In America, about 3.5 million students are suspended each year. School punishment has long been tied to a variety of negative outcomes, and now, a new study takes a “longitudinal look at how school suspensions are related to offending behaviors that include assault, stealing, and selling drugs.”
The study, titled The Effect of School Discipline on Offending across Time by researchers at Bowling Green State University and Eastern Kentucky University and published in Justice Quarterly, found that instead of decreasing subsequent offending, school suspensions increase delinquent behavior.
Thomas James Mowen, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, led the study. Mowen and his colleagues wanted to examine to what extent being suspended from middle and high school would become a turning point for young adults, and thus lead to more “deviant behavior.”
“Our findings suggest that suspending students from school can serve as a negative and harmful turning point in adolescence that increases offending over time,” Mowen said. “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.”
Existing data was used from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) which follows the lives of 8,984 youth “from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds from all 50 states who were between 12 and 18.” The group is interviewed every two years to track their lives and examine the role that school suspensions had on “life-course context.”
Through a “household-based study” approach, the participants from the NLSY97 survey were asked “if they had been suspended from school as well as how many times they had engaged in offending behavior.”
The researchers were quick to consider factors of influence when looking for patterns. They looked at standard variables (gender, race, ethnicity) as well as the youth’s drop out answers, feelings towards school, safety while learning, teacher involvement, feelings towards families, socioeconomic status, and gang connections.
Overall, participants reported, “they had been suspended 12.3% of the time, with students who were suspended once likely to report being suspended again.” They also found that punishment at school led to future offending, “substantially amplifying deviant behavior as the youth moved through adolescence and into adulthood.”
This “deviance amplification,” as Mowen acknowledges, can also be explained through the Labeling Theory in psychology. According to the American Psychological Association, Labeling Theory, also called Societal-Reaction Theory, is when individuals start to mimic particular behavioral characteristics after being described a certain way. It’s a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In short, if someone is told that they’re a deviant, they’re much more likely to exhibit delinquency.
When it comes to race and punishment and school, despite existing studies that have found otherwise, Mowen and his colleagues found, “…that Black and Hispanic youth reported lower levels of offending than White youth.” Mowen acknowledges that since the youth from different races and ethnicities are often punished differently in school, “…the effects of punitive school discipline may exacerbate differences in offending across racial/ethnic groups over time.”
Mowen makes a point of noting that future research should examine the effects this has on racial and ethnic differences over time.
Overall, even as findings from this study demonstrate that school suspensions amplify offending, the researchers believe that schools using suspensions as punishment aren’t doing so with mal intent. As Mown notes from a study done by Skiba and Sprague titled Safety Without Suspensions, “most administrators turn to school exclusion as a disciplinary tool because they need to do something and don’t know what else to do.”
For school officials who are lost, there are alternative approaches and programs becoming available. Mowen points to the growing awareness of programs like the Positive Behavior-Intervention Support (PBIS) program.
While originally created for elementary school classrooms, according to their FAQs, a PBIS system implemented into an institution can improve social and social-emotional skills through the use of daily check-ins, classroom behavior interventions, and adult support.
Mowen hopes to spread awareness about how school discipline can sometimes do more harm than good. He said in his conclusion, “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.”
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.