High levels of out-of-school suspensions can hamper learning among all of a school's students.
That was the finding of University of Kentucky associate professor Edward Morris and Indiana University associate professor Brea Perry in a recently published study. Perry was an associate professor at UK until last summer.
Perry and Morris based their finding on the study of a large urban Kentucky school district. They declined to name the district.
Perry had previously conducted research on suspensions in Fayette County that showed that out-of-school suspensions negatively affected the academic achievement of suspended students.
Perry's newest report with Morris, published in December in the academic journal American Sociological Review, says that all students who attended schools with high suspension rates suffered declining academic achievement.
One reason, the report says, might be that frequent suspensions can increase students' anxiety. Another possible reason is that "turnover of suspended students in and out of classrooms creates unstable, socially fragmented environments."
Perry praised former Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton and other Fayette district officials who recently committed to limiting or eliminating out-of-school suspensions.
For a while in Fayette County, "you've had organizations such as the Children's Law Center and other child advocacy groups working on behalf of kids who have experienced exclusionary discipline," she said.
"You've had parents working on behalf of their kids who have been suspended inappropriately for minor offenses. What this suggests is that all parents should be concerned about the level of suspension in schools — even parents who know their child would never be suspended," Perry said.
Perry and Morris studied data from more than 16,000 students in grades six through 10 who were enrolled in the public school district between August 2008 and June 2011. Scores from a test called Measure of Academic Progress were used.
The researchers were able to separate the effects of suspensions on academic achievement from any other negative effects caused by the school's environment.
At average levels of suspension in a school, about 90 to 100 suspensions each semester, non-suspended students scored in the 54th percentile on tests. But when the suspensions rose to about 200 suspensions a semester, non-suspended students' scores dropped to the 39th percentile, Perry said.
Reading and math scores among non-suspended students both dropped, although the effects were a little larger on reading than on math, she said.
Discipline in school is necessary for high achievement, but it should be based on trust and caring relationships, the report said.
Morris said that out-of-school suspensions have increased nationwide over the past few decades, under the rationale that it helps suspended students improve their behavior and helps other students when disruptive peers are removed.
Tracking students over time, when their schools had high levels of suspensions as well as moderate and low levels of suspensions, showed that thinking to be incorrect, Morris said.
Even suspensions used in moderation are "very bad" for suspended students and weren't shown to improve the academic achievement of the other students, Perry said.
The academic achievement of students who obeyed rules was never improved by any level of suspensions of their peers, Perry said.
"What we found was contrary to the argument in favor of suspensions," Morris said.
At Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, for most violations, instead of out-of-school suspensions, students serve their punishments in school under close supervision, keeping up with classroom work and receiving interventions that could help them avoid more trouble.
Given what the study showed about out-of-school suspensions, Perry said, "It really makes you question the merit of using that disciplinary strategy at all.''