Abstract: Examining School Social Worker Influence on Student Disciplinary Outcomes (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

164P Examining School Social Worker Influence on Student Disciplinary Outcomes

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Brandon Mitchell, BA, Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Cooper Stansbury, BA, Student, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Dearborn, MI
Heather Knauer, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: Since the widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies after the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 was enacted, school discipline rates have risen dramatically, with a 60% increase in suspensions, doubling of expulsions, and 200-500% annual increase in school based arrests. Students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by these policies, and are overrepresented in rates of all disciplinary outcomes. School discipline is associated with poor outcomes, including chronic absenteeism, lower academic achievement, increased risk of drop-out and incarceration. School social workers (SSWs) engage closely with students with disabilities, designing and implementing IEP and 504 plans, and providing counseling and mental health services. As such, SSWs may be positioned to lead efforts to reduce aversive disciplinary strategies for students with disabilities. However, given exceedingly low SSW:student ratios in most U.S. school districts, it is unclear if SSWs can have an impact on improving school climate and mitigating rates of suspensions and other discipline strategies for students with disabilities. The objective of this study was to examine the presence of SSWs and other school service professionals and their association with the use of zero-tolerance discipline strategies.

Methods: We used publicly available data from the 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to examine the association between the presence of school service professionals and school-reported incidents of discipline across 96,360 schools in the U.S.. We used multiple linear regression to examine the association of the number of SSWs (based on FTE, and normalized by overall student enrollment) and other services professionals (i.e., counselors and psychologists) on disciplinary outcomes. Disciplinary outcomes were defined as one or more incidents of suspension, expulsion, law enforcement referral, and arrests during the school year.

Results: Students with disabilities represented 12.5% of the total student enrollment but accounted for 20.9% of students with at least one in-school-suspension, out-of-school suspension (26.1%), expulsion (18.3%), law enforcement referral (28.4%) or arrest (28.2%). The ratio of school social workers to students significantly influenced in-school suspensions (B=0.20 X , SE=0.04, p<0.001), out of school suspensions (B=0.77, SE=0.05, p<0.001), expulsions (B=0.18, SE=0.02, p<0.001), referrals to law enforcement (B=0.23, SE=0.01, p<0.001) and arrests (B=0.14, SE=0.01, p<0.001). In contrast, the number of students with one or more suspensions, expulsions, or arrests was not consistently significantly influenced by the presence of school counselors or psychologists.   

Conclusions and Implications: We found that disparities in the use of school discipline for students with disabilities continues to persist across the country. The positive association between the presence of SSWs, but not other service professionals, and disciplinary incidents may reflect schools attempt to address challenges by hiring more SSWs. However, these results also suggest that there is (as of yet) no generally effective policy for school service professionals to implement alternatives to zero-tolerance policies for students with disabilities.