Exclusionary discipline, which involves removing students from the classroom through punishments such as suspensions and expulsions, deprives students of the opportunity to learn. This type of discipline dramatically increased in the United States over several decades as a result of zero-tolerance policies that were often applied to relatively minor, nonviolent misbehavior such as tardiness or “disrespect.” Such exclusionary punishments have deleterious consequences and disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities.
While suspension is intended to produce safer schools and deter future misbehavior, research shows that exclusionary discipline is ineffective at improving school safety and deterring infractions. This is because suspensions do not address any of the underlying reasons that may be leading to behavioral incidents, nor do they create opportunities for students to learn new approaches to communicating or resolving conflicts.
In addition, suspensions may have a long-lasting negative impact on students who are suspended or expelled. Compared to similar students who were not removed from classrooms, suspended students are more likely to suffer academically, repeat a grade, and drop out of school. Students who receive suspensions are also less likely to graduate from high school and college and are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system. In addition, a school climate centered on control and punishment negatively affects students who are not suspended. Studies have found that non-suspended students in schools with harsh exclusionary discipline policies have lower test scores compared to students in lower-suspending schools.
Decades of data have shown that certain groups of students are disproportionately suspended, including students of color (except Asian students), students receiving special education services, students from low-income families, LGBTQ students, and males. Differences in behavior do not account for the large racial disparities in suspension rates. Prior research has identified a number of school and systemic factors associated with the disproportionate suspension of certain students, including educator implicit bias, insufficient educator preparation, poor educator working conditions, ineffective school leadership, harsh discipline policies, and inequitable resource allocation. Furthermore, these suspensions contribute to inequity in educational outcomes.
Implementation of zero-tolerance policies was highest during the 1990s and early 2000s, encouraged by federal and state policies, which helped fuel an overall increase in the use of suspension as well as expanded racial disparities in suspension. Recent changes in policy and practice have begun to shift educators away from exclusionary discipline, and those changes and trends are reviewed in this report. The report looks at out-of-school suspension data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), tracking trends over time. It also assess differences in suspension rates of students based on their race and ethnicity, school level, and disability status. Data are presented at national and state levels, with state-level findings focusing on secondary school students because out-of-school suspensions are concentrated in secondary schools. This report explores the ways in which changes in suspension rates may be related to changes in policy, and provides recommendations for additional strategies to reduce school exclusion for all students—in particular for those who have disproportionately experienced its negative effects.
The findings from this report are mainly based on analyses of the 2011–12, 2013–14, 2015–16, and 2017–18 Civil Rights Data Collection. In looking at national trends in suspension rates, data points are included from earlier years, drawing from other research and estimates published by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
- Overall suspension rates have increased since 1973, reaching a peak in the early 2010s. Since then, suspension rates have generally decreased. In 1973, the overall U.S. suspension rate was 4%. By the 2009–10 school year, suspensions had increased to 7%, with particularly sharp increases from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. Since then, suspension rates have decreased, reaching 5% in 2017–18. This decrease coincided with efforts of the Obama administration to reduce exclusionary discipline and its disparate impacts, including issuing a guidance package to support states, districts, and schools in their efforts to move away from punitive discipline policies and toward research-based, restorative practices. However, the suspension rate in 2017–18 was still higher than the rates of suspensions observed in the 1970s and early 1980s.
- Educators suspended secondary school students at much higher rates than elementary school students. In 2017–18, nearly 1 in 14 secondary school students (7%) were suspended—more than three times the rate of elementary school students (2%). In addition, while the overall suspension rate decreased from the early 2010s to 2017–18, the drop was concentrated in secondary schools; decreases at the elementary level were smaller and less consistent.
- Racial disparities in suspension have persisted across the years. Educators consistently exclude Black students from school at the highest rate, with more than 1 in 8 Black students (12%) receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions in 2017–18. In that year, educators also suspended Native American students at rates higher than the national average (7% vs. 5%). Black and Native American students have historically been disproportionately suspended in both elementary and secondary schools. While the suspension rates of Latino/a, Pacific Islander, and white students were quite similar across the years in elementary schools, disparities emerge among these racial groups at the secondary school level, where educators suspended Latino/a and Pacific Islander students at higher rates than white students.
- Educators continue to suspend students with disabilities at much higher rates than their nondisabled peers. In 2017–18, almost 1 out of 11 students with disabilities (9%) were suspended, compared to 4% for students without disabilities. Black students with disabilities consistently have the highest risk of suspension, with almost 1 in 5 (19%) receiving a suspension in 2017–18.
- School level, gender, race, and disability status together can substantially impact a student’s risk of suspension. For example, in 2017–18, 1 in 1,000 Asian girls not receiving special education services in elementary schools were suspended (0.1%). However, during that same school year, more than 1 in 4 Black boys with disabilities (27%) in secondary schools were suspended.
- Secondary school suspension rates varied greatly across the country. In Mississippi, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, 15% of students received at least one out-of-school suspension in 2017–18, triple the rate at which students in California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were suspended (5%) and more than five times the rate of suspension in Utah (3%). Such variations may be due to differences in state, local, and school discipline policies; educator quality; and efforts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions.
- Secondary school educators’ use of out-of-school suspension decreased in 48 states and in Washington, DC, between 2011–12 and 2017–18. Such reductions coincided with policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels to replace exclusionary discipline with supportive practices that are associated with decreases in suspension rates and suspension gaps. States with the largest reductions include California and Illinois, which have undertaken a set of policy reforms to limit suspensions. Although these reductions are promising, in five states the decline in out-of-school suspensions came with an even larger increase in in-school suspensions, suggesting that in these states students continued to be excluded from learning opportunities even though they remained in school.
- Most states reduced racial disparities in secondary school suspensions between 2011–12 and 2017–18. The Black–white suspension gap decreased among secondary students in 45 states and Washington, DC, the Latino/a–white gap decreased in 47 states and Washington, DC, and the Native American–white gap decreased in 45 states. However, the suspension rates of Black students and the Black–white gap remain high in many states, and the Black–white gap increased in five states: Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Carolina.
- Between 2011–12 and 2017–18, most states narrowed the suspension gap between secondary school students with and without disabilities. The disabled–nondisabled suspension gap was reduced in 46 states and Washington, DC. However, even though many states have made progress in reducing suspension gaps, students with disabilities continue to be suspended at extremely high rates. For example, about 1 in 4 students with disabilities were suspended in Delaware (25%), Louisiana (25%), South Carolina (25%), and Washington, DC (24%) in 2017–18.
Efforts to improve approaches to school discipline must be part of a comprehensive approach to address inequities in educational opportunity. Following are six key policy strategies for reducing suspension gaps and exclusionary discipline practices overall at the state and local levels:
- Eliminate zero-tolerance and other exclusionary discipline policies, restrict the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for lower-level offenses, and reduce the length of suspensions for moderate and serious offenses. States and local education agencies can end zero-tolerance and other harsh policies to provide flexibility for educators to consider the severity and situational context when a student violates school rules.
- Support evidence-based alternative strategies to exclusionary discipline, such as implementing schoolwide restorative practices and teaching social and emotional skills. Restorative practices are a proactive, relationship-centered approach to building a positive school climate and addressing student behavior. Such practices are integrated with social and emotional learning, as students are encouraged to acknowledge and manage their emotions, develop empathy for others, and establish positive relationships. Research has found that restorative practices are effective in reducing suspensions and improving school climate.
- Collect and report disaggregated data on exclusionary discipline in a timely manner and use the data to inform equity reviews of district and school discipline policies. States and districts should support schools to accurately report their use of exclusionary discipline, disaggregated by student characteristics. States should also follow the example of California, Rhode Island, and West Virginia to include school discipline in their accountability systems. In addition, states and districts should collect, disaggregate, and publicly report data on the amount of lost instruction due to exclusionary discipline on an annual basis.
- Develop educator preparation standards for supporting positive climates and using restorative practices to manage classrooms. Many teachers and principals are unprepared to use positive discipline practices that can reduce reliance on exclusionary discipline. States can include competencies in building strong relationships, creating supportive classroom climates, and using restorative practices in their standards for approving educator preparation programs and teacher licenses.
- Provide professional learning to help educators create inclusive and culturally responsive learning environments and foster trusting relationships with students. States and districts can provide resources to enable educators to create positive learning environments. This can include professional development focused on mitigating implicit biases, developing empathy for students, creating multi-tiered systems of support, advancing restorative practices, providing support for students with disabilities, and transforming the school culture to one that values students from diverse backgrounds.
- Invest in support services and support staff to better meet the needs of students and educators. Research shows that access to high-quality and adequate support services is associated with fewer incidences of student behavior issues and lower rates of suspensions. States and districts can allocate resources to provide wraparound supports for high-need students and their families and hire more social workers, counselors, and school psychologists.
To support these state and local efforts, policy makers at the federal level can:
- Update and reissue the 2014 “Non-Discriminatory Administration of School Discipline” guidance. Many students of color, particularly Black and Native American students, continue to be disproportionately suspended. Although progress was made under the 2014 guidance in limiting exclusionary disciplinary practices and reducing racial disparities in discipline, implementing restorative practices, and protecting civil rights, the guidance was revoked in 2018. The guidance should be reissued and updated regularly to align with research on effective and non-discriminatory practices. The updated guidance should include additional information on resources to increase access to mental health services and supports, particularly for student of color; best practices for building positive school climates through restorative practices; and suggestions for revising codes of conduct to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline for ambiguous infractions, such as “willful defiance.” The guidance should also clarify the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights statutory oversight and enforcement role to investigate claims of discriminatory school discipline practices.
- Support the dissemination and use of newly released Department of Education resources aimed at reducing exclusionary discipline for students with disabilities. Despite some progress over time, students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately suspended. In July 2022, the Department of Education released guidance on the legal requirements for disciplining students with disabilities under the Individuals With Disabilities Act and supportive materials to help educators meet the needs of students with disabilities. Federal policymakers can dedicate resources to promote this guidance and support states, districts, and schools in implementing changes to their current discipline practices.
- Offer technical assistance and increase oversight and accountability to ensure that states and districts accurately report data on their use of exclusionary discipline and referrals to law enforcement. To better understand the use of suspension in schools, the Office for Civil Rights also should require schools to report the total number of suspensions a school issued, in addition to the number of students who were suspended and the total days students missed due to suspensions. This would enable government departments, researchers, and advocates to identify states, districts, and schools with high suspension rates, high magnitudes of lost instruction, and large disparities in suspension rates and to intervene as appropriate.
- Provide additional funding for professional learning that helps educators create inclusive and culturally responsive learning environments and adopt restorative discipline practices. The federal government can support professional learning opportunities that help educators create positive learning environments by increasing funding through ESSA Title II, Part A. Additional resources could be targeted toward professional development activities focused on areas that can reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, such as restorative practices, students of color and students with disabilities, developing empathy for students, and employing asset-based approaches that help students build social and emotional skills.
Pushed Out: Trends and Disparities in Out-of-School Suspension by Melanie Leung-Gagné, Jennifer McCombs, Caitlin Scott, and Daniel J. Losen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.