Background and Purpose: Research on the impact of school suspensions documents an array of deleterious effects on the developmental outcomes of individual youth, ranging from increased anti-social behavior to greater likelihood of drop-out and incarceration. The adverse impacts have also been shown to disproportionately affect Black and Latinx students, who are more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts for similar offenses. In contrast, some have argued that stricter discipline improves school safety and climate to the benefit of the larger school community, although few studies have assessed the effects of suspension usage at the school-level. In response, the current study utilizes data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to estimate the degree to which suspension rates are associated with key school-level achievement outcomes across over 600 high schools, independent of the demographic and academic make-up of the schools’ student bodies.
Methods: Data are from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s (2016) publicly available data sources (N=677). Hierarchical multiple regression was used to determine 1) the association between demographic factors and reliance on out-of-school suspension; and 2) the relationship between suspensions and academic achievement (graduation rates and proficiency levels in algebra, literature, and biology) independent of other school-level factors.
Results: Findings indicate that across all models, higher rates of out-of-school suspensions were associated with lower student achievement at the school-level, independent of known demographic and academic predictors such as school racial composition, student SES backgrounds, the proportion of special education students, charter status, and school Title 1 designations. Meanwhile, higher proportions of Black students in a school was predictive of school suspension rates independent of other school-level characteristics, indicating potential racial bias in the assignment of suspensions in high schools.
Conclusions and Implications: Findings here have strong implications for school discipline policy, professional development for school personnel, and school social worker support and advocacy for students. Specifically, these results lend substantial support to the notion that the use of suspensions contributes negatively to students’ future trajectories in multiple academic outcomes, and in all likelihood for both for suspended and non-suspended students. In addition, given that these adverse impacts disproportionately affect Black students, these findings strongly suggest that schools should invest in alternative discipline approaches such as restorative practices, as well as enhanced professional development around race, implicit bias, and increased person-in-context understandings. Results also elevate an important point of advocacy for school social workers seeking the most effective strategies in supporting students facing disciplinary challenges.