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Stopping the School To Prison Pipeline

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley
© 2014

Decades of research have shown that exclusionary discipline is not the best way for schools to handle misbehavior. Suspensions and expulsions do not lead to improved student behavior. In fact, these exclusionary discipline approaches tend to make behaviors worse and tremendously increase the likelihood that the student will end up in the criminal justice system.

In particular, black students in the US tend to be disciplined with these types of approaches more than any other sub group. While only 16% of school suspensions for African American students are for fighting, 82% are for subordination. Many feel the high suspension rate for subordination may in fact be blamed on cultural differences.

Besides race, other factors that predict school suspension are gender, low socioeconomic status and special education classification. Having an ED or BD special ed label greatly increases the likelihood of suspension, despite federal laws which are supposed to prohibit this. The more of these criteria met by a student, the more likely they are to experience suspension during their schooling. A black male, living in poverty with some type of disability has a 66% chance of being suspended from school.


Schools need multilevel supports for behavioral issues, just as they do for academic interventions.

Students identified for at risk of being suspended or expelled should be targeted for intense intervention.

Black male students need training in how to appropriately respond to unfair treatment.

Rehabilitative and supportive "In School Suspension" programs should be developed as an alternative to exclusionary approaches. Traditionally, ISS rooms have been staffed by untrained persons and viewed more as a time-out room or baby-sitting room. Schools need to use these programs as an effective way to make a positive change in students with behavior problems.


Sources: (2014) Symposium: The Role of School Psychologists in Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. Early Warning Signs, Effects of Repeated Exclusionary Discipline on Juvenile Justice Involvement, Stability of Discipline Referrals Over Time. American Psychological Association Annual Conference, Aug 7, 2014. Washington, DC

Participants: Dr J. Blake, TX A&M Univ.; Dr R Skiba, Indiana Univ.; Dr P. Fenning, Loyola Univ; Dr L. Raffaele-Mendez, Univ of South Florida

About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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