Alternatives to Suspension


The suspension of students from school is an issue that every district and every school must closely examine. How many suspensions are given every year? To whom? For how long? Every day that a student is suspended from school makes it more and more difficult to attain high academic outcomes. There have been many reports that highlight the alarmingly disproportionate number of students of color and students with disabilities that have missed time in the classroom as a result of discriminatory use of suspension (Opportunity to Learn Campaign, 2012).

There are also many unintended consequences that go along with the suspension of a student. Security measures, such as metal detectors, searches and drug testing have little beneficial effect on the safety in schools, and they may be harmful to the positive relationships within the school community (Varnham, 2005). What is the policy on suspension in your district? Is it used as a standard consequence, or is it used as a last resort after everything else has been tried? “There are no data showing that out-of-school suspension or expulsion reduce rates of disruption or improve school climate; indeed, the available data suggest that, if anything, disciplinary removal appears to have negative effects on student outcomes and the learning climate” (American Psychological Association, 2008; Minnesota Department of Education, 2012).

Data Regarding Suspension

In many school across this country, the discipline data indicate that students of color are disproportionately suspended. In other words, a much higher percentage of Black or Hispanic students are being suspended than are represented in the student body. Research shows that African American boys are disciplined more often and receive more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions than White students. A survey of 72,000 schools (kindergarten through high school) found that Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers (Rudd, 2014).

Research suggests that as young as age five, Black students are being routinely suspended or expelled for minor infractions such as talking back to teachers or writing on their desks. When digging deeper into the reasons why students are being sent to the office, it becomes apparent that Black students are being referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Implicit bias appears to be playing a major role in this disproportionality. Existing research suggests that implicit racial bias may influence teacher’s expectations for academic success, which often leads to differential treatment for students of color, including less praise and more disciplinary action (Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). Teachers and school administrators often choose more severe punishment for Black students than for White students for the same offense (Losen, 2010).

Impact of Suspension

Under the Reagan administration during the 1980s, zero tolerance policies were established in schools as part of the war on drugs. Zero tolerance was further emphasized during the Clinton administration in response to school violence when Congress enacted the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. This policy states that any student found with a gun on school property must be expelled for at least one year. School zero tolerance policies soon went beyond drugs and guns to include various other offenses including hate speech, harassment, fighting and dress codes. Although school administrators are permitted to use their discretion in terms of the degree to which they will apply zero tolerance, data indicate that the policy is disproportionately applied to students of color across this country.

Zero tolerance discipline sends a clear message to students that they are not valued and that they are being defined as criminals (Zaslaw, 2010). Students subjected to harsh disciplinary measures that exclude them from school tend to fall behind academically. Suspensions often result in diminished self-worth and distrust of school officials, which starts students down a path of becoming disconnected from school which is not the intended outcome. In addition, there is a strong correlation between suspensions and low achievement and school dropout. Students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than students who have never been suspended. Furthermore, dropping out of school triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life (New York Civil Liberties Union, 2008).

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