In September 2019, ColorLines reported that students attending schools with high suspension rates are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated later in life and less likely to attend a four-year college. The ColorLines article reported findings from a study titled “The School to Prison Pipeline: Long Run Impacts of School Suspensions on Adult Crime,” conducted by Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Stephen B. Billings, and David J. Deming. As Emily Boudreau reported for Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge, the study provides “some of the first causal evidence that strict schools do indeed contribute to the so-called school to prison pipeline.”
The study focused primarily on North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District, where approximately 23 percent of middle school students are suspended annually, the majority of whom are male students of color. The study examined school administrative records, data on arrests and incarcerations, and college attendance records to assess how the district’s suspension policy and other factors affected later life outcomes.
The study’s lead author Andrew Bacher-Hicks told Usable Knowledge that, for all students—not just those who were suspended—there were “large negative impacts on later-life outcomes” related to attending a school with a high suspension rate.
This finding suggests that removing disruptive peers from the classroom—which is a primary rationale for suspensions—provides no positive benefits. Instead, the finding indicates that a strict school climate negatively impacts long-run outcomes—including educational attainment, arrests, and incarceration rates—for the overall student body.
As Emily Boudreau wrote, the study suggests that school administrators and teachers “should be cautious of relying heavily on exclusionary practices” and that they should consider alternatives to suspensions, including positive reinforcement and restorative processes.
The school to prison pipeline has made national headlines in recent years. However, establishment media have failed to cover Bacher-Hicks, Billings, and Deming’s study as important evidence that strict schools contribute to this pattern. In September 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported that schools in California have expanded their ban on “willful defiance suspensions.” in which elementary and middle school students cannot be suspended for defying authority, citing the counterproductivity of such suspensions and how they are unfairly applied to black students. An October 2019 article in Forbes discussed the school to prison pipeline and how students of color face harsher punishments than their white peers, noting that, “the more time that Black and Brown children spend outside of the classroom, the more likely they are to be introduced to the criminal justice system.” However, neither article addressed the causal evidence from the study covered by ColorLines and Usable Knowledge.
Shani Saxon, “Study Links High Suspension Schools With Incarceration Later in Life,” ColorLines, September 23, 2019, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/study-links-high-suspension-schools-incarceration-later-life.
Emily Boudreau, “School Discipline Linked to Later Consequences,” Usable Knowledge (Harvard Graduate School of Education), September 16, 2019, https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/19/09/school-discipline-linked-later-consequences.
Student Researchers: Jacqueline Archie, Marco Corea, Rowan Hamilton, Molly McKeogh, Liam O’Sullivan, Alexandra Shore, Madeline Terrio, Alexander Tran, Kirstyn Velazquez (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)