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Suspension and Zero Tolerance

All children face rising rates of suspension, especially minority children; the ill effects of harsh discipline are not limited to children with a mental health diagnosis. But the “zero tolerance” focus on mandatory punishment for certain behaviors targets children with impulse or emotion regulation control problems often caused by mental health disorders.

The use of out-of-school suspension nearly doubled from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2001.²²

1.7 million | Annual suspensions in US public schools, 1974

3.1 million | Annual suspensions in US public schools, 2001

In the same period, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased just 7.5%, from 44 million to 47.6 million.²³

One study found that 95% of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.²⁴

A Texas study of one million students over the course of six school years found the following:

  • 54% experienced at least one in-school suspension over the study period.
  • 31% experienced an out-of-school suspension.
  • 3% were state mandated suspensions and expulsions.
  • 97% of suspensions were discretionary, in response to conduct codes.

Compared to their typical peers, suspended students were two times as likely to repeat a grade, and three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within a year.²⁵1Students without suspensions2xSuspended students are twice as likely to repeat a grade3xSuspended students are 3 times more likely to be in contact with the law

These trends are compounded for minority children, particularly those with mental health and learning disorders. More than 25% of boys of color served under IDEA receive an out-of-school suspension.

  • Black children make up 18% of preschool enrollment, but represent 48% of preschool children who have received more than one out-of-school suspension

18% Preschool enrollment of black children as percentage of total

48% Preschool suspension rate of black children as percentage of total

  • Although black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.²⁶

²² Wald and Losen.

²³ National Center for Education Statistics. (2011).

²⁴ US Department of Education. (2014) Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline.

²⁵ Council of State Governments Justice Center. (2011) Breaking School’s Rules.

²⁶ US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline). (2014).