School discipline causes lasting, harmful impact on Black students, study finds

A protester pushes for an end to police officers on school campuses.
A protester pushes for an end to police officers on school campuses. Restorative justice, which aims to make discipline less punitive and more productive, has found its way onto campuses.
(Los Angeles Times )

High school students who are suspended or expelled are more than twice as likely to be charged or convicted of a crime and incarcerated as a young adult, according to a recent UC Irvine study, and an Orange County nonprofit is working to make certain area educators have access to restorative justice programs.

UCI researchers also found that high school students who were subjected to exclusionary punishment are also more likely to earn less income, require food assistance and are less likely to pursue college. Black students suffer a disproportionate amount of school discipline and fare worse into adulthood due to the impact of school punishments.

“Schools should be about enabling students to thrive,” said sociology professor Andrew Penner, a co-author of the study. “There’s nothing about the logic of punishment and incapacitation that helps prepare students to thrive.”


The researchers set out to analyze how much inequality in young adults can be traced back to being disciplined in school. Penner said the study, published in the journal Educational Researcher, offers some of the most substantial data indicating a school-to-prison pipeline.

For their analysis, researchers compared school disciplinary records with criminal justice activity, educational enrollment, employment and income records. Focusing on 40,000 students in Oregon who began high school in 2007, researchers analyzed data from the state’s Department of Education, court system, Department of Corrections, Internal Revenue Service and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a government program that helps supplement the food budget of poor families. They used this data to trace students to young adulthood.

They found that students who were disciplined are faring worse as adults than other students who were not disciplined in school.

Researchers also found glaring disparities in the types of students who were being disciplined, specifically that Black students were more likely to be disciplined in school. The data also indicated that being disciplined in school had greater impacts on Black students later in their lives.

Penner said that about 30% of the Black and white disparities in young adult criminal justice outcomes, college completion and use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can be traced back to disproportionate school discipline.

“So not only are they more likely to receive disciplinary actions, but the consequences of this are particularly severe,” Penner said.

Penner said the study also points to the substantial social costs caused by school discipline, such as lower tax revenue due to lower earnings, higher spending for safety net social programs and criminal justice costs.

“We pay a lot of money to have police officers in schools,” Penner said. “What if we spent that money having therapists and social workers in schools instead? How different would our education system look? How different would these kids’ lives look?”

A growing number of schools have been rethinking their traditional notions of discipline. Some around the country have adopted restorative justice measures, which aim to make discipline less punitive and more productive by fostering understanding and relationships among students and educators. The movement in schools is an extension of the restorative justice movement aimed at the criminal justice system, which seeks to overturn the punitive nature of incarceration.

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Penner and other UC Irvine researchers also recently published a separate study looking at how restorative justice has fared in a school district that adopted the program.

Miles Davison, a UC Irvine graduate student and lead author on the study, said in a phone interview that the schools were attempting to combat the fact that Black students were three to four times as likely to experience exclusionary discipline than white students. But while the restorative justice practices caused a huge drop in suspension rates, the amount of discipline that Black students faced was largely unchanged, resulting in a widening of the racial disparities within five years of the implementation of the program.

“While there were promising effects in terms of reducing the overall prevalence of things like suspension, these gains weren’t necessarily realized by all students, particularly Black students,” Davison said.

Davison said the researchers found the disparities did dissipate in the later years of the program. It took about three years following the start of the program for the discipline rates to begin declining. The researchers suspect the effects of the program — and potentially the racial disparities — shift over time.

“Pretty much the big takeaway for us is that some of these programs take a while to materialize,” he said.

Davison said most restorative justice programs in schools around the country exist alongside normal disciplinary practices. Commonly, there is a restorative justice coordinator in the schools that may train staff, help develop programs, interact with students or host student groups or committees. Davison said this coordinator can be tasked with creating a method to providing alternatives to traditional discipline.

Davison said the success of restorative justice programs in schools can depend on how much discretion a school maintains. For instance, a teacher may decide when or when not to send a student to the restorative justice coordinator. Teachers may decide that a student’s actions aren’t worthy of the restorative justice measures. Davison said leaving it up to that level of individual discretion could contribute to racial inequality.

“We know, based on previous research, that discretion allows for the opportunity for different things to sort of influence the decision-making process where potential biases may be a factor,” he said.

Davison said the most successful programs likely don’t just focus on discipline but on the student-educator relationship, empowering students to have a voice within the school and building a culture of support where students feel that their school cares about them and their needs.

In furthering the concepts of both studies, Davison said the researchers will now look into whether restorative justice programs have long-term effects on peoples’ lives.

In Orange County, some schools have implemented restorative justice programs, including the Santa Ana Unified School District. The nonprofit O.C. Human Relations provides restorative justice programs to Ball Junior High School, Brookhurst Junior High School, Columbus Tustin Middle School, Dale Junior High School, La Quinta High School, Lexington Junior High School, Pacifica High School, Sycamore Junior High, Tustin High School and Walker Junior High School.

Julie Vue, director of youth and education programs at O.C. Human Relations, said the nonprofit started the program in the 2014-15 school year. Initially, the program was more a consultation service for schools. By the next year, it was being integrated into select schools.

The schools in the program have an R.J., or restorative justice, specialist based on campus every day, whose role is to instill restorative justice values and practices in the school’s faculty by offering training and mentoring to staff members.

“Restorative justice is about relationship-building,” Vue said. “It’s about getting to know people one-on-one in order to be able to have better relationships so that in the scenario in which a discipline or some kind of behavior issue arises, the approach to it wouldn’t be punitive.”

R.J. specialists are closely involved when a student is facing potential punishment. If a student gets in a fight on campus, specialists will work with administrators and staff to address the behavior using restorative practices. Another example of when specialists may step in is if a teacher is at odds with their class. Vue said specialists will work with the teacher and class to appropriately address the issue.

Vue said that before the pandemic started, suspensions declined and there was less student push out, meaning teachers were less likely to send a student to the office or force them to leave the classroom. Overall, teachers were more willing to engage and connect with their students. Vue said there hasn’t been any data to track suspensions or discipline since the pandemic began.

The nonprofit’s program is continuing to expand. In the nonprofit’s largest school district, Anaheim Union High School District, the program has grown from the initial three schools to now being employed at six campuses. Vue said the program will potentially expand to all the district’s 17 school sites in the coming school year. The program may also one day expand in Tustin and Garden Grove unified school districts. This school year, the program expanded from two to four schools in Tustin Unified.

“We really believe that our society can be better when we can think of restorative justice first rather than punitive measures,” she said.

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