CYC-Online 130 DECEMBER 2009
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Rethinking the effectiveness of suspensions

Brenda Sautner

Discipline strategies must incorporate the learning and behavior needs of each child with the desired outcomes if they are to correct maladaptive behaviors. Alternatives to suspension exist and must be used. Any form of suspension should be (a) based on the student’s best educational interests, (b) conducted in a manner that teaches the student more appropriate behaviors, (c) supported by empirical research, and (d) used as a last resort.

When I worked for Alberta Learning’s Department of Special Education and oversaw the design, implementation, and evaluation of efforts to improve student conduct and reduce violence in schools, out-of-school suspensions became an issue requiring review. A large number of inconsistencies existed in the use of suspensions within and across school districts, and the rate of suspensions was increasing significantly. It became clear that suspension was one of the most commonly used disciplinary measures for dealing with problem behaviors. There was seemingly no end to the use of suspensions, nor was there a trend to reduce its use; yet, no school district was able to demonstrate its effectiveness in improving student conduct.

These facts generate the following questions:

  1. If school districts cannot prove that using suspensions is an effective strategy for improving student conduct, why do school officials use it so frequently?

  2. Can school officials conclude with confidence that certain behaviors are reduced through suspensions?

School officials must take these questions seriously because some day the courts may have to decide whether the law upholds the school official’s decision or supports a challenge resulting from a student’s suspension.

In seeking answers to these questions, I conducted a review of research and discipline practices commonly used in schools, which revealed some very interesting information (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 1999; Openheimer and Ziegler, 1988; Rosen, 1997). Openheimer and Ziegler, for example, identified five factors most often associated with students who are suspended:

  1. a history of poor behavior

  2. academic achievement below grade level

  3. repeated a grade

  4. attended multiple schools

  5. attended schools with high rates of suspension

The National School Board Association (1984) came to the following conclusions:

According to the research conducted by the British Columbia Ministry of Education (1999), the suspension of students has the following results:

Rosen (1997) identified the top 10 reasons for suspensions:

  1. defiance of school authority

  2. failure to report to after-school detention or Saturday school

  3. class disruption

  4. truancy

  5. fighting

  6. use of profanity

  7. damage to school property

  8. dress code violations

  9. theft

  10. absence from campus without permission.

The National Centre for Educational Statistics (1997) surveyed school principals to determine their perceptions of common discipline problems in schools. The top three problems cited by in this study were as follows:

  1. student tardiness (40%)

  2. absenteeism or skipping classes (25%)

  3. physical conflict among students (21%).

Are these offenses so serious as to deny students their right to public education? Few, if any, of the above reasons appear to be serious enough to temporarily terminate a child's education. Can school officials prove with confidence that the discipline issues just listed are effectively reduced through suspensions? Most of the reasons are violations of school rules and defiance of authority. It is obvious that out-of-school suspensions need to be reserved for more serious or violent offenses.

Generally, educational practices for students with serious behavior problems have not had positive outcomes. By the time children reach early adolescence, a history of antisocial behavior and rejection by peers and adults has been established. As a result, excessive dropout rates, high rates of academic failure, poor achievement test scores, low graduation rates, and poor postschool adjustments have been noted as typical outcomes for these students (Eber, Nelson and Miles, 1997).

According to Knitzner (1993), the factors that limit positive outcomes for students with behavior problems included the following:

Reasons cited for this lack of effective intervention included the following:

Alternatives must be found
What is the purpose of the education system? In the province of Alberta, it is to develop self-reliant, responsible, caring, and contributing members of society. Schools play a supportive role to families and communities in helping students develop desirable personal characteristics and the ability to make ethical decisions. Schools also help students take increasing responsibility for their learning and behavior, develop a sense of community belonging, and acquire an understanding of community values and how they relate to personal values.

All school officials are guided by federal and provincial/ state legislation and by school board policy when suspending or recommending expulsion of a student. Court decisions and human rights legislation place a high priority on the rights of students to an education. All children between the ages of 6 and 16 (depending on each province/ state legislation) have a right to access an education in a given school year in accordance with compulsory education statutes. Too often, those students who are not capable or compliant enough are denied access to education programs by school officials when they reach age 16. This is due, in part, to the limits of compulsory education and to the educators' lack of knowledge regarding the law as it pertains to various rights in the education system (F. Peters and Montgomerie, 1998). Either encouraging students to quit school or counseling them out of educational programs at age 16 is, in essence, allowing the student to shoulder the responsibility for the failure of the education system to adequately meet his or her needs. Ross-Epp (1996) contended that school staff members do not see the academic failure of a student as their responsibility or as a failure to provide meaningful educational experiences. The blame for a lack of industry or ability is shifted to the student – or to the parents for failing to provide a positive environment or to support school initiatives.

Common practices in schools should not contribute to violent behaviors by students. Camargo-Abello (1997) identified some common practices that have the potential to sow the seeds of violence:

The seeds of violence can be found in any educational practice or procedure that interferes with student learning. Ross-Epp (1996) further argued that educational systems are complicit in their abuse of children through “systemic violence,” defined as the unintentional consequences of procedures implemented by well-meaning authorities in a belief that the practices are in the best interests of students. When students with behavioral deficits are removed from school or drop out, they suffer from an incomplete education, often accepting the blame and economic deprivation associated with academic failure as their own. The irony, explained Ross-Epp, is that when the student who is compelled to attend school is failed by the system, it is the student who accepts responsibility for the institution's failure. Systemic failure occurs when the positive impact on some students is only possible through a negative effect on others. Excluding students with serious disruptive behaviors from an education is no more moral than forcing the most critical patients from an emergency room (Brendtro and Long, 1995). The number of students identified with severe behavior problems continues to grow, and there is no evidence that suspensions reduce behavior problems over the long term.

Many researchers have concluded that other consequences and programs must be made available (Glass, 1994; Jackson, 1995; Neel, Alexander and Meadows, 1997; Quinn and Rutherford, 1998; Sprague, Sugai, Horner and Walker, 1999; Sugai, Bullis and Cumblad,1997; Walker, Colvin and Ramsey, 1995). Consequences for disruptive behaviors should be meaningful, age appropriate, progressive, flexible (allowing some individualization), enforceable, written, and communicated to students and parents in terms of what the student will know and be able to do. Unless the student cares about the consequences imposed (or privileges denied) he or she has little incentive to comply with a school’s code of conduct. Students are as concerned about the fair and consistent application of consequences as they are about the consequences themselves. To maintain consistency of enforcement throughout the school, members of the school community need to clearly understand and support the code of conduct (Alberta Learning, 1999). As a result of the review of case law, common discipline practices, and student conduct in general, the Alberta government restricted school officials' ability to suspend and expel students. Students and their parents must now be allowed to present their case, and school officials must also ensure continued access to an education program and set out the terms for re-enrollment.

Preferred practice
To effectively address the special needs of students with behavior problems, preferred and promising practices are recommended (M. T. Peters and Heron, 1993). Preferred describes practices for which supporting empirical research has been conducted and statements can be made about the conditions under which a given strategy has been shown to have positive effects. Promising describes practices for which empirical support is not available but that display individual features that have been systematically investigated, are conceptually or theoretically sound, and have appealing applied characteristics. Best practice is a process, not a program; an approach, rather than a package (Neel et al., 1997). According to Sugai et al. (1997), any effort to improve the training of teachers and instruction of students should be carefully approached, based on promising or preferred practices, and evaluated fully before reaching any final conclusions about the outcomes.

Discipline strategies must incorporate the learning and behavior needs of each child with the desired outcomes if they are to correct maladaptive behaviors. As with their peers, these students need to be energetically engaged in enriching and meaningful work in classrooms that promote trust, respect, and successful outcomes. They require appropriately assigned tasks, clear expectations, frequent evaluations and feedback, and consistently enforced consequences within an orderly and secure atmosphere (Jackson, 1995). What makes any discipline strategy effective is how the school environment is structured to determine and deliver appropriate consequences.

One practice that has proven to be effective in reducing school discipline problems is the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system. Sprague et al. (1999) developed this school-wide intervention model, which they based on a school’s ability to assess its current safety and behavior support status, by building a three-tiered discipline system of interventions – universal (school-wide), selected (for at-risk students), and targeted (for high-risk students). This approach employs procedures that fit the specific needs of the school rather than forcing the school to use a single strategy to solve all problems. The system uses office referral data to help assess, monitor, and plan interventions, and it has been proven effective in many schools and districts in the United States and Canada. Critical elements of effective interventions for students with behavior problems include those types of interventions used in the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports system:

The important message is that a continuum of behavior supports comprising differentiated levels of intervention is needed. The intensity of the intervention must match the intensity of the problem behavior and the complexity of the context in which the behavior most frequently occurs (Sprague et al., 1999). Data on the effectiveness of the behavior supports and the consequences provided must be gathered and analyzed. Without an analysis, it is more difficult to identify common problems and to select appropriate intervention strategies. Tracking individual student behavior patterns over time is a good way to identify students in need of additional assistance before their problems increase.

Promising practice
School staff members, in conjunction with parents and under the leadership of the principal, need to identify appropriate consequences to be used in response to disruptive behaviors. Effective discipline should be a matter of learning, so consequences should be selected on the basis of “What we need to teach the student” rather than “Is this severe enough to punish?” Punishment designed to inflict physical or emotional pain may result in temporary compliance with school rules, but it also frequently engenders hostility, resentment, alienation, and even revenge on the student’s part (Alberta Learning, 1999). Effective consequencei focui on teaching social responsibility and the development of alternative behaviors. Consequences should be developed to include an instructional component that can be measured over time to ensure their effectiveness.

Alberta’s Safe and Caring Schools Initiative recommends the following consequences for use by school officials:

Similar to students with disabilities, students with behavior problems face significant barriers to success in school, home, and community environments. This reinforces the need for a quality system of skill development and support for these students and for educators and family members. Programs and practices designed to achieve skill development and provide professional support must be empirically tested and evaluated, and the results should be used to move the program from a good idea to promising practice to best practice. Educators at all levels need to make certain that meaningful investments are made to sustain quality research that is designed to foster innovation, identify effective and efficient methods, and sustain what works (Sugai et al., 1997).

Alternatives to suspension exist and must be used. Any form of suspension should be based on the student’s best educational interests, conducted in a manner that teaches the student more appropriate behaviors, supported by empirical research, and used as a last resort.


Alberta Learning. (1999). Supporting safe, secure and caring schools in Alberta. Edmonton, Canada: Author.

Brendtro, L. and Long, N. (1995). Breaking the cycle of conflict. Educational Leadership, 52, 5. pp. 52-56.

British Columbia Ministry of Education. (1999). Focus on suspension: A resource for schools. Victoria, Canada: Author.

Camargo-Abello, M. (1997). Are the seeds of violence sown in schools? Prospects, 27, 3. pp. 447-465.

Eber, L., Nelson, C. M. and Miles, P. (1997). School-based wraparound for students with emotional and behavioral challenges. Exceptional Children, 63. pp. 539-555.

Glass, R. S. (1994). Alternative schools. American Teacher, 79. pp. 10-11.

Jackson, B. (1995). Some issues in the inclusion of students with emotional/behavioral disorders. Canadian Journal of Special Education, 10, 2. pp. 116-135.

Knitzner, J. (1993). Children's mental health policy: Challenging the future. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 1. pp. 8-16.

National Centre for Educational Statistics. (1997). Principal /school disciplinarian survey on school violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National School Board Association. (1984). Towards a better and safer school. American School Board Journal, 152, 18.

Neel, R. S., Alexander, L. and Meadows, N. B. (1997). Expand positive learning opportunities and results. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 5. pp. 6-14.

Openheimer, J. and Ziegler, S. (1988). Suspension, alternatives to suspension and other approaches to discipline. Toronto, Canada: Toronto Board of Education Research Services.

Peters, F. and Montgomerie, C. (1998). Educator’s knowledge of rights. Canadian Journal of Education, 23, 1. pp. 29-46.

Peters, M. T. and Heron, T. E. (1993). When the best is not good enough: An examination of best practice. The Journal of Special Education, 26. pp. 371-385.

Quinn, M. M. and Rutherford, R. B. (1998) Alternative programs for students with social, emotional or behavioral problems. Successful interventions for the 21st century (Second CCBD Mini-Library Series; pp. 3-5). Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Rosen, L. E. (1997, Fall). Wanted: Alternatives for suspension and expulsion. School Safety Journal, 8-11.

Ross-Epp, J. (1996). Schools” complicity and sources of violence. In J. Ross-Epp and A. M. Watkinson (Eds.), Systemic violence: How schools hurt children (pp. 123). London: Falmer Press.

Sprague, J. R., Sugai, G., Horner, R. and Walker, H. (1999, Winter). Using office referral data to evaluate school-wide discipline and violence prevention interventions. Oregon School Study Council Bulletin, 42, 2.

Sugai, G., Bullis, M.and& Cumblad, C. (1997). Providing ongoing skill development and support. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 5. pp. 55-64.

Walker, H., Colvin, G. and Ramsey, E. (1995). Antisocial behavior in school: Strategies and best practices. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

This feature: Sautner, B. (2001). Rethinking the effectiveness of suspensions. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9, 4. pp. 210-214.

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