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Exploring the True Costs: Out-of-School Suspensions and Their Consequences

September 20, 2018
Open book in a classroom setting

In the 2015-2016 school year alone, students lost more than 11 million school days to out-of-school suspensions.

You read that correctly. Broken down further, that amounts to:

  • 66 million hours of instruction time lost in one school year
  • 63,000+ school years’ worth of learning

It’s time to examine the use of out-of-school suspensions in the US and learn how this disciplinary tactic harms students and how the metrics surrounding its use can inform everything from student management approaches to school district budget allocations. The numbers are jarring—but they should also inspire long-overdue candor about adopting behavior management solutions that are truly effective.

We can’t afford to ignore the data regarding out-of-school suspensions any longer.

Within the last decade, extensive evidence has solidified around the importance of school climate in assuring optimal student outcomes. A critical component of improved school climate is a unified and well-supported staff of school staff. The negative outcomes stemming from out-of-school suspensions amplify existing pain points like:

  • Teacher shortages
  • School counselor shortages/workload management
  • Appropriate staffing and placement of school resource officers
  • Academic achievement, graduation rates, and test score performance

Harsh disciplinary measures, including out-of-school suspension, have been linked to adverse student outcomes and poor staff performance. Some of these measures even contribute to violence in schools.
Getting solid data helps administrators allocate resources where they’re truly the most needed, and identify more effective disciplinary solutions that support student success and optimize school safety. And knowing how tight public school budgets have gotten across the US, shrewd administrative choices that are evidence-based can maximize the odds of student and staff success by ensuring sustainable ROI for the long-term.

Out-of-school suspensions are barring students across the US from achieving their academic potential.

Losen and Whitaker’s report, 11 Million Days Lost: Race, Discipline, and Safety at U.S. Public Schools, identifies some of the worst outcomes of out-of-school suspensions:

  • Out-of-school suspensions single-handedly drive lower graduation rates.
  • Out-of-school suspensions fuel higher dropout risks, and their associated economic costs.

 Students who were suspended were less likely to graduate high school or college, and more likely to get arrested or to be on probation. The authors referenced a GAO report which stated that students suspended from school “lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, and more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”
(By the way, if you’re looking for annotations, the full report has the complete data set and cites all sources.)

Disparities and gaps indicate that certain student populations incur more out-of-school suspensions than their peers.

All students are harmed by a loss of direct instruction time. But the authors of 11 Million Days Lost found that lost time wasn’t equally distributed across student populations.
In different states, gender, race, and disability figured significantly in relationship to adverse student outcomes, disproportionately impacting some groups more than others. Nationally, students with disabilities lost instruction time due to suspension at more than twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.
Geographically speaking, disparities couldn’t be isolated to one particular region—different states saw different, and at times dramatic, gaps in lost instruction time among different groups of students. These ten states topped the list of total days lost due to suspensions:  

  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia

Schools are measurably reducing violence by re-thinking their use of out-of-school suspensions.

There’s a definite relationship between school violence and the issuance of out-of-school suspensions. The question is, does this disciplinary measure appropriately address the Precipitating Factors of challenging and disruptive behaviors in a way that supports safer schools—and successful students—for the long term?
Losen and Whitaker found that of approximately one million US public school incidents categorized as “serious offenses,” only 3% involved a weapon. The other 97% of these incidents, also frequently addressed with out-of-school suspensions, were fights, physical altercations, and threats of violence which didn’t involve weapons.
At CPI, we’ve discovered those same offenses can be safely and effectively addressed in ways that keep schools safe—and keep kids in schools.
Public school district U-46 in Illinois has managed to reduce out-of-school suspensions by 75% over five years, by blending staff-wide training in de-escalation and intervention methods with a critical paradigm shift about the use of out-of-school suspension as a disciplinary method.
U-46 director of school safety and culture John Heiderscheidt observed, “Out-of-school suspensions were built on a model of a time in life when, 30 years ago, we may have had parents at home during the school day. We don't have that anymore.”
He and his 5,000 fellow educators embraced a district-wide course correction on the practice, and the results have been measurably positive: U-46 has kept children and young adults in school by replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school suspensions that provide them with a quiet space to get back on track with their studies. They’re not allowed to put their heads down or use mobile devices. They’re actively kept within the fold of the educational setting.
This new approach made their school safer and more academically successful across the board: assaults dropped by 90%, and graduation rates and test scores improved. Staff report feeling considerably safer, more skilled, and more confident in managing behavior, and more capable of maximizing direct instruction time.
Knowing that lost classroom time costs students profoundly in the long-term, it’s critical to address even the most challenging or disruptive behaviors in a way that gives children and young adults every chance of academic success, because quite simply, our future depends on it.

SROs can play an important role in school safety, but preventing problematic behavior requires strategic coordination across all layers of school staff.

In the discussion section of their paper, Losen and Whitaker acknowledge that the role of sworn law enforcement in schools is morphing rapidly, and that it’s important to consider school resource officers (SROs) as one part of a collective staff approach to behavior management and school safety, rather than the exclusive facilitators of them.  
Due to staffing shortages that keep teachers, counselors, and social workers underpopulated in schools, essential equilibrium has been lost. This lack of balance means that the management of disruptive and challenging behaviors can land in the lap of law enforcement. The authors of the report also cited findings that increased police presence in schools fuels even greater, and more disproportionate, out-of-school suspensions.
But beyond that, the data becomes dangerously murky. Despite the fact that nearly half of all US public schools have sworn law enforcement on site, these schools are failing to keep accurate records—or in many cases, they don’t keep any records at all—of the number of arrests these officers make. This lack of reliable data makes it tough to gauge how their presence impacts school safety and influences behavior management over the long-term.
It also makes it nearly impossible to know what’s truly happening to the cohorts of students who lose a disproportionate amount of instruction time to suspensions—like children who are black, and children with disabilities.
That’s why it seems ever more critical to embrace the philosophy that behavior management can successfully and safely addressed across every part of a school, by all staff, with the proper training, resources, and ongoing support.
Behavior management—and by extension, school safety—can’t just be one person’s job.

Adequate and coordinated staffing plays a key role in reducing out-of-school suspensions and improving school safety.

More consistent staff development across schools can bridge SROs with educators to restore a more balanced approach to behavior management. Consider the current shortage of school counselors. They play a vital role in preventing violence and addressing behavioral issues that might result in suspensions or SRO involvement, but public schools still don’t have enough of them on staff. It’s inevitable, then, that critical opportunities to manage and redirect behavioral issues in a more constructive way are going to be missed.
How bad is the shortfall? Imagine that you came to work one day, and your standard workload had ballooned to be 78% bigger than you could normally cope with.
The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to every counselor, but the current average is nearly twice that number: the ASCA estimated the national average to be 482 to 1 (with some states registering twice that average to a single counselor).
The solution is a more equitable coordination of skills and confidence through training, for all school staff. Not just counselors, and not just SROs, but everyone—working together to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.

Here are five ways that educators can immediately act on these findings.  

At the end of 11 Million Days Lost, Losen and Whitaker issued a series of immediate and long-term recommendations for using their findings to build safer schools and increase every student’s likelihood of success.
In synthesizing their data with the additional research we’ve found about school safety and behavior management, here are a few immediate action points that CPI recommends:
1. Take a holistic view of school climate and culture.
Organizations like Attendance Works consider a healthy school climate to be a foundational aspect to minimizing lost instruction time. A school-wide understanding of the relationship between lost instruction time and adverse student outcomes can inspire educators to make constructive choices in managing behavior.
2. Don’t let behavior management be one person’s job—get everybody the skills and confidence they need to effectively prevent and constructively intervene when students have behavioral challenges.
Empowering staff to deal more immediately and more effectively with behavioral issues creates opportunities to defuse challenging situations before they escalate.
It also translates to more time that teachers can spend teaching, and more time that students can stay in the classroom: in the Lafayette Parish School System, educators saw graduation rates jump by 7% in just one year after staff-wide CPI training (everyone from educators to bus drivers to custodians, just to name a few).
3. Establish a common language that helps you coordinate your behavior management approach, including agreed-upon alternatives to disciplinary methods like out-of-school suspensions.
When the whole team works from the same playbook, the school environment becomes safer and more stabilized. This also reduces fear and anxiety in schools by assuring staff that they know how to address challenging behaviors that can contribute to violence in schools, and anchors students in the security that their safety and success truly matter—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or disability.
Consistency and equity in behavior management can close the gaps in how various cohorts of children are treated—and even their odds of success.
4. Take a restorative—and inclusive—approach to behavior management.
Removing disruptive students from schools doesn’t mean they’ll stop being disruptive—it just means you’ve relocated their problematic behavior. Restorative practices keep students and teachers engaged in a constructive, community dynamic where behavior management issues are addressed rather than ignored. In a restorative school, students learn and implement better behaviors. And more inclusive learning environments encourage students to work together and support one another’s positive engagement.
Understanding the roots of challenging behaviors, particularly those sparked by trauma or other adverse childhood events, can help educators take a more supportive approach that gets better results.
5. Stay on top of the facts about student outcomes and demand reliable data.
Be a vocal proponent of an evidence-based approaches and support accurate data collection of outcomes in your school district. Recently, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization ChildTrends found that errors in nation-wide data reporting had seriously skewed nationally cited stats about school shootings—data that’s regularly referenced by news publications the Department of Education, for example.
We all have a responsibility to help our schools collect and report findings about student outcomes as accurately as possible to sustain robust school climates nationally.