Texas Study on Suspension and Expulsion: A Look at the Major Findings

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A report on school discipline released this week by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Public Policy Research Institute could trigger moves to curb the liberal use by some schools of suspensions and expulsions for infractions that do not involve violence or school safety.

Breaking Schools’ Rules” examines the disciplinary, educational and juvenile justice histories of 928,940 Texas students who entered the seventh grade between 2000 and 2003. Of those students, 553,413 (60 percent) received an in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or temporary expulsion from their school by their 12th grade year (although some never made it that far).

Attorney General Eric Holder today called the study a “landmark effort” as he announced a joint initiative with the Department of Education to address school discipline. (Click here for details on the initiative).

A growing number of experts have focused on suspensions and expulsions as the beginning of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” causing students to disengage from school and become truant or delinquent. Baltimore, which has dramatically reduced the number of students suspended or expelled, has experienced a significant decline in its dropout rate.

The study found that in Texas few of the school removals were mandated by school code, but were discretionary acts by school officials. It also found that the actions were meted out more frequently to black youths and youths with emotional problems. A high percentage of those students later dropped out of school or had contact with the juvenile justice system.

Among the study’s key findings:

Most (but not all) of the disciplinary actions were short-term.

In all, there were just over 4.9 million suspensions and expulsions were imposed on  553,413 student. Of those 4.9 million actions, 91 percent were suspensions, which by state law are limited to three days whether executed in school or out of school.

Seventy percent of the 4.9 million were in-school suspensions, which can expire in as little as one period or as much as three days. The study did not break out how many of the in-school suspension were for less than a school day.

A total of 15.5 percent of students who received disciplinary actions were sent to Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, which are controlled by the schools and keep students out of their classroom for an average of 27 days. Another 8.3 percent were either placed in the juvenile justice system’s alternative education program, controlled by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, or were expelled.

In Texas, zero-tolerance is more attitude than a policy.

The phrase “zero-tolerance” is frequently used to describe policies that require removal of a student from his classes for certain actions. The study findings dispelled the notion that most suspensions or expulsions in Texas are mandated by school codes.

Of the 4.9 million disciplinary actions that were documented, school codes would have permitted 97.3 percent of them to be resolved by any other reprimand (or none at all).

The study showed that the use of suspensions and expulsions was arbitrary when viewed from the state perspective. Researchers created a projection of an average student’s risk of being disciplined at the high schools involved in the study, based on factors about the student population that “according to this study’s multivariate analyses, increased the likelihood that a student would be involved in the school disciplinary system.”

The study reports that half of the high schools had suspension/expulsion rates consistent with projections, and the other half either had “significantly higher or significantly lower rates of school discipline than projected.”

Because of the inherent wide variations in imposing suspensions and expulsions, the report concludes that school officials don’t need a change in law or policy to reduce their use.  “As it is, schools’ approaches to the use of suspension and expulsion vary significantly from each district – and each campus – to the next.”

High dropout, arrest rates for frequent school offenders  

The study does not establish that disciplinary actions lead directly to students dropping out or becoming involved with the juvenile justice system. But the findings show that students with a high number of disciplinary actions arrive at those outcomes more frequently than other students.

Of the 140,660 students who received 11 or more disciplinary actions, 15.3 percent dropped out. That is nearly twice the dropout rate of students who received between two and five actions, and it is more than seven times as high as the percentage of students with no actions who dropped out.

Of the 553,413 students who received a suspension or expulsion, the report stated, 23 percent “had contact” with TJPC; 46 percent of students with 11 or more disciplinary actions had contact. Only 2 percent of students who were never suspended or expelled had contact with the agency.

The study did not break down the students who dropped out by race or by disability.

Black youths and emotionally disturbed youths are disciplined at high rates.

Three quarters of black students had received at least one suspension or expulsion, compared with 65 percent of Hispanic students and 47 percent of white students. More than a quarter of those black students received an out-of-school suspension as their first-ever disciplinary action, compared with 18 percent of Hispanic students and 10 percent of white students.

Researchers calculated, by race, the probability of ninth grade students receiving a discretionary or mandatory disciplinary action. Black students were 31 percent more likely than white students to receive a disciplinary action; they were 23 percent less likely than whites to receive a mandatory action.

Students whose records reflected an emotional disturbance were 24 percent more likely than other students to receive discretionary discipline.

Of the 12,218 students whose records reflect emotional disturbances, 90 percent received at least one disciplinary action. Nearly half (48 percent) of those 12,218 students had contact with the juvenile justice system.