Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Risks Associated with School Suspension, Expulsion

Suspension or expulsion from school are methods often used to decrease violence, discourage drug abuse, and diminish criminal activity within the academic setting (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003). Additionally these punishments may be utilized as a way to deal with certain negative behaviors such as truancy (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003). The American Academy of Pediatrics (2003) found that between 74% and 94% of schools had a zero tolerance policy and that 90% of Americans supported such policies. Zero tolerance refers to the enforcement of an automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule with the intention of eliminating undesirable behavior or conduct. Despite such strong approval from the American public, the American Bar Association (ABA) voted in 2001 to end "zero tolerance" as a set standard. The ABA reasoned that it is wrong to mandate  suspension/expulsion for a student or refer him or her to juvenile court without taking into consideration the individual circumstances surrounding the infraction. The ABA also believed that a one-punishment-fits-all approach does not work and will not not deter a student from committing bad acts in the future.

A concern around the use of suspension or expulsion is the way in which this particular punishment may be applied more frequently to certain populations. Indeed, research has indicated that a certain type of student is more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. According to the 2000 census, children growing in homes near or below the poverty level are more likely to be expelled (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003). Similarly, children with single parents are between 2 and 4 times more likely to be suspended or expelled  even when controlling for other social or demographic factors (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003). The relationship between race and disciplinary action has also been considered as African American students are 2 to 3 times more likely to be suspended than white students (American Academy for Pediatrics, 2003; Gregory & Weinstein, 2008). Gregory and Weinstein (2008) found that the student typically suspended from school is male and from a lower socioeconomic background.

Are certain schools or districts really suspending students at significantly high rate?

Below is a comparison between the suspension rates in a few low income (top) and high income communities (bottom).

Out of school 
In School 

Out of school 
In school 

This data seems much in line with research indicating that low income students are much more likely to be suspended than their wealthier counterparts.

While consequences for negative actions are necessary, there can be many risks associated with out of school suspension or expulsion. The Academy of Pediatrics (2003) found that among children suspended or expelled from school there were high rates of depression and other psychosocial stressors such as domestic violence. These students are also more likely to come from homes where there is a general lack of supervision. Thus, those who are most likely to be suspended or expelled need the most adult supervision and/or professional help during the day. Despite this, students are routinely not referred to a medical or mental health provider after exhibiting school based behavioral problems. Because the suspended student is out of school and is not receiving professional help, risks for  the student include committing crimes, smoking marijuana, using alcohol or cocaine and engaging in sexual intercourse. Suicidal ideation or behavior has also been found to be more common during times of isolation from peers and a lack of professional assistance during the exclusion period may lead to permanent drop out (Academy for American Pediatrics, 2003). In a city like Holyoke with a high suspension rate and a low graduation rate (52.5%), medical or psychological assistance may be an especially necessary intervention.

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides some recommendations around school suspension. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Establishing relationships with various health and social agencies in the community so students with disciplinary problems are readily referred for professional help.
  • Matters related to safety and supervision should be explored with parents whenever the student is barred from attending school. This includes but is not limited to exploring the presence of household guns.
  • Pediatricians should be encouraged to provide input or participate in multidisciplinary student support teams that can provide suspended or expelled students with a comprehensive assessment and intervention strategies
  • A full assessment of the social, medical and mental health problems in order to ascertain factors that may underlie the student's behaviors and health risks. Consideration of appropriate referrals including drug rehabs, social agencies, mental health providers and other specialists who may assist with any underlying problems.
  • Out of school suspension should be limited to the worst offense; the school should demonstrate how attendance at a school site, even in an alternative setting, would be inadequate to prevent a student from causing harm to himself or others.

**Data taken from: www.doe.mass.edu

American Academy of Pediatrics (2003). Out of school suspension and expulsion. Pediatrics, 112, 5: 1206-1209.

Gregory, A., & Weinstein, R. S. (2008). The discipline gap and African Americans: defiance or cooperation in the high school classroom. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 455-475.

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