A new study finds that, rather than decreasing criminal behavior, school suspensions are linked to an increase in subsequent offending.
The research, published in the Justice Quarterly, took a longitudinal look at how school suspensions — which affect around 3.5 million American students a year — are related to offending behaviors such as assault, stealing, and selling drugs.
“Our findings suggest that suspending students from school can serve as a negative and harmful turning point in adolescence that increases offending over time,” said Dr. Thomas James Mowen, assistant professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, who led the study.
“Intensifying disciplinary strategies–what some have called the criminalization of school discipline — may do more harm than good and could result in more crime in schools, neighborhoods, and communities.”
The researchers studied to what extent being suspended from middle and high school was a turning point that led to more deviant behavior. They also looked at whether school suspensions, the most common response to behavior problems at school, amplified the likelihood that adolescents would offend as they grew into young adults.
Offending was defined as attacking or assaulting someone, possessing a gun, selling illegal substances, destroying property, and stealing.
The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 which included 8,984 adolescents (ages 12 to 18 at the start of the study) from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds from all 50 states. Information about the participants was collected annually; this study focused on the first four years of data because after four years, most of the participants had aged out of school.
Participants were asked if they had been suspended from school as well as how many times they had engaged in offending behavior. Researchers then measured the effect of school suspensions on subsequent offending.
Overall, respondents reported they had been suspended 12.3% of the time, with students who were suspended once likely to report being suspended again.
The findings show that exclusionary school discipline (i.e., suspensions) increased subsequent offending, substantially amplifying deviant behavior as the youth moved through adolescence and into adulthood. And repeated suspensions further amplified subsequent offending.
Perhaps most importantly, the study found that suspensions increased offending behaviors over time, even after accounting for prior levels of offending. This means that even among youth who reported offending behaviors prior to being suspended, exclusionary school discipline still contributed to significant increases in offending over time.
The study also found that White youth reported higher levels of offending than Black and Hispanic youth. Because Black and Hispanic youth are far more likely to be suspended than White youth, the researchers suggest that the effects of punitive school discipline may exacerbate differences in offending across racial and ethnic groups over time.
The researchers took into account several factors that can influence offending behavior, including whether youth dropped out of school, how youth felt about their schools (e.g., whether they felt safe, thought their teachers were interested in them, believed school discipline was fair), how they felt about their families, and their families’ income.
The study also considered youth’s relationships with their peers (including whether they were members of a gang) and their gender, race, and ethnicity. And it took into account prior levels of offending.
“American schools are relying increasingly on exclusionary sanctions and zero-tolerance policies to maintain control and safety,” notes Mowen. “Our findings point to the need for school officials and policymakers to recognize the negative consequences of these approaches, examine the underlying causes of students’ behavior, and change how we manage that misbehavior.”