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

Examining restorative practices in schools

A new research brief by Catherine Augustine and colleagues at the RAND Corporation examines findings from an evaluation of restorative practices as implemented in schools in Pennsylvania, USA. Restorative practices are described as inclusive and non-punitive ways to respond to conflict and build community, and these practices were implemented through the SaferSanerSchools Whole-School Change programme. Some key elements of the programme include:

  • Affective statements: Personal expressions of feeling in response to specific positive or negative behaviours of others.
  • Small impromptu conferences: Questioning exercises that quickly resolve lower-level incidents involving two or more people.
  • Fair process: A set of transparent practices designed to create open lines of communication, assure people that their feelings and ideas have been taken into account, and foster a healthy community as a means of treating people respectfully throughout a decision-making process so that they perceive that process to be fair, regardless of the outcome.

The research team conducted a randomised controlled trial of restorative practices in 44 schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, between June 2015 and June 2017. Data included findings from observations, surveys, and interviews, and administrative.

Key findings of the study were as follows:

  • Restorative practices were successful in reducing pupil suspensions.
  • Restorative practices reduced suspension rates of elementary grade (primary school) pupils, African American pupils, pupils from low-income families, and female pupils more than for pupils not in these groups.
  • Restorative practices did not improve academic outcomes, nor did they reduce suspensions for middle school pupils or suspensions for violent offences.

Overall, the research team concludes that restorative practices are promising, particularly for elementary schools seeking to reduce suspension rates.

Source: Restorative practices help reduce student suspensions. (December 2018), RAND Corporation RB-10051-DOJ