Curry Research Finds Suspending Students, In or Out of School, is Problematic

In an effort to avoid using one disciplinary practice with increasingly negative results, schools may unknowingly be utilizing an alternative practice associated with many of the same outcomes.

Audrey Breen

One of the most severe forms of discipline used in American schools is out-of-school suspension. When a student commits a serious grievance, such as possession of an illegal substance or engaging in a fight, out-of-school suspension demands a student be absent from school and away from school grounds for a number of days.

Research shows that out-of-school suspension is ineffective as a tool to improve behavior in students – and often has a negative effect on the students who receive it. The research also shows that certain students disproportionately receive the punishment. According to Blaire Cholewa, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, as the disproportionality and negative consequences of out-of-school suspension are increasingly accepted, many schools have moved toward a different disciplinary approach that may have similar consequences.

In-school suspension is the practice of removing students from classroom instruction and other activities while requiring they remain on the school campus during regular hours.

In a paper published this summer in School Psychology Quarterly, Cholewa points to a number of findings that should raise caution about the use of in-school suspension as an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

“The first thing we discovered as we began to review the literature was the limited existing research on in-school suspension and its impacts,” Cholewa said. “There is very little data on how in-school suspension is used, how it is implemented from one school division to the next, and very little on the effectiveness of it as a tool to decrease problematic behavior.”

The use of in-school suspension is as prevalent a tool as out-of-school suspension. According to data from the U.S Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, between 2011 and 2012, 3.45 million students received out-of-school suspension and 3.5 million received in-school suspension.

Cholewa and colleagues’ paper cites the significant research that has been published on negative outcomes of out-of-school suspension, including lower achievement scores, higher rates of repeating a grade and higher dropout rates. The demographics of students receiving out-of-school suspension have also been well documented, and show that students who are black, male, of lower socioeconomic status or who qualify for special education receive out-of-school suspension at a higher rate than their peers.

“The research regarding out-of-school suspension and its disproportionality and negative outcomes is striking,” Cholewa said. “However, our analysis of data in a nationally representative dataset indicated that in-school suspension has a very similar pattern. The same groups of students are receiving in-school suspension at a higher rate, and the outcomes parallel those of out-of-school suspension.”  

This research suggests that schools are widely using a disciplinary tool with an unknown rate of effectiveness that is associated with negative outcomes for the students.

However, Cholewa is not willing to toss out in-school suspension entirely.

“There are ways that in-school suspension has potential to be a positive intervention,” she said. “A significant element of the impacts – positive or negative – of in-school suspension is what is being done to engage students during their time in suspension.”

“Combining in-school suspension with a series of restorative practices is potentially one way it could benefit students.”

Restorative practices focus on building community and relationships while also intervening to restore community and repair harm after an infraction. For example, if a student has an altercation with another student, time is spent engaging in a process with both students (and at times their classmates, too) to discuss the behavior, the harm it has caused and what steps can be taken to restore the relationship.  

Cholewa stresses that paying attention to the demographics of those receiving in-school suspension is critical, as is understanding why those discrepancies exist.

“We must take into account things like implicit bias, levels of cultural sensitivity and examining how behaviors are interpreted,” Cholewa said. “It is critical we spend time as educators doing the hard work of better understanding how we see the world and how we view our students.”

While there are a number of gaps to fill with research, Cholewa said educators should make it a priority to try to continue to better understand race and socioeconomic status in relation to in-school suspension. She also recommends conducting research on exactly how schools are using in-school suspension, determining what happens when a student receives the punishment and comparing outcomes to those of students who receive out-of-school suspension.

“The goal is to determine practices that effectively create outcomes for students that result in more engagement in their classes, success in advancing to the next grade level and ultimately staying in school as a successful student,” Cholewa said.

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Audrey Breen