Abstract: Expelled or Suspended from School: A Grounded Theory Study (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Expelled or Suspended from School: A Grounded Theory Study

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jane Sanders, MSW, RSW, PhD(c), Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Faye Mishna, PhD, Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose:

Students who are Black or Indigenous, have learning concerns, are male, or from lower income households are disproportionately suspended, suspended for longer periods, or expelled from school (disciplinary exclusion). Disciplinary exclusion is related to school dropout, subsequent suspension, ongoing behaviour concerns, arrest, and incarceration. School exclusion has a significant impact on an individual yet very little study has included the perspective of these students.

The objective of this grounded theory study was to understand the experiences of students who have been excluded. The following research questions were addressed: 1) What are the experiences of these students leading up to and including exclusion? 2) What factors do participants feel contributed to the exclusion? 3) What systemic factors (school, community, family) have positively or negatively influenced their personal and academic success? 


Given the paucity of research which includes these students’ perspectives, grounded theory provides a method to understand their experiences and develop theory based on these data. Participants were recruited through exclusion classrooms in two school boards in Ontario in 2018/2019. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted individually with students (n=15) and interdisciplinary staff (n=16).Student participants were aged 14-19, most were male (n=11), Black (n=10), and had an Individual Education Plan (n=9). University and school board ethics approval was obtained.

The essential features of grounded theory were applied: simultaneous data collection and analysis; analytic codes and categories grounded in the data; theory development at each stage; memoing; constant comparative analysis; theoretical sampling; theoretical sensitivity of the researcher; intermediate coding; and theoretical saturation. Prolonged engagement was particularly importantto build the relationships with staff and students essential for successful data collection.


The findings revealed extremely high exposure to adversity, including school/community/peer violence and systemic oppression (racism/poverty) influencing students’ academics; “all that shit outside of school…I get into school I’m always still in that mindset”. Students who felt unsupported “start[ed] putting things in [their] own hands and that's where a lot of these problems happen”. They identified developing protective strategies including “big up” to cope with ongoing adversity, “how I walk down the halls and stuff”. Such coping strategies were part of an interactive process impacting the teacher-student relationship; “teachers would feel some kind of way, threatened…endangered” and “teachers who were intimidated by my size, would get really, really angry with me”. Moreover, students consistently expressed the importance of teacher relationships where they felt heard, understood and connected, “once you get to know me, I do the work”.

Conclusions and Implications:

Strategies developed to cope with adversity can be counterproductive to academic success. Furthermore, it is not simply that adversity affects an individual's social, emotional and neurological development, social identities are imposed on certain students based on their social location. Teachers are likely to interpret coping behaviour negatively and students interpret teachers as not caring enough to understand and support them. These findings direct focus toward theimpact of adversity and oppression, the interaction between teachers and students, and facilitators and barriers to strong teaching relationships for student success.