“My perfect school would have everything except violence things.” This eloquent and succinct remark was made by an elementary school student (quoted by a study in 1998). School discipline is not a new topic, but school violence seems to be escalating in the 21st century. In 1940, the top school disciplinary problems ranked by teachers were no more than bad manners, such as cutting in line, littering, and chewing gum in classroom. In 1990, the top school problems rated by teachers were most related to drugs, alcohol and sexual misconduct. However, in the 21st century, school problems, according to the national principal surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, are more about “violence things”—vandalism, student possession of weapons, physical conflicts among students, and physical abuse of teachers.
Figure 1. Top school disciplinary problems ranked by teachers and principals
What does the principal survey (2011-12 SASS) tell us about school discipline?
We analyzed the 2011-12 SASS data and found that suspension was employed more often than expulsion to address disciplinary issues. During the school year 2010-11, 75 percent of principals said that none of their students was expelled from school, while only 13 percent reported that no suspension happened in their schools (Figure 2). The data also indicate that expulsion and suspension are significantly associated with student use of illegal drugs, student possession of weapons, and disrespect for teachers, including verbal abuse of teachers (Figure 3).
Figure 2. Percentage of principals who reported the number of students expelled from their schools and number of suspensions in SY 2010-11
Figure 3. Types of problems reported by principals from schools with and without expelled students or suspensions in SY 2010-11
(Note: *The difference between schools with and schools without expulsion/suspensions is statistically significant.)
It should be noted that gang activities are more likely to result in expulsion than suspension. Among schools that had more than 10 students expelled in one school year, 59 percent reported that gang activities happened occasionally, six percent reported that gang activities happened once a month, and two percent once a week. In contrast, among schools that had more than 100 suspensions within one school year, 38 percent reported that gang activities happened occasionally, three percent reported that gang activities happened once a month, and one percent once a week.
Although possession of weapons can cause students to be suspended or expelled from school, more cases seemed to end with expulsion rather than with suspension. Among schools that had more than 10 students expelled within one school year, 75 percent reported that possession of weapons by students happened occasionally; three percent reported having this problem once a month. In the meantime, among schools with more than 100 suspensions within one school year, 66 percent reported that possession of weapons by students happened occasionally. However, it is unclear whether students who possessed weapons were put in-school or out-of-school suspension.
Why is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of disciplinary intervention?
Historically, schools often employ suspensions and expulsions to discipline students for disruptive behavior and maintain school safety. However, these types of disciplinary interventions are increasingly subject to skepticism and criticism. A growing body of research suggests that suspensions and expulsions negatively impact student achievement and increase both students’ risk of dropping out and their likelihood of future involvement with the criminal justice system (2011).
We conducted a series of Poisson regression models. After holding school variables constants (such as school size, school level and type, percentage of minority students, and percentage of students in national free lunch programs), two indicators related to school-parent engagement are negatively correlated with how often expulsion and suspension are used. Specifically, schools that frequently hold open house or back-to-school night activities and schools that provide transportation and childcare services for parents to be involved in their children’s education have fewer suspensions or fewer students being expelled from school. This finding suggests that when parents are more involved and engaged in working with school, disciplinary problems are less likely to occur.
In summary, to remove students from the educational system is a hard, serious and sad decision for principals to make. Some “violence things” such as gang activities and holding weapons in school endanger many innocent students and negatively affect a safe learning environment. Suspend or expel? Our data analysis shows that one effective answer to this dilemma principals face is “an ounce of prevention;” to engage parents in their children’s schooling.