Rethinking Suspensions

Researchers find educators struggle with academic discipline decisions.

Every day in schools across the United States, principals and vice principals issue out-of-school suspensions to middle and high school students for a variety of offenses, some as serious as having a weapon at school, and others as minor as not following directions. Students missed out on 11 million school days in one academic year due to out-of-school suspensions, according to a joint report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The researchers found glaring disparities in school discipline, with many Black students and students with disabilities and mental health conditions receiving out-of-school suspensions.

Often, school administrators are following guidelines prescribed in school district student conduct handbooks. However, research conducted at Worcester State by Emma Duffy, a graduate student in the School of Education’s school psychology program, and school psychology professor Kristine Camacho, MEd ’09, PhD, since August 2021 suggests such disciplinary actions are largely ineffective and should be replaced with positive behavioral interventions that keep students in school. This research finds that disproportionate suspensions, especially among minority and disabled youth, are the result of zero tolerance practices and administrators having difficulties with unclear district rules and policies.

Medium close-up of Emma Duffy standing outside

Emma Duffy

Duffy and Camacho’s study, “Leveraging an Understanding of Administrator Disciplinary Decisions to Reduce Suspensions,” will be presented in February 2023 at The National Association of School Psychologists Convention in Denver, Colo., with support from the Worcester State Foundation. The study is part of a bigger research project that Camacho has been working on since 2014, which focuses on discipline among minority students.

To better understand administrative disciplinary decisions, Duffy and Camacho emailed surveys to middle and high school administrators throughout Maryland and followed up with interviews to see what factors contribute to their disciplinary decisions. Answers among the administrators varied, yet many said district policies and the behavior a student presents influence their disciplinary decisions.

Sixty-eight percent of the administrators surveyed said they find the student conduct handbook to be useful when making disciplinary decisions, while 32 percent find it to not be very helpful. Administrators reported that it can be difficult to make disciplinary decisions because handbooks are not always clear and don’t provide resources on how to handle the unique situations that arise.

While administrators often feel suspending a student will decrease the problematic behavior, Camacho said, in reality, removing a student from school won’t do that. “Suspensions are not working, and were never intended for low and moderate behaviors,” she said.

Duffy and Camacho say their goal is to have administrators move away from zero tolerance and instead develop strategies to keep students in school—for instance by providing more mental health support and peer meditation. “We hope administrators will figure out how to prevent a situation with a student from happening again and learn how to build a more restorative community to support all students,” Duffy said.

Medium close-up of Kristine Camacho in front of a gray background

Dr. Kristine Camacho

Both want to continue their research, present their findings in other states, and have their study published. “I hope the research will bring awareness, have educators and administrators think about how to start changes, how these can be implemented at a local level, and for administrators and school psychologists to enact policy changes,” said Camacho.

Duffy, who expects to graduate with a master of education and education specialist degree in May 2023, wants to be a school psychologist at a Massachusetts public high school. The research project, she said, has made her passionate about advocating for students.

“When I move on to being a school psychologist, this research has helped prepare me to advocate for the decrease of overuse of out-of-school suspensions for students, especially for low and moderate infractions that can be addressed within the school setting,” said Duffy. “Excluding students is not the answer, and everything I have learned from this research will serve me in the future as a school psychologist.”

Allison Coppinger is a senior majoring in communications and a writing intern in the Worcester State Office of Communications and Marketing.