By Brian Palmer
— Several schools have suspended children for joking about guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. A 7-year-old in Maryland was suspended for chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun, while others have received the same punishment for pointing their fingers like guns or using toy guns that blow bubbles. Suspension seems like a counterintuitive disciplinary tool, since many children would prefer to stay home from school, anyway. Why is suspension such a common punishment?
Because it's familiar, cheap, and convenient. It's also demonstrably ineffective. Its deterrent value is low: A 2011 study showed that Texas students who were suspended or expelled at least once during middle school and high school averaged four such disciplinary actions during their academic careers. Fourteen percent of them were suspended 11 times or more. Suspensions don't even seem to benefit the school as a whole. In recent years, while Baltimore city schools have dramatically reduced suspensions, the dropout rate has been cut nearly in half.
Still, surveys consistently show that parents support suspension, because it keeps those students perceived as bad apples away from their peers. Principals continue to rely on suspension, in part because it creates the appearance of toughness. Parents can't complain about inaction when a principal regularly suspends or expels bad actors. Administrators may also favor suspension because it edges problem students out of school: Students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out. Some researchers refer to a student who gives up on school after repeated suspension as a "push out" rather than a dropout.
Suspension has been a school punishment seemingly forever, but there have been two watershed eras for the practice. During the 1960s and '70s, many school administrators observed an increase in fighting, possibly as a result of desegregation. Suspension increased dramatically during this period. That spike caused education researchers to begin asking questions about the efficacy of suspension. A number of studies showed that minority children, students with low grades, and the poor are suspended disproportionately — a fact that remains true today. Few studies successfully examined the efficacy of suspension as a punishment, though.
Despite the lack of reliable data, politicians pushed for more suspensions in the mid-1990s. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act required schools to expel students caught with guns for a year, kicking off the "zero tolerance" movement. Today, many school districts have draconian codes of conduct that impose suspension for such trivial offenses as gum chewing or, ironically, truancy. These codes and laws likely have something to do with the post-Sandy Hook spate of suspensions for fake guns. Some state statutes explicitly allow a school to suspend students who maliciously display anything that looks like a gun.
One of the reasons suspension sticks around is that the alternatives require more money and effort, at least up front. Researchers suggest pairing in-school suspension with regular counseling, or offering so-called positive behavior support classes, which teach appropriate conduct in the same way schools teach writing or mathematics. Other creative solutions include youth courts, in which students sit in judgment of one another, or restorative circles, which involves bringing together the offender and the victim with other students to work out a fair resolution to conflict. Still, most reformers concede that suspension has its place, especially in the immediate aftermath of violence.
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Explainer thanks Robert Coombs of the Council of State Governments Justice Center; David Dupper of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, author of "A New Model of School Discipline: Engaging Students and Preventing Behavior Problems"; and Pamela Fenning of Loyola University Chicago.