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The Price of Punishment: Exclusionary Discipline in Connecticut PreK-12 Schools

Jessica R. Morgan, University of New Haven

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Suspensions and expulsions are not only harmful practices but are ineffective punishments for students in Preschool through 12th grade. Even with extensive research on the adverse effects and disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline, it is still practiced across the country. While suspensions and expulsions have been banned for students in Pre-K through second grade in the State of Connecticut, that has not stopped the use of this tool for a wide population of students. This paper aims to answer the question: how should Connecticut Legislators respond to the use of exclusionary discipline in the school systems?

 

This policy brief seeks to create awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline, the pervasive influence school discipline has on short and long-term life outcomes, and disparities in the use of exclusionary discipline. This widespread practice influences academic outcomes, mental health issues, involvement in criminal activity, and victimization (Wolf & Kupchik, 2017; Eyllon et al., 2022; Fabelo et al., 2011). Exclusionary discipline is an extensive practice; therefore, this paper will include a brief history of its use across the United States and its adverse effects. This will be followed by the current usage of exclusionary discipline in the state of Connecticut and its existing policies. Finally, policy recommendations for Connecticut will be identified, and their advantages and disadvantages will be examined.

 

Exclusionary Discipline in the US

The 1990s severely influenced the criminalization of youth and overwhelmingly affected the policing of students in schools across the United States. Youth violent crime rates began to drop following a peak in 1994 (Vera, 2012). In 1995, John Dilulio, a political scientist, forecasted a colossal wave of what he called “superpredators” (Dilulio, 1995; Vera, 2012). This narrative contributed to the widespread fear of child offending. After the high school shooting at Columbine in 1999, the implementation of zero-tolerance policies quickly spread. In response, the use of suspensions and expulsions, otherwise known as exclusionary discipline, increased ubiquitously (Vera, 2012; Lueng-Gagné et al., 2022).

 

According to data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), suspensions reached a national peak in 2010 and have been decreasing since. Despite this decline, rates of suspension are still much higher than before the 1990s (Lueng-Gagné et al., 2022; CRDC 2017-18, 2021). According to the 2017-18 CRDC data, which is the most recent biennial data collection from CRDC, over 2.6 million public school students received one or more in-school suspensions, and over 2.5 million public school students received at least one out-of-school suspension. Approximately 101,650 public school students were expelled with or without educational services in AY 2017-18. Furthermore, expulsions with educational services increased from AY 2015-16 to 2017-18. Therefore, the historical nexus of “superpredators” and zero-tolerance policies can be seen in the practice of exclusionary discipline today.

 

Adverse Effects of Exclusionary Discipline

Students in preschool through grade twelve face these practices across the United States. Suspension and expulsion are considered exclusionary discipline because they remove the student from the educational setting (School Discipline Support Initiative, 2020). Schools may resort to this type of punishment to stop unwanted behaviors, encourage appropriate behaviors, and/or exhibit fairness to the rest of the students. The school-to-prison pipeline, an emblematic metaphor, suggests that students who face exclusionary discipline are pushed out of schools and into the juvenile or criminal legal systems (Kim et al., 2010). Despite the use of such punitive discipline, extensive research shows that these practices can have long-lasting adverse effects.

 

From a macro perspective, it must be asked, what does it mean that students are losing out on their education as a punishment? How does this punishment influence their education and the rest of their lives? Research has consistently shown disproportionality in the application of exclusionary discipline, as well as the potential for immediate and long-term negative consequences. Youth of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from the classroom (Losen & Skiba, 2010; CRDC 2013-14, 2016). Furthermore, exclusionary discipline has been associated with negative academic outcomes. Students who face this punishment are more likely to be held back a grade and drop out of school (Wolf & Kupchik, 2017; Fabelo et al., 2011). A nationally representative sample found that schools with more exclusionary discipline policies were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms among adolescent students (Eyllon et al., 2022). Consequently, students may be left confronting academic hardships and mental health challenges in punitive educational environments.

 

Not only are students facing more adverse outcomes, but they are also more likely to confront adverse adult life outcomes. Research on post-preK-12 outcomes has found that students who are suspended by the time they reach 7th grade have a significantly greater risk of being involved in criminal activity, being criminally victimized, and being incarcerated as an adult (Wolf & Kupchik, 2017). What is quite alarming is the correlation between suspensions and eventually being involved in the legal system (Fabelo et al., 2011). The school-to-prison pipeline is readily apparent and the current policies regarding the use of exclusionary discipline are contributing to it.

 

Connecticut's Policies & Use of Exclusionary Discipline

While exclusionary discipline is practiced all across the country, this policy brief focuses on the practice of these punishments in Connecticut. In 2012, the definitions of exclusionary disciplines, including in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and expulsion, were updated through a general statute. The Connecticut General Statute § 10-233a defines the terms as listed. In-school suspensions (ISS) refer to the exclusion of a student from classroom activities, but not school as a whole, for no more than 10 consecutive days. Out-of-school suspensions (OSS) refer to the exclusion of a student from school for no more than 10 consecutive school days. Finally, expulsion refers to the exclusion of a student from school for more than 10 consecutive days.

 

 

 

Trends in the Use of Exclusionary Discipline in PreK-12

As part of an effort to combat the school-to-prison pipeline, the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) collects data from Local Education Agencies (LEAs). These agencies are expected to report all incidents that result in ISS, OSS, or expulsion. The data are self-reported by each district and are expected to be as accurate as possible. Recently, CSDE released its report on disciplinary practices with data from academic years (AY) 2015-16 through 2021-22 (CSDE, 2023). However, AY 2019-20 and 2020-21 are excluded from this data. These were left out of the analysis completed by CSDE because they are years in which the Covid-19 pandemic altered school life.

 

According to the most recent data, the combination of in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions has decreased since AY 2015-16 (CSDE, 2023). The data released demonstrates a decline in the number of ISS sanctions since AY 2015-16. However, OSSs have not experienced the same trajectory. The number of OSS sanctions showed a decline from AY 2015-16 to 2017-18, but then began increasing in 2021-22. This is imperative to note, as AY 2021-22 has surpassed the count in AY 2015-16. Despite the recent upward trajectory of OSS, CSDE reports that all suspensions have been decreasing since AY 2015-16. Since the 2015-16 AY, the number of expulsions has been alternating between an upward and downward trajectory, ending with 2021-22 on an upward trend.

 

However, when examining how different groups experience exclusionary discipline, it is evident that disparities in punishment still exist. Black and African American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their White counterparts (CSDE, 2023). Relatedly, Hispanic and Latinx students are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their White counterparts. Students with disabilities also disproportionately face suspensions. These findings are consistent with previous literature (Losen & Skiba, 2010; CRDC 2013-14, 2016).

 

Connecticut’s Policies & Trends in PreK-2

In 2015, Connecticut passed Public Act No. 15-96 that placed a ban on suspending and expelling students in preschool through second grade. This made Connecticut the first state in the country to legislate a ban on exclusionary discipline for pre-k to 2nd graders. However, the act does not cover all behavior. Students who have behaved in a violent or sexual nature that endangers others may still receive an out-of-school suspension. Additionally, under Title 20 of U.S.C. § 7961, students who brought or possessed a firearm at school can be expelled. However, the chief administering officer has the right to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, in the state of Connecticut, there is a ban on suspensions and expulsions for preschoolers through second graders, with exceptions.

 

Since the passage of P.A. 15-96 in 2015, suspensions and expulsions have significantly declined for students in preschool through second grade (CSDE, 2023). However, in AY 2021-22, there were 395 ISSs and 599 OSSs for students in this grade bracket. Additionally, the majority of students in this grade bracket who received a suspension or expulsion were youth of color. The following section will address three potential policy options to combat the range of issues that accompany the use of exclusionary discipline.

 

Policy Options

Option One

Legislate an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions.

 

Option Two

Legislate a ban on suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through fifth grade. Additionally, legislate an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions.

 

Option Three

Legislate a ban on suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through fifth grade. Establish an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions. Moreover, require all education professionals working at the elementary school level to be trained in restorative practices.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Policy Option

Option One

Legislate an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions.

Advantages:

  • Helps to maintain accountability in following Public Act No. 15-96 regarding the ban of exclusionary discipline for preschool through second-grade students in the state of Connecticut.
  • Encourages a sense of justice for younger students who face such disciplinary actions.
  • Provides parents with a sense of justice for their children.
  • Creates oversight for disparities in exclusionary practices.

Disadvantages:

  • Positions on the oversight group would have to be funded by the state. This creates an additional layer of fiscal involvement.
  • This oversight group cannot directly decrease exclusionary disciplines for preschool through second-grade students. It would only provide legislative encouragement to heed the public act.

 

Option Two

Legislate a ban on suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through fifth grade. Additionally, legislate an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions.

Advantages:

  • Expands the influence of Public Act No. 15-96 to include third through fifth graders.
  • Decreases suspensions and expulsions for all elementary school children in CT.
  • Helps to maintain accountability in following Public Act No. 15-96 regarding the ban of exclusionary discipline for preschool through second-grade students in the state of Connecticut.
  • Encourages a sense of justice for younger students who face such disciplinary actions.
  • Provides parents with a sense of justice for their children.
  • Creates oversight for disparities in exclusionary practices. 

Disadvantages:

  • Push-back from education professionals who face other issues like understaffing, burnout, and lack of access to disciplinary resources.
  • Positions on the oversight group would have to be funded by the state. This creates an additional layer of fiscal involvement.
  • This oversight group cannot directly decrease exclusionary disciplines for preschool through second-grade students. It would only provide legislative encouragement to heed the public act.

 

Option Three

Legislate a ban on suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through fifth grade. Establish an oversight group made up of professionals from all areas of education to examine all preschool through second-grade student suspensions and expulsions. Moreover, require all education professionals working at the elementary school level to be trained in restorative practices.

Advantages:

  • Expands the influence of Public Act No. 15-96 to include third through fifth graders.
  • Decreases suspensions and expulsions for all elementary school children in CT.
  • Disciplinary tools are added to education professionals' toolboxes.
  • Helps to maintain accountability in following Public Act No. 15-96 regarding the ban of exclusionary discipline for preschool through second-grade students in the state of Connecticut.
  • Encourages a sense of justice for younger students who face such disciplinary actions.
  • Provides parents with a sense of justice for their children.
  • Creates oversight for disparities in exclusionary practices.

Disadvantages:

  • Push-back from education professionals who face other issues like understaffing and burnout.
  • Positions on the oversight group would have to be funded by the state. This creates an additional layer of fiscal involvement.
  • Funding for restorative practice training for educators has to be budgeted.
  • Education professionals may not ‘buy-in’ to restorative practices making the practice less effective as a disciplinary tool.
  • Restorative practices may be a better tool, but it does not promise equitable application. Disparities in who receives punishment will not automatically be solved with the use of restorative practices.
  • This oversight group cannot directly decrease exclusionary disciplines for preschool through second-grade students. It would only provide legislative encouragement to heed the public act.

 

Final Recommendation

While none of the policy options eliminates exclusionary discipline altogether, they each would progress the application of discipline in Connecticut schools. The third option would be ideal, as it is the most comprehensive of the three. This option would have the potential to decrease suspensions and expulsions for children in preschool through fifth grade. Eliminating the option for exclusionary discipline would ideally help to combat the implicit disparities in its application.

 

Beginning by establishing an oversight group that examines the use of exclusionary discipline for only preschool through second-grade students would be a manageable initial task. As the numbers for such discipline continue to drop, the oversight group could expand to examine preschool through fifth-grade incidents. This would essentially depend on the capacity of the oversight group. Furthermore, restorative practices may help to empower education professionals when dealing with student problems. The practices may aid in decreasing the use of exclusionary discipline, but future research would be needed in this area. Policy option three encapsulates the most changes and would combat more of the implicit issues exclusionary discipline creates, yet it would not eradicate the root causes of disparate application. The school-to-prison pipeline may not be eliminated in one policy change, but incremental steps can be made toward this goal.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Civil Rights Data Collection 2013-14. (2016). U.S. Department of Education. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/

This data set is a collection of disciplinary practices from public schools, alternative schools, juvenile justice facilities, and special education facilities across the United States. This data set can be used to analyze exclusionary discipline across the country, as well as within states and school districts.

Civil Rights Data Collection 2017-18. (2021). U.S. Department of Education. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/

This data set is a collection of disciplinary practices from public schools, alternative schools, juvenile justice facilities, and special education facilities across the United States. Again, the 2017-18 AY is the most recent biennial collection of data. This data set can be used to analyze exclusionary discipline across the country, as well as within states and school districts.

Connecticut General Statute § 10-233a. (2012). https://www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/chap_170.htm#sec_10-233a

This is a Connecticut state statute that defines exclusionary discipline terms and was written in 2012. This resource was used to explicitly define the terms in relation to Connecticut.

Connecticut State Department of Education. (2023). 2021-22 Report on Student Discipline in Connecticut Schools. https://edsight.ct.gov/relatedreports/2021_2022_Report_on_Student_Discipline_in_Conn ecticut_Public_Schools.pdf

This report was conducted by the Connecticut State Department of Education which analyzed trends in the use of exclusionary discipline for students in preschool through 12th grade. The report is supported by data from Local Educational Agencies provided by school districts. The data analysis allows people to further understand the expansiveness of exclusionary discipline.

Dilulio, J. (1995). The Coming of the Super – Predators. Washington Examiner.

This article can be utilized to reference the announcement of the superpredators by political scientist, John Dilulio. He proposed that there would be a coming wave of serious juvenile offenders. This article is often referenced to explain the rhetoric around juvenile offenders during the 1990s. Moreover, it is used to historically mark the increased fear of youth.

Eyllon, M., Salhi, C., Griffith, J. L., & Lincoln, A. K. (2022). Exclusionary school discipline policies and mental health in a national sample of adolescents without histories of suspension or expulsion. Youth & Society, 54(1), 84–103.

This article examines the association between school discipline and the mental health of adolescents through collateral consequences and social stress processes frameworks. Utilizing the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the authors found significant results that depressive symptoms during adolescence are positively associated with exclusionary policies.

Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement. New York, NY: The Council of State Governments Justice Center & Public Policy Research Institute. Retrieved from   https://csgjusticecenter.org/publications/breaking-schools-rules/

This study examined the academic outcomes of 7th through 12th graders who were suspended or expelled at least once across Texas public schools. The authors found an association between exclusionary discipline and students dropping out of school, having to repeat a grade, and/or getting involved in the juvenile legal system as well as disparities among race and disabilities.

Kim, C. Y., Losen, D. J., & Hewitt, D. T. (2010). The school-to-prison pipeline: Structuring legal reform. New York, NY: New York University Press.

This book delivers an in-depth analysis of the school-to-prison pipeline by identifying entry points, lack of resources, and issues with school policies. Kim and colleagues (2010) suggest that exclusionary discipline is preparing students to become part of the juvenile and/or criminal legal systems. Furthermore, their study of law and the pipeline enable them to propose policy changes.

Leung-Gagné, M., McCombs, J., Scott, C., & Losen, D. J. (2022). Pushed out: Trends and disparities in out-of-school suspension. Learning Policy Institute.

This report provides a history of exclusionary discipline and their connection to zero tolerance policies as well as its modern use. Using Civil Rights Data Collection from 2011-12 to 2017-18 AY, the authors describe several key national-level and state-level findings. Finally, the authors describe the policy implications in response to the most recent data analysis.

Losen, D. J., & Skiba, R. J. (2010) Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis. UCLA: The Civil Rights Project. https://escolarship.org/uc/item/8fh0s5dv

This report is highly cited in suspension and expulsion research. Losen and Skiba (2010) utilize school and district-level suspension data from the Civil Rights Compliance Survey to examine the trends in urban middle schools. They conclude that racial and gender disparities exist in the use of OSS.

Public Act No. 15-96. (2015). https://www.cga.ct.gov/2015/act/pa/pdf/2015PA-00096-R00SB-01053-PA.pdf

This Public Act was passed in 2015 in the state of Connecticut. It pertains to the ban on suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool through the second grade.

School Discipline Support Initiative. (2020). Exclusionary Discipline. https://supportiveschooldiscipline.org/exclusionary-discipline

This online resource provides a clear definition of exclusionary discipline and its goals. Moreover, the initiative provides crucial studies, policies, and projects with synopses from across the US that demonstrate the danger is using exclusionary discipline as well as alternatives that are being rolled out.

Title 20 U.S.C. § 7961. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2015-title20/pdf/USCODE-2015-title20-chap70-subchapVIII-partF-subpart4-sec7961.pdf

This US Code, also known as the Gun-Free Requirement, states that students who bring firearms to school will be expelled, however, the chief administering officer still has the right to modify the punishment on a case-by-case basis.

Tow Youth Justice Institute. (2022). Suspension and Expulsion Committee Report and Recommendations. The University of New Haven.

This resource dives into previous literature that demonstrates how suspension and expulsion can be harmful to students who face such disciplines. The Tow Youth Justice Institute provides the current status of the use of such discipline across Connecticut. Additionally, they recognize the work of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee and their legislative recommendations.

U.S. Department of Education. (2021). An overview of exclusionary discipline practices in public schools for the 2017-18 school year. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/assets/downloads/crdc-exclusionary-school-discipline.pdf

This report offers an overview of the use of exclusionary discipline during the 2017-18 AY. The 2017-18 AY is the most recent biennial collection of disciplinary data from across the US. It provides a breakdown of exclusionary discipline based on preschool students, k-12, as well as gender, race, ethnicity, and disability.

Wolf, K. C., & Kupchik, A. (2017). School suspensions and adverse experiences in adulthood.    Justice Quarterly, 34(3), 407–430. https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2016.1168475

This article investigates the long-term influence of suspensions on criminality in adulthood. Wolf and Kupchik (2017) expand on the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor by examining how the influence of facing exclusionary discipline does not end with high school. While other articles have found negative influences of suspensions on the remaining time in K-12, these authors found an association between suspensions and criminality later in life.

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