Last year, a high school student in Vestal, New York, called his teacher a "f**king racist" in class. Senior Vincent Spero, who says he was reacting to his teacher's use of a racial slur, was deemed a threat to the school. On Dec. 2, he was suspended indefinitely. At that time, statistically speaking, Spero became more likely to go to prison someday.
U.S. public schools suspended 2.8 million students, or about 6 percent of its student population, during the 2013-2014 school year. That's about 10 percent more than 2000 numbers and more than double the suspension rates of the 1970s.
Suspensions rose dramatically with the widespread adoption of "zero-tolerance" policies in the 1990s. Schools mandated suspension for any student bringing a weapon onto campus, amid "growing concern about crime and violence in schools," write reporters Libby Nelson and Dara Lind on Vox. But according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, most suspensions in the 2009-2010 school year were for offenses like tardiness, disrupting class and violating dress codes.
Many education experts think suspension is a poor approach to school discipline. Morgan Craven leads the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at Texas Appleseed, a public-interest justice center based in Austin, Texas. She says in an email that an effective approach to discipline generally relies on "positive behavior methods that are based in research and evidence." (Suspension, she says, is not one of those methods.)
"These [positive] methods effectively address student misbehavior when it occurs, and model positive behavior so that students learn appropriate ways to act in class and interact with teachers and peers," Craven writes. "Classroom removals are simply changes in a student's location, not a solution to student behavioral issues."
Suspension doesn't address the issues that may cause a student's problematic behavior. And because students often see out-of-school suspension as "an officially sanctioned school holiday," it's hard to make an argument for deterrence.
Yet inefficacy may be the least of school suspension's problems. An alarmingly vast body of research suggests the disciplinary measures employed in many U.S. public schools could be ruining students' lives.
A Path to Prison
The U.S. Department of Education reports that a student who is suspended or expelled during preschool or elementary school is up to 10 times more likely to face jail time later in life. And a 2012 study out of Johns Hopkins University found that a single suspension in ninth grade doubles a student's risk of dropping out, a major predictor for incarceration.
Some students may have ended up in prison anyway. But suspension itself seems to be a causal factor. Experts say exclusionary punishment is a main entry point to the "school-to-prison pipeline" that carries students away from school and into the criminal justice system.
The pipeline has a short version, in which schools involve law enforcement in matters of school discipline. In 2011-2012, police arrested 92,000 students for in-school offenses. But the longer version is more common. It starts with removal from school, which often aggravates issues underlying student misbehavior, explains Craven. Suspension causes the student, who may have been struggling already, to miss class. The student falls behind, fails academically, faces embarrassment among peers and continues to misbehave. The school issues more suspensions, and the student experiences school as a hostile environment and finally drops out.
Archie Moss Jr., principal of Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee, thinks zero-tolerance policies "are always grey." "Weapons are one of the offenses that warrants a long term suspension or expulsion," he writes, "but I believe there are circumstances and situations that need to be considered when making these decisions which can negatively impact the futures for our students."
Responding to student misbehavior can be a subjective process, and zero-tolerance policies tend to be especially open to interpretation. School officials often determine what is and is not a suspension-worthy offense on a case-by-case basis. As Moss noted, circumstances count.
But sometimes circumstantial decisions are controversial. Like when a first-grader is suspended for bringing his Cub Scout camping utensil to class, or a fifth-grader is suspended for shaping his fingers into a "level 2 lookalike gun."
The Prejudice Problem
Problems also arise when officials apply zero-tolerance policies arbitrarily, and with racial bias.
In the U.S., black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Males, American Indians, Alaska Natives and disabled students are also overrepresented in the suspended population. Craven says there is no evidence that students of color misbehave at higher rates than their white peers. In the case of students with disabilities, officials may be punishing "behaviors that are simply a symptom of their disability, which should (by law) be addressed in other ways," Craven writes.
In Tennessee, black students are five times more likely to face suspension than their white classmates. According to Chalkbeat, 20 percent of black males attending Tennessee public schools were suspended at least once in the 2014-2015 school year. That year, two-thirds of the student body at Grandview Heights Middle School in Memphis — where public school students are predominantly black — was suspended.
And suspensions often don't improve student behavior. In 2014, a Grandview Heights math teacher quit rather than face another day in the classroom. She told WMC Action News, "I had a student take a calculator and beat another student upside the head ... Another student got the scissors and started making a stabbing motion. When I went to the administration, they said he was already suspended earlier today."
Considering the failure and discrimination of school suspension policies, more effective measures of discipline are critical.
The Push for Reform
In the face of inefficacy and undeniable evidence of the harm of suspension, U.S. schools are trying to change their ways. Many schools are trading rampant suspension for researched-based discipline models.
Bruce Elementary School takes the restorative justice approach, which focuses on repairing the harm done through community cooperation. "When a scholar commits an offense that harms the community (our school), we have to work together to come up with a resolution to repair the broken relationship," Moss writes. Moss believes parent conferences, parent shadowing, time-out and overnight suspensions can be legitimate alternatives to long-term removal from school.
"There are definitely bright spots across the country," writes Craven. She points to the Oakland Unified School District, which she says saw "extreme reductions" in student removals when it switched to a restorative justice approach. And Denver Public Schools recently developed detailed contracts with law enforcement to limit police involvement in school discipline. Also, Texas took "disruption of class" off its list of Class C misdemeanors in 2013.
Overall, the move to reform is showing results. The 2.8 million suspensions in 2013-2014 were actually a 20 percent reduction from the previous school year.
But, writes Craven, "many districts still rely on harmful removals, and use police and courts to address behavior that could be addressed by educators and administrators in the school setting." She wants educators to undergo training in implicit bias, the well-documented phenomenon that posits thoughts we're unaware of can influence our judgment. And Moss would like to see allocation of funds to put a behavioral or intervention specialist in every school.
As for Vincent Spero, the student's attorney filed a lawsuit alleging Vestal High School exhibited racial bias when it suspended Spero for cursing at his teacher. The school has since rescinded the suspension, and Spero has returned to school.