative practices in schools may reduce the use of exclusionary discipline of students and justice system contact. To that extent, the study suggests that restorative justice and other positive practices may work hand in glove with prison reform measures and the nationwide movement toward decarceration, that is, reducing incarceration.
About This Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2014-CK-BX-0001, awarded to the Center for Court Innovation. This article is based on the grantee report “School Discipline, Safety, and Climate: A Comprehensive Study in New York City,” (2019), L. Ayoub, E. Jensen, T. Sandwick, D. Kralstein, J. Wonsun Hahn, and E. White, Center for Court Innovations.