Expert Commentary

Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies: Influence of student, school and infraction characteristics on suspensions and expulsions

2014 study published in the American Educational Research Journal exploring the factors associated with racial disparities in school discipline.

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“Zero tolerance” disciplinary policies arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to perceptions of rising school violence. The concept was simple: Students who committed certain infractions were to be expelled or given out-of-school suspension regardless of individual circumstances.

One of the key pieces of legislation was the Gun-Free School Zones Act, part of the Crime Control Act of 1990. While that law was struck down by the Supreme Court, it was revised as the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1996, and requires school districts to adopt zero-tolerance policies in exchange for receiving federal funds. Not surprisingly, after schools adopted such policies, disciplinary action became much more frequent: A 2010 analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that U.S. students were nearly seven times more likely to receive out-of-school suspension in 2006 compared to 1976.

Recently, however, parents, school districts, policymakers and academics have begun to question the wisdom of such inflexible policies — highlighted by cases such as a 6-year-old child’s being suspended for bringing his Cub Scout camping utensil to show off in class. A 2006 report by an American Psychological Association task force examined 10 years of scholarly research on school discipline and concluded, “schools are not any safer or more effective in disciplining children than before these zero tolerance policies were implemented in the mid 1980s.” They have also been shown to increase dropout rates and reduce academic achievement.

Worse, the policies’ burden tends to fall disproportionately on minority students: A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. The report also found that the disparities begin in preschool: Black children comprise 18% of preschool students, but they make up 42% of those who were suspended once and 48% of those suspended more than once.

A 2014 study published in the American Educational Research Journal, “Parsing Disciplinary Disproportionality: Contributions of Infraction, Student and School Characteristics to Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion,” looks at how the type of infraction committed, demographic factors and principals’ attitudes can predict rates of out-of-school suspension and expulsion. The researchers — Russell J. Skiba, Choong-Geun Chung, Megan Trachok, Timberly L. Baker and Robin L. Hughes, based at Indiana University, and Adam Sheya of the University of Connecticut — analyzed data from 730 public and charter schools in an unnamed Midwestern U.S. state. The study included data from 43,320 students who had been expelled, given out-of-school suspension or received both forms of punishment.

The study’s findings include:

  • After taking a student’s infraction type, gender, socioeconomic status and school demographics into account as well as the school principal’s attitude towards discipline, a black student still had 25% higher odds of being expelled than white students. However, black students were no more likely to receive out-of-school suspension.
  • Regardless of the race of the student being punished, schools with a higher proportion of black students were much more likely to give out-of-school suspensions compared to schools with fewer black students. A school’s racial composition was the strongest single predictor of suspension, but was not associated with expulsions.
  • Taking all other factors into account, students receiving free or reduced-price lunches had 18.9% higher chance of being given out-of-school suspension and 17.5% higher chance for expulsion than those who didn’t receive such assistance.
  • Taking all other factors into account, male students had 17.2% higher chance of being suspended compared to female students. There was no gender difference for the probability of being expelled.
  • Principal attitude was an important predictor of expulsions. Students at schools with a principal that favored exclusion had more than twice the odds of being expelled compared to students whose principal favored prevention strategies — using in-school suspension and peer mediation to prevent further infractions. Principal attitude was not a significant factor in the rate of out-of-school suspensions, however.

“The single most important finding from this analysis may well be that systemic, school-level variables appear to contribute to disproportionality in out-of-school suspension far more than either type of infraction or individual demographics,” the researchers conclude. “Such a finding strongly suggests that those wishing to have a positive effect on reducing or eliminating racial disparities in discipline would be well advised to seek interventions that focus on school policies and practices — principal leadership, achievement orientation, and the possible contributions of implicit bias — rather than on the characteristics of students or their behaviors.”

Related research: “Violence in Schools: Research Findings on Underlying Dynamics, Response and Prevention,” rounds up research on strategies used by schools to eliminate or mitigate negative effects of violence, including damage and potential loss of life. These range from improving mental health care and implementing violence prevention curriculum to enhanced security and communication protocols.

Keywords: Gun-Free School Zones Act, violence, youth, guns

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