Alternatives to School Suspension Are More Effective at Changing Student Behavior

Justice System Reform

In the 2012-13 school year, North Carolina students missed more than 750,000 school days due to suspension. Though suspension is the most widely used disciplinary technique in both general and special education, research has raised serious questions about its effects. First, evidence does not support the notion that suspension improves the behavior of the suspended student. Second, data indicate that the frequent use of suspension has many undesirable and unintended outcomes, including a less healthy school environment, lower academic achievement, higher levels of disruptive or antisocial behavior, and higher school dropout rates.

Particularly troubling is the disproportionate imposition of school suspension on African-American students and students with disabilities, even when the misconduct is similar. African-American students are three to four times more likely to be suspended for school misconduct than are white students. Students with disabilities are suspended at nearly twice their proportion in the overall population.

Fortunately, many alternatives to using suspension to discipline students are available to educators. Many schools have already replaced harmful, exclusionary discipline policies with more effective strategies. School boards and school administrators can and should lead the way toward the use of alternatives to suspension as the first response to disciplinary issues. They can choose from a variety of approaches, most of which have been extensively researched and shown to be effective. When implemented with fidelity to the program model, these alternatives can simultaneously diminish the negative outcomes of harmful discipline policies, boost student achievement, and achieve the purposes of school discipline. Schools and school districts committed to reducing suspension have experienced dramatic positive changes after implementing some of these alternatives.

Following is a description of some of the approaches schools both in North Carolina and across the country have used instead of suspension as the “go-to” response to student misconduct:

Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) — PBIS is a set of strategies and techniques based in behavioral psychology that are implemented by all staff throughout a school. In particular, a positive approach is taken to create specific behavioral expectations for all students. Desired behaviors are explicitly taught.  More intensive strategies are used for the children who need the most support. Data are kept and monitored to allow for more effective and targeted implementation. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides support and training to schools that wish to adopt this approach.

Safe and Responsive Schools (SRS) — SRS relies on an instructional rather than a punitive approach to addressing discipline issues. At the time of implementation, a structured needs assessment helps schools select among various programmatic elements.  Students are explicitly taught skills, such as conflict resolution, to give them problem-solving ability. Students at particular risk are provided more intensive support.  Alternatives to office referrals, such as behavior support classrooms, are utilized.

My Teacher Partner Program (MTP) and other support & development for teachers — Many professional development programs provide training and support for teachers in behavior management skills. The MTP program pairs a teacher with a coach for an entire school year. The teacher is videotaped, and the coach and teacher jointly reflect on the teacher’s classroom instruction and student interactions. A Classroom Assessment Scoring System can be used to keep data and foster improvement.

Training for School Resource Officers — A variety of programs and curricula exist nationally to train SROs to be more effective with school children. In some school districts, the school board has limited the role of SROs in the schools to reduce court referrals. In other districts, the SROs are trained in the disabilities of children to help them distinguish between conduct that is a related to a disability and intentional misconduct.

Objective threat assessment – The objective threat assessment approach gives school administrators a flexible method to deal with threats, rather than using a zero-tolerance response. A structured process is used to assess whether a student’s threat is likely to be carried out or not. School exclusion is limited to students who actually pose a threat; those who make threats that are unlikely to be carried out are counseled and otherwise disciplined, but not suspended.

Restorative justice — Restorative justice refers to a group of practices that aim to hold an offender accountable for his or her actions, often by requiring the offender to face the victim and engage in some type of restoration of what was lost. Some programs utilize trained “restorative justice practitioners.” Others involve peer juries or restorative circles with other students.  Restorative justice fosters the mending of relationships rather than punishing offenders.

Community service — Community service programs involve various opportunities for students to engage in meaningful community activities, either in lieu of suspension from school or during periods of suspension. Suspension lengths are often shortened when the students participate in community service. Programs often offer students a chance to develop skills through the community service venues.

Community-school partnerships – Community-school partnerships provide high-needs and at-risk students and their families with supports to improve school-family engagement, student learning, student behavior, and overall student outcomes.  Partnerships between schools and communities are developed to deliver educational, medical, and social support services in an integrated way to high-needs students and their families.

Substance abuse interventions – These programs offer treatment and counseling in lieu of suspension to students whose misconduct involves use or possession of drugs or alcohol. The goal is to intervene before substance use becomes a more serious problem and to reduce future student use of illegal and harmful substances.

Alternative schools – Effective alternative schools provide supportive and structured school programming for students who are suspended from their regular schools. They offer behavioral instruction to chronic rule breakers to help them develop better behavioral skills while allowing the students to continue their academic work.

The Council of State Governments has recently released an extensive report that supports the use of alternatives to suspension. The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System confirms the efficacy of approaches that avoid school exclusion as a response to misconduct. The report is available here.

Jane Wettach is a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke Law School and the Director of the Children’s Law ClinicJenni Owen is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and is the Director of Policy Initiatives at the Center for Child and Family Policy.