Researchers in Texas have released the most comprehensive analysis of school suspension and expulsion policies ever conducted. It's considered groundbreaking because of its scope and detailed examination of disciplinary policies that when misused often put students at greater risk of dropping out or being incarcerated.
Breaking Schools' Rules, the title of the study, is extraordinary in that it looked at individual school records and tracked all seventh graders in Texas, 1 million of them, for six years. One finding surprised even veteran educators: 60 percent of all the students who were studied were suspended or expelled at least once between their 7th-and 12th-grade years.
Mike Thompson, who is with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which commissioned the study, says the frequency with which kids in Texas are suspended and expelled reflects a 20-year trend that has seen the rate double nationally.
"For example, in California in 2010 alone nearly 13 percent of students were put in out-of-school suspension or expelled," he said. "In Florida that was 9 percent."
Texas though is the only state that's been able to use this data to track kids and see what happens to them after they're suspended or expelled.
Of the 1 million students in Texas who were tracked, 15 percent were disciplined repeatedly, 11 times or more. Half of them ended up in juvenile-justice facilities or programs for an average of 73 schooldays. These students were likely to repeat a grade and not graduate from high school.
Just as worrisome, says Thompson, is who is being suspended and expelled.
"African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities experience a disproportionately high rate of removal from the classroom for disciplinary reasons," he said.
One glaring example: 70 percent of black girls were suspended or expelled compared to 37 percent of white girls, usually for the same offenses. This gets to another key finding: In almost every case, the decision to remove a student was made solely by a teacher or school administrator. This may explain why minority kids are punished disproportionately, says Doug Otto, schools superintendent in Plano, Texas. He says racial prejudice is involved.
"It is a problem, but it's pretty hard to be a renegade teacher, so to speak, and just willy-nilly expel students because you're prejudiced," he said.
Is Discipline Policy Working?
For all its shortcomings, Texas is trying to promote fair and flexible disciplinary policies while being tough on the most serious violations. Since 2005, very few cases in Texas, 3 percent, involved drug or weapons possession, which under state law mandates suspension or expulsion.
Waco, Texas, is typical. Serious violations were rare this year. But the year before, the district issued almost 900 so-called "tickets" to students for "persistent misbehavior" and for violating the student code of conduct.
"In other words, it could be for never doing the work, talking back, tardiness," said John Hudson, who oversees disciplinary policies for the district.
There are always going to be disobedient, disruptive kids in school, Hudson says. It's the response to this behavior that's inadequate.
"I know it's a cliché, but when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," he said.
Thompson says that's the problem: Expulsion and suspension policies focus too much on punishment, not enough on addressing the misbehavior and having students learn from their mistakes.
"We think the findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas and everywhere else to ask this question: Is our state school discipline system getting the desired results?" Thompson said.
The answer to that, he says, is no.