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date: 06 December 2022

Out-of-School Suspension of African American Youth and Progressive Education Alternativesfree

Out-of-School Suspension of African American Youth and Progressive Education Alternativesfree

  • Wendy HaightWendy HaightSchool of Social Work, University of Minnesota
  •  and Priscilla GibsonPriscilla GibsonSchool of Social Work, University of Minnesota


Racial disproportionality in out-of-school suspensions (suspensions) is a persistent, multi-level social justice and child well-being issue affecting not only youth, families, and schools but society as a whole. It is a complex, multiple-level social problem that will require an equally complex response. The design of effective remedies will require adequate understanding of the problem as well as the historical and sociocultural contexts in which it emerged and is perpetuated. Progressive educators have offered a number of alternatives to harsh and exclusionary discipline, but research is needed to examine their effectiveness, especially in reducing racial disproportionalities.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • Clinical and Direct Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Racial disproportionality in out-of-school suspensions (suspensions) is a persistent, multi-level social justice and child well-being issue affecting not only youth, families, and schools but society as a whole. Suspensions involve excluding children from school for up to 10 days. They are imposed by school administrators for behaviors such as noncompliance and fighting (Raffaele Mendez, Knoff, & Ferron, 2002) to maintain a safe and appropriate learning environment consistent with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Many public schools persist in using suspensions as a standard practice for responding to children’s problematic behaviors (Hemphill, Plenty, Herrenkohl, Toumbourour, & Catalano, 2013; Losen, 2011) even though suspensions are largely ineffective in deterring children’s inappropriate behaviors (Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003); can negatively impact their well-being, health (Denby & Curtis, 2013), and academic achievement (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010); and are associated with entry into the juvenile justice system (Council on Crime and Justice, 2008; see Heitzeg, 2009). Nationally, black children are three times more likely than white children to be suspended (Losen, 2011). Yet black students are no more likely than other students to engage in unsafe or rule-breaking behaviors at school (e.g., see review by Gregory et al., 2010). Rather, there is evidence that they are more harshly disciplined than white students for the same misbehaviors (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015).

Racial disproportionality in suspensions clearly is a complex, multi-level social problem that will require an equally complex response. The design of effective remedies will require adequate understanding of the problem including its impact from the individual youth to society as a whole and the historical and sociocultural contexts in which it emerged and is perpetuated. Progressive educators have offered a number of alternatives to harsh and exclusionary discipline. Research is needed to examine the effectiveness of these alternatives in reducing not only overall levels of suspensions but racial disproportionalities.

Suspensions Negatively Impact Youth, Families, Schools and Communities

If used appropriately, suspensions may be a useful tool for educators responding to the most egregious and dangerous misbehaviors. As progressive educator and high school principal T. Elijah Hawkes (2011) has argued, “exile has its place.” He points out that exile, as an age-old human response to gross violations of community norms, can support the healthy development of students if used appropriately. For suspension to have a positive effect, however, the student must first have a sense of belonging to a valued community from which he or she is exiled. Furthermore, suspension is only the first step in a restorative process that includes preparation for the youth’s reintegration into the school community. When suspension is not used appropriately, it harms youth, caregivers and families, educators, schools, and other social institutions.


Youth who receive suspensions may miss academic content as well as other crucial educational opportunities including interactions with educators who encourage their achievement and serve as role models (see Tatum, 2004). Suspensions are associated with lower educational achievement and have been implicated in the racial achievement gap (Gregory et al., 2010; Losen, 2011), which widens as children progress through the elementary-school years (Swanson, Cunningham, & Spencer, 2003). By high school, dropout rates for black youth are two times higher than for white youth (Aud et al., 2010).

Suspensions also may increase psychosocial risks to vulnerable youth. A disproportionate number of youth with individualized education programs (IEPs) receive suspensions (see Krezmien, Leone, & Achilles, 2006). Most students with specific learning challenges cannot afford to miss class time, nor can most students with emotional and behavioral challenges afford unsupervised time at home. In general, children who are suspended may feel disconnected from school (Cameron & Sheppard, 2006) and become increasingly involved with the juvenile justice system (Council on Crime and Justice, 2008). Yet suspensions are not only generally ineffective in reducing students’ chronic, problematic behaviors (Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003), youth with suspensions are rarely referred for professional services to address any underlying issues (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003).

Furthermore, youth may respond to exclusionary discipline in a variety of ways including the development of an oppositional identity that rejects the values and norms of the school. Oppositional or “resistance identities” often occur in response to exclusion, prejudice, and perceived unfair treatment (Castells, 2010; Rios, 2011). Citing research by Fordham and Ogbu (1986), Tatum (2004) argued that youth develop oppositional identities as a means of protecting and distancing themselves from the perceived racism of white educators and other adults. Anderson (1999) described that the alienation and contempt black youth experience in wider society leads to the development of an oppositional culture that delegitimizes mainstream (i.e., white) cultural behaviors and institutions such as schools. When youth internalize oppositional identities, they may embrace problematic behaviors and values that can ultimately lead to delinquency. Yet the internalization of resistant or oppositional identities also provides youth with a sense of dignity, pride, and independence in the face of oppression and exclusion. Youth may consciously take on the negative identities that have been forced upon them but also protest or resist oppression and exclusion by engaging in “deviant politics” such as committing petty thefts or behaving disrespectfully toward police officers or educators (Rios, 2011). Thus, exclusionary discipline may actually encourage problematic school behavior in some youth.

Caregivers and Families

Suspensions also can harm caregivers and families. Youth from low-income (Bruns, Moore, Stephan, Pruitt, & Weist, 2005) and single-parent (Dawson, 1991) families have particularly high rates of suspensions. If caregivers must miss work to meet with school administrators or supervise their children, they may risk losing jobs and income (Losen, 2011). Furthermore, if parents and youth perceive suspensions to be problematic, family–school relationships critical to effective schooling may be damaged (e.g., Galindo & Sheldon, 2011; Gibson & Haight, 2013; Semke, Garbacz, Kwon, Sheridan, & Woods, 2010).

Family–school relationships are complexly intertwined with issues of race and ethnicity. Historically, socialization for black children has emphasized education (e.g., Baker, 2005). Contemporary middle- and lower-income black parents continue to view education as paramount for their children’s success (Diamond & Gomez, 2004) and view their support of education as a parenting strength (Gibson, 2005). Yet many black children continue to face significant challenges in obtaining an education (Cunningham, Corprew, & Becker, 2009; Mandara, 2006).

Black parents have expressed concerns that school disciplinary practices are obstacles to their children’s education (Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Bracey, 2010). Indeed, many black caregivers with low incomes whose children have recently been suspended from school express anger and frustration at school policies and professionals. Skiba and Peterson observed: “School personnel often view families as the chief cause of school discipline problems; thus, when a child comes to the office repeatedly, it is not uncommon for school disciplinarians to seek to punish parents as well as children” (2000, p. 340).

Caregivers of black children with suspensions have acknowledged that some of their children’s behaviors were inappropriate and agreed that appropriate consequences were needed, but most also described suspensions as morally problematic. Many viewed suspensions as unfair, disproportionate responses to youth’s misdeeds and uncaring, harmful responses that ignored youth’s real problems. Further, suspensions were viewed as damaging family–school relationships and as racially motivated. Suspensions contributed to families’ distrust and withdrawal from participation in their schools (Gibson & Haight, 2013).

Educators and Schools

Racial disproportionality in suspensions also can harm educators and schools. In schools with racial disproportionalities in suspensions, educators may be vulnerable to criticism of racial insensitivity and bias (e.g., Dupper, Theriot, & Craun, 2009), inequitable treatment of black students (e.g., Chavous et al., 2003; Hinojosa, 2008; Jackson & Moore, 2006), poor relationships with black youth (Caton, 2012), and failure to address underlying problems (e.g., Gibson & Haight, 2013; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). Schools with high rates of suspensions also may come under government scrutiny regarding the safety and appropriateness of the learning environment (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 2014) as well as the appropriate provision of early intervention for students exhibiting behavior problems (e.g., Zirkel, 2013).

School districts face fiscal repercussions for the exclusion of students, including the loss of capitation funds for student attendance. Significant costs also are associated with suspending or expelling a student, including time spent in meetings, seeking expert testimony, and preparing for the disciplinary hearing itself. Unlike time spent by staff, consultants, and administrators working to educate children, time spent on suspension preparation has no measurable educational benefit, so it is especially costly to the district’s primary mission. Moreover, costs may continue to mount after the suspension. States may require districts to have mechanisms whereby a suspended student receives services to become eligible for reinstatement into the district (see American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).

School districts with high rates of suspensions also face fiscal repercussions for particular groups of students. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts with significant racial/ethnic disproportionality in discipline to review their disciplinary policies/practices/procedures and spend 15% of their Part B allocation to provide early interventions (Zirkel, 2013). The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to develop criteria to identify schools that are persistently dangerous. Nationally, the number of suspensions and/or expulsions has been used to identify “unsafe” schools (Jones et al., 2009; U.S. Department of Education, 2014). Students in such unsafe schools are allowed to transfer to other public schools.

Other Social Institutions

The long term consequences of out-of-school suspensions also are felt by society as a whole. Youth who have received suspensions are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system (e.g., Nicholson-Crotty, Birchmeier, & Valentine, 2009; see Heitzeg, 2009). In addition, they also are more likely to drop out of high school (see American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013). In adulthood, blacks’ lost educational opportunities are associated with poverty (see Briscoe, McClain, Nesman, Mazza, & Woodside, 2010). The average high school dropout will pay $60,000 less in taxes than the high school graduate. This represents a loss to federal and state governments of billions of dollars per year in income tax revenue. The average high school dropout also experiences worse physical and mental health and has a life expectancy that is 6 to 9 years shorter. Thus the implications for the health care system are significant (see American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, 2013). In short, out-of-school suspensions push black children down a pathway that reduces their chances of becoming healthy, productive citizens and increases the likelihood that, instead, they will become economic and social burdens.

Historical and Sociocultural Context

The disproportionate suspension of black children and youth emerged and is perpetuated within a complex historical and sociocultural context including racism in the United States, fear of black youth, zero tolerance policies, the criminalization of black youth, and high-stakes testing.

Racism in the United States

In the contemporary United States, some overt forms of individual and institutional racism (e.g., public hate speech and school segregation) have been reduced in many contexts. Although tremendous progress in civil rights was made in the 20th century, there is no question that racism pervades the context in which 21st-century black children develop. The continuing oppression of blacks in the United States is reflected in unemployment statistics (11.3% of blacks versus 5.3% of whites are unemployed), achievement of the bachelor degree at age 25 or over (21.8% of blacks versus 35.2% of whites), poverty (27.6% of blacks versus. 11.1% of whites are living below the poverty line), incarceration per 100,000 (1,405 blacks versus 256 whites), and poor health (life expectancy for blacks is 74.9 years versus 78.8 years for whites), among other indicators (Urban League, 2015). Racism also is reflected in negative attitudes toward, and distorted perceptions of, black children and youth at school. In a recent study, most black youth with suspensions, their caregivers, and educators (teachers and administrators involved in the suspensions) concurred that racial bias was responsible for the disproportionate suspension of black youth. Youth and caregivers argued that black students are treated more harshly than white students and targeted as disciplinary problems (Gibson et al., 2014).

Racial oppression continues to be perpetuated both through the structures of our social institutions and the intentional or unintentional policies and practices of professionals (e.g., Alexander, 2012). In discussing “cultural racism,” Jones (1997) argued that when a particular group—for example, the middle-class or dominant ethnic group—has the power to define cultural values, those cultural groups that diverge from these core beliefs will be marginalized and disadvantaged, and those that do not will enjoy privileges. An important aspect of white privilege is that the behavior, language, and values of white middle-class people are seen as the norms against which others’ cultural beliefs, language, and practices are measured (e.g., Du Bois, 1935; Wise, 2011).

Differential access to or use of privileged ways of narrating experience, for instance, is one way in which racial inequalities and other dimensions of status and power are reflected, enacted enacted, and perpetuated. The concept of narrative inequality refers to the systematic privileging of some voices or social perspectives (e.g., educators) over others (e.g., youth and caregivers) (see Miller et al., 2012). This occurs when certain narratives, and the points of view communicated therein, are suppressed or punished. In studies of racial and social class disproportionalities in children’s school functioning, scholars working within the tradition of language socialization have shown how social power and culturally based discrepancies in patterns of communication among youth from lower-income or black communities and middle-class educators can result in conflict, suppressed narratives, and poorer educational outcomes for children (see Smitherman [2000] and classic ethnographies by Heath [1983] and Miller [1982], among others). Such narrative suppression not only has consequences for individual youth and family members but limits our understanding of complex social events such as suspensions necessary to the design of effective interventions.

Fear of Youth

The disproportionate suspension of black children and youth emerged within, and is perpetuated by, a context in which youth, especially African American and Latino boys, are feared. In the early 1990s, there was a marked increase in violent crimes committed by youth that was accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric by adults. In November 1995, John Dilulio, a professor at Princeton University, coined the word “superpredator” to refer to certain youth (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014). James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University and the president of The American Society of Criminology, warned of a “coming bloodbath” (Recer, 1995). The mainstream press repeated their words in editorials and articles. For example, the Los Angeles Times carried an article with the title “The Coming Mayhem” in which criminologist James Q. Wilson was quoted as predicting a crime wave by the “remorseless, vacant-eyed, sullen—and very young” (Rodriguez, 1996). Politicians capitalized on this hysteria by proposing laws that radically transformed the juvenile justice system. Between 1992 and 1997, 40 states had already passed laws making it easier to try children as adults (see Geraghty & Drizin, 1999). A half dozen high-profile school shootings in the early 1990s, punctuated by the 1999 Columbine shootings (committed by two white students), cemented the idea that certain groups of students and the public schools they inhabited were dangerous (see Fuentes, 2011–2012).

Zero Tolerance Policies

Zero tolerance policies were one response by school districts to the fear of school violence. The term “zero tolerance” was first coined during the Reagan presidency and the “war on drugs” in the 1980s. Congress enacted the Drug-Free Schools and Community Act in 1986, bringing the war on drugs to school with rules that mandated zero tolerance for any drugs or alcohol on public school grounds. During the Clinton administration, Congress took zero tolerance further, passing the 1984 Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated a one-year suspension for students who brought a firearm to school and pumped federal departments of Education and Justice funding into antiviolence programs (Fuentes, 2011–2012). Relying primarily on school exclusion (suspension and expulsion) and school security measures (e.g., metal detectors, video surveillance, locker searches), zero tolerance policies punish students severely in order to “send a message” that certain behaviors will not be tolerated (Skiba & Peterson, 2000). The concept of zero tolerance was readily embraced as inherently fair, and its harshness was accepted as a deterrent to undesirable behavior. Yet research suggested that zero tolerance procedures and policies did not increase school safety or improve student behavior (see Skiba & Peterson, 2000).

Furthermore, many school districts seized on the zero-tolerance policies as a means of addressing not only violent and dangerous behavior but a wide variety of nonviolent behaviors such as verbal disrespect to teachers and disruptive behavior that educators viewed as challenging (see Dupper, Theriot, & Craun, 2009). Interpretation of which youth behaviors are “challenging,” however, can vary widely within the multicultural contexts of contemporary public schools (Rhodes-Kline, 1997). A key consideration is which cultural group decides which student behaviors are challenging and warranting of disciplinary action.

Criminalization of Black Youth

Differences exist between the culture of public schools, which typically are dominated by white educators, and that of black students and their families (Noguera, 2008; Solomon, 1992). If the majority group dictates which behaviors are suspendable offenses and members of that group lack adequate cultural knowledge, then the behavior of minority group members may be viewed as pathological or even criminal (Denby & Curtis, 2013). Rios (2011) describes the criminalization of black and Latino youth as a process whereby adults view the cultural and behavioral differences of children of color as criminally deviant. According to Rios, youth of color are routinely monitored, threatened, policed, labeled, and punished (particularly by educators and police) as part of a “youth control complex” that criminalizes everyday youth behaviors. For instance, Neal, McCray, Webb-Johnson, and Bridgest (2003) found that youth utilizing movement styles (e.g., “strolling”) associated with black culture were perceived by teachers as lower in academic achievement, more aggressive, and likely in need of special education services.

In their 2015 study, Kayama and colleagues found that caregivers of youth with out-of-school suspensions expressed concerns about the impact of suspensions on the criminalization of black youth and the school-to-prison pipeline. Indeed, criminal justice and legal terms were frequently used in personal narratives of suspensions. Educators primarily used terms such as “misdemeanor” and “offense” to justify punitive responses to youth misbehaviors. Caregivers used criminal justice terms to resist punitive actions, for example, disputing the legality of punitive sanctions. By using criminal justice language, a strong and consistent message is sent to youth about the connection between their misbehaviors at school and the criminal justice system. Indeed, youth used terms such as “crime” and “self-defense” to characterize their misbehaviors and “prisoner” to refer to themselves.

High Stakes Testing

A number of progressive educators have argued that high-stakes testing also has contributed to the disproportionate exclusion of black youth. Fuentes (2011–2012), for instance, argued that mandates of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 created an incentive for schools to push out students whom educators perceive as disruptive or academically and behaviorally marginal. The NCLB required states to develop assessments of basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states must give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. Schools that receive Title 1 funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 must make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in test scores. If schools do not make AYP, then a number of corrective actions are taken, including allowing students to transfer to a better school within the district in the first year of failure to meet AYP, replacement of the entire staff in the fourth year, and restructuring or closing of the school in the fifth year. The editors of Rethinking Schools (Winter 2011–2012), a progressive periodical for educators, argued that “The rigid focus on test prep and scripted curriculum means that teachers need students to be compliant, quiet, in their seats, and willing to learn by rote for long periods of time. Security guards, cops in the hall, and score-conscious administrations suspend and expel ‘problem learners’” (p. 2).

Progressive Education and Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions

Progressive educators, among others, have not only critiqued the use of exclusionary discipline practices, they have offered alternatives to out-of-school suspension. Progressive education emphasizes respect for diversity, including cultural identity, and the development of a critical, socially engaged intelligence, which allows individuals to understand and participate in their community. It is associated with open classrooms, cooperative learning, schools without walls, multiage approaches, whole language, experiential learning, and attention to the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of development (see Miller, 1997).

The term “progressive education” arose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when many Americans were increasingly critical of the social effects of concentrations of corporate power and wealth (see Miller, 1997). John Dewey worked with school reformers in his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1904 to develop and test progressive approaches to education. He viewed education as an integral part of life and the teacher as a guide to children’s active explorations. Dewey argued that education is critical to democracy and social progress:

Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. Education is the regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness. By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction it wishes to move. (1897, p. 16)

Contemporary progressive educators have advocated for racial equity, justice, diversity, and other democratic values in schools. In Rethinking Schools, teachers and schools administrators have described their use of a variety of creative alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, for instance, a program in which children are educated in Martin Luther King’s principles of nonviolent conflict resolution (Haga, 2011–2012). In addition, researchers have identified a number of alternatives to suspensions consistent with the principles of progressive education. These alternative responses to students’ misbehaviors target multiple interacting ecological systems: the youth, educator, family–school relationships, and larger school and societal systems.

Prevent Student Misbehavior

Proactive and preventive behavioral interventions can reduce discipline incidents and protect students from suspension and expulsion (see Anyon et al., 2014). Skiba and colleagues found that black students are less likely to experience exclusionary discipline in schools where the principal has a prevention orientation and implements alternative consequences such as in-school suspension (Skiba et al., 2003, as cited in Anyon et al., 2014). A variety of high-quality prevention programs that increase students’ social and emotional learning skills reduce student social and behavior problems and suspension rates (see Anyon). Positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), for instance, is a skills building, nonpunitive strategy (Tillery, Varjas, Meyers, & Collins, 2009).

Interventions targeting students may be invaluable strategies for reducing overall rates of suspensions. There is, however, no evidence that black students misbehave more often than their peers from other racial/ethnic communities. Indeed, Anyon and colleagues (2014) found that higher rates of suspension and law enforcement referrals of black (and Latino) students were not solely due to higher rates of misbehavior, poverty, or special education status. Thus, interventions targeting individual students are unlikely to reduce racial disproportionality in suspension.

Target Educators’ Attitudes About Black Students

Anyon and colleagues (2014) argued that racial disproportionality in suspensions likely is influenced by differential selection of black (and Latino) students by educators for office referrals. Interventions that target adults’ preconceived ideas about black and other youth of color and strengthen the individual relationships they have with these students may reduce differential selection for office referrals and hence racial disproportionalities in suspensions. Such efforts also may need to target educators’ attitudes and behaviors toward black families.

Engage Families Through Culturally Sensitive Practices

Reducing racial disproportionality in suspensions may require engaging black families and educators as partners. In Haight, Gibson, Kayama, and Wilson’s (2014) research, participants identified as one area of concern what Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1995) would characterize as youth’s family–school mesosystem. A youth’s family–school mesosystem encompasses the relationships between his or her educators and family. For example, a youth’s grandmother initiates contact with her grandson’s favorite teacher forming a family–school mesosystem to support his educational success. When youth are struggling with social and behavioral issues in school, these mesosystems, too often, have failed to develop, are negative, or become disengaged. Research is needed to develop and evaluate interventions to strengthen black family–school mesosystems.

Successful interventions targeting black family–school mesosystems are likely to be relationship-based involving the development of mutually respectful, collaborative working relationships between families and educators. Programs successfully educating black children such as the Harlem Children’s Zone have engaged caregivers and community members as adult partners. In addition, intervention programs facilitating active family involvement can improve the academic achievement of black children (Bailey & Bradbury-Bailey, 2010; Hanlon et al., 2009) and reduce students’ attendance problems (McConnell & Kubina, 2014; Sheldon, 2009).

Yet interventions facilitating positive family–school “partnerships” for children struggling with behavior often are didactic and top-down, with educators prescribing activities for caregivers (e.g., Canfield, Ballard, Osmon, & McCune, 2004), as opposed to building relationships and engaging them as adult partners in addressing issues of mutual concern (see Mapp, Johnson, Strickland, & Meza, 2008). An underlying assumption of many programs seems to be that the problem lies with children and caregivers, and the solution with educators, for example, school-based family counseling as an alternative to suspension (Canfield et al., 2004) and parent training to improve child–parent relationships (Sheely-Moore & Bratton, 2010). Such a stance is especially problematic when family–school relationships are intertwined with issues of power and race and unlikely to succeed when black family members and educators mistrust and even disrespect one another (Haight et al., 2014).

Successful interventions targeting the family–school mesosystem also are likely to recognize culturally distinct family structures. African American families are diverse, but certain values and behavioral patterns that strengthen this group are rooted in their adaptive responses to a history of slavery, segregation, and continuing racism and oppression. These may include an extended family orientation, reciprocity among family members, respect for elders, and cooperation and collective responsibility in childrearing (see Gibson & McRoy, 2004). “Family” may be defined not only as biological kin, such as grandmothers who assume caregiving roles with their grandchildren, but as “fictive kin,” that is, individuals who assume kin-like relationships of mutuality and support (see Stack, 1974), such as the “other mothers” and “community mothers” who assisted children and caregivers during the civil rights protests (Gibson, 2005). Engaging family elders (actual or fictive) may support caregivers and youth in enhancing their relationships with educators.

Successful interventions targeting the family–school mesosystem also are likely to recognize culturally preferred modes of communication. Oral narrative is highly valued and avidly practiced in African American communities, not least because it supports the development of a belief system characterized by hope and integrity in the face of oppression. According to Gates, “The values we cherish and wish to preserve, the behavior we wish to censure . . . the aspirations and goals that we most dearly prize, all of these things are encoded in stories . . . stories that, in effect, we live by and through (1989, p. 17).” Encouraging communication with families using speech genres associated with the home and community (narrative), rather than the school (formal, authoritative reporting), may encourage greater participation by family members including elders and eliminate narrative suppression.

Target the School Community Through Restorative Justice Practices

Emerging research suggests that restorative practices may be effective in reducing overall rates of out-of-school suspensions (Gonzalez, 2012; Morrison & Vaandering, 2012), but not racial disproportionalities in suspensions (Anyon et al., 2014). Restorative approaches focus on repairing harm to individuals and the school community caused by misbehavior through practices such as classroom circles (group dialogues) and conferencing (mediation). As the editors of Rethinking Schools (2015) caution, however, “Restorative justice doesn’t work as an add-on. It requires us to address the roots of student ‘misbehavior’ and a willingness to rethink and rework our classrooms, schools and school districts . . . Restorative justice can’t grow in the margins of scripted, test-driven curriculum; it’s based on teachers hearing, understanding, and responding to the academic, social, and emotional needs of students” (pp. 1–4).

Anyon and colleagues (2014) have investigated any impact of restorative justice practices in their evaluation of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) efforts to reform their disciplinary policies. In 2008, DPS implemented a policy requiring schools to implement restorative and therapeutic interventions as resolutions to student misconduct and to only refer students to law enforcement when legally mandated to do so. The policy also granted district administrators more influence over expulsion decisions and created a centralized discipline process with increased checks and balances. Since the introduction of these policies, the district has lowered suspension and expulsion rates by 40%, with reductions benefiting students of all backgrounds. However, black (and Latino and Native American) youth were still more likely than their white peers to experience an exclusionary discipline sanction even after accounting for the reasons students were referred to the office and the interventions they received. Indeed, black (and Latino and multiracial) students were often punished more harshly than white students for the same misbehaviors. Black (and Latino) students also had significantly greater odds of police involvement in their disciplinary incidents. Students attending schools with higher proportions of black (and Latino) students also were at greater risk for school exclusion even after accounting for student-level demographics.

Address Systems-Level Constraints

Efforts to reduce racial disproportionalities in suspensions are unlikely to succeed without addressing system-level barriers to better educational practices. For alternatives to suspensions to be effective, educators’ heavy workloads, large class sizes, and pressure to ensure students perform well on standardized tests must be addressed. Indeed, Theriot and colleagues (Dupper et al., 2009; Theriot et al., 2010) argued that a comprehensive intervention to reduce exclusionary discipline needs to include school and broader system-level issues.


Youth development occurs in relation to multiple embedded and interacting social systems including family, school, and larger sociocultural and historical systems (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Solutions to the disproportionate suspension of black children from school are likely to be found at, and impacted by, multiple interacting ecological levels. Studies have considered student-level factors (e.g., Theriot, Craun, & Dupper, 2010) such as behavior, student perceptions of educators’ roles in suspensions (Hinojosa, 2008), the co-construction of discipline by students and educators (Vavrus & Cole, 2002), caregiver understanding of their children’s suspensions (Gibson & Haight, 2013), school- and macro system-level factors (e.g., Raffaele Mendez et al., 2002; Theriot et al., 2010), and the complex interactions of factors across multiple-ecological levels, e.g., the interrelations of inadequate school funding, teachers’ culturally sensitive responses to youth’s problematic behavior, and family–school relationships (Haight et al., 2014). This body of research underscores the importance of designing comprehensive interventions that include educators, children, families, and larger school and social systems.

Yet there is a clear need for further research to develop and evaluate interventions to successfully reduce not only overall rates of out-of-school suspensions but also the disproportionate suspension of black children. Progressive educators and researchers have identified a number of promising approaches to reducing overall rates of suspensions, including restorative justice. Strategies focusing on educator attitudes toward black students and families and strengthening the black family–school mesosystem are promising areas for future research directed at reducing racial disproportionalities in suspensions.

Further Reading

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Out-of-school suspensions and expulsion. Pediatrics, 131, e1000–e1006.
  • Anyon, Y., Jenson, J. M., Altschul, I., Farrar, J., McQueen, J., Greer, E., et al. (2014). The persistent effect of race and the promise of alternatives to suspension in-school discipline outcomes. Children and Youth Services Review, 44, 379–386.
  • Dewey, J. (1897). My educational creed. School Journal, 54, 77–80.
  • Diamond, J. B., & Gomez, K. (2004). African American parents’ educational orientations: The importance of social class and parents’ perceptions of schools. Education and Urban Society, 36, 383–427.
  • Dupper, D. R., Theriot, M. T., & Craun, S. W. (2009). Reducing out-of-school suspensions: Practice guidelines for school social workers. Children & Schools, 31(1), 6–14
  • Editors of Rethinking Schools. (Winter 2011–2012). Stop the school-to-prison pipeline. Retrieved from
  • Gibson, P. A., Wilson, R., Haight, W., Kayama, M., & Marshall, J. M. (2014). The role of race in the out-of-school suspensions of black students: The perspectives of students with suspensions, their parents and educators. Children & Youth Services Review, 47, 274–282.
  • Haight, W., Gibson, P. A., Kayama, M., & Wilson, R. (2014). An ecological-systems inquiry into racial disproportionalities in out-of-school suspensions from youth, caregiver and educator perspectives. Children and Youth Services Review, 46, 128–138.
  • Skiba, R. J., & Peterson, R. L. (2000). School discipline at the crossroads: From zero tolerance to early response. Exceptional Children, 66(3), 335–347.
  • Theriot, M. T., Craun, S. W., & Dupper, D. R. (2010). Multilevel evaluation of factors predicting school exclusion among middle and high school students. Children & Youth Services Review, 32, 13–19.
  • Varvus, F., & Cole, K. M. (2002). “I don’t do nothin’”: The discursive construction of school suspension. The Urban Review, 34(2), 87–111.


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