Prevention v. Punishment cover image

Reducing Suspensions and Increasing School Safety

A Plausible Solution to National Concerns about School Safety and Racial Discipline Disparity

Across the nation black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, according to new data just released by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. On average, 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students.

A student threat assessment tool developed at the Curry School can address this racial disparity in school discipline tactics. In Prevention v. Punishment, a report prepared by the Curry School of Education and Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center, school administrators can find useful guidance for reducing suspension rates in their schools while maintaining safe learning environments.

The report presents new evidence that the implementation of Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines in Virginia public schools is associated with marked reductions in both short-term and long-term school suspensions, as well as reduced racial disparity in suspension rates.

Dewey Cornell

“Our new cross-sectional study suggests a statewide impact involving more than 600 secondary schools with fewer suspensions for thousands of students,” said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the Curry School. Cornell, who co-authored the report, led a Curry School research team in conducting the study.

During the 2011-12 school year Virginia schools issued 181,090 suspensions across the K-12 grade spectrum, according to the Virginia Department of Education. This high rate of suspensions is often tied to zero tolerance discipline policies that apply a specified punishment for certain rule violations, including minor and unintentional violations of those rules.

Reducing the number of suspensions is a worthy goal, because suspensions do not ultimately create safer and more orderly schools. Instead, more often than not, the report says, a suspension accelerates a student’s “downward spiral of academic failure, missed instructional time, and continued acting out in order to mask failure avoid schoolwork that is too difficult.”

“We know that suspension has deleterious effects on students and is counterproductive to our goal of helping them complete their education,” Cornell said.

We know that suspension has deleterious effects on students and is counterproductive to our goal of helping them complete their education.

This discipline strategy is especially egregious considering that the majority of short-term suspensions in the 2011-12 school year were for “non-violent acts of misconduct, such as defiance, classroom disruption, and the use of electronic or cellular phones in school” (Source: Virginia Department of Education).

Cornell’s research found that Virginia high schools having the highest suspension rates also have the highest dropout rates. Of more concern is that, consistent with the problem at the national level, across Virginia, black males are suspended at nearly twice the rate as white males at all grade levels, and black females are suspended at more than twice the rate as white females.

A more effective method of achieving a safe and positive learning environment for all students is through threat assessment. The Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, described in the report, embody an approach to violence prevention that emphasizes early attention to problems such as bullying, teasing, and other forms of student conflict before they escalate into violent behavior.

“Threat assessment allows school administrators to return to the philosophy that the punishment should fit the crime, and that the school’s response to a student should be based on the seriousness of the threat, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach that you see with ‘zero tolerance,’” Cornell says.

“It is an effective alternative to zero tolerance that allows schools to administer discipline in a proportional, reasonable manner that does not require suspension.”

Cornell’s research in Virginia found that secondary schools using the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines reported 15% fewer short-term suspensions and 25% fewer long-term suspensions. In addition, in schools using the guidelines the disparity between long-term suspension rates of black and white males was reduced by half.

In light of this data, the report includes recommendations for both school administrators and Virginia policy makers.

In 2013 the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation requiring all Virginia public schools to have threat assessment teams, although they are not required to adopt any specific model of threat assessment. However, more than 1,000 schools report that they have already adopted the Virginia threat assessment model. Cornell reports that a large-scale training effort is under way in the coming year.

Read Prevention v. Punishment: Threat Assessment, School Suspensions, and Racial Disparities