Suspending suspensions

Out-of-school suspensions have typically been used as punishment for pupils who are truant (absent from school without parental consent) or chronically absent (missing 10% or more of school days). Given that the goal is to keep pupils in school and academically engaged, a few US states have banned this practice. A recent JESPAR article examined the effects of this ban on absence rates in Arkansas, which established a law in 2013 banning out-of-school suspensions. The state offered no training to schools, and each was left to make its own way with the policy change. Although out-of-school suspensions were banned, other punishments were allowed to continue, including in-school suspension, which takes a pupil out of the regular classroom for a time but allows them to continue their work elsewhere.

Using data from all Arkansas state schools, researchers compared the attendance of truant and non-truant pupils between 2012–13 (pre-policy) and 2013–14 (post-policy) to see if there were any dramatic changes in attendance for truant pupils that did not occur with non-truant pupils. Subjects were limited to grades 7–12 (Years 8–13), in which 96% of truancy occurs.

Researchers found that compliance with the law was low, particularly in disadvantaged schools, with only a third of all schools complying. Among schools that did comply, there was no evidence of change in student behaviour after the policy went into effect. Three key findings were:

  • Policy alone is not enough to change behaviour—implementation of a policy must be overseen and reinforced.
  • When policies change, schools must be evaluated regarding whether their resources are sufficient to enforce this change, or whether they need support or training in order to be able to comply.
  • High-level policy changes need to be followed by quantitative and qualitative evaluation to assess key outcomes and compliance.

In addition, researchers reflected that, perhaps because there was still other punishment, truancy continued. They stated that punishment does not address the root causes as to why pupils are truant, and that pupil outcomes might not change if schools simply replace out-of-school suspensions with other types of punishment.

Source: Discipline reform: The impact of a statewide ban on suspensions for truancy (January 2019), Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), Volume 24, Issue 1

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