Suspending Students Carries A Very High Economic Cost, New Report Explains

Seventh-grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student solved through restorative justice, which included teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, at Ed White Middle School, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in San Antonio. CREDIT: ERIC GAY, AP
Seventh-grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student solved through restorative justice, which included teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, at Ed White Middle School, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in San Antonio. CREDIT: ERIC GAY, AP

A report released Thursday by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project reinforces concerns that harsh school discipline policies, ones that disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students, are a key contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline. And they could seriously cost the country.

According to the report, high school students who were suspended at least once in a single year of school, in this case 10th grade, were at a higher risk of dropping out. As many as 67,000 students eventually dropped out of high school in that one year of school, and it’s costing the nation a lot of money. Students who drop out of school have lower incomes, less likely to have health insurance and are more likely to rely on public assistance. They’re also more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. When people aren’t able to establish and further their careers, it carries heavy fiscal costs, the report argues. The fiscal costs add up to more than $35 billion when factoring in lost tax revenue and greater government spending on health care, and the justice system.

“Thirty-five billion seems like a huge number, but it’s actually a very conservative estimate. We looked at data from just one cohort of 10th grade students. Multiply that with 10th grade cohorts from additional years and costs will easily exceed $100 billion,” said Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, in the announcement of the report.

If suspension rates were cut in half for even one cohort of students, California would save $3.1 billion and Florida would save $816 million, the report asserted.


There is a significant body of research showing that harsh school discipline policies and police presence in schools hurt students’ academic careers and push them into the criminal justice system. Research released earlier this year from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA that analyzed U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data found that compared to white students, black students were four times as likely to be suspended. Students with disabilities were also more likely to be suspended. LGBT students similarly face harsher school discipline, according to a 2014 report from the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Losen added that the report is focusing on economic costs in a national context because previous research has focused on how school discipline is disproportionately visited on students of color and this report addresses policymakers and others who may be “on the fence” about whether a reduction in school suspensions should be a priority. The economic cost may be more important to them than issues of social justice.

“When it comes to people who are focused on the bottom line, one of the problems has been that everyone says, ‘Invest in education, not prisons’ but now, especially with regard to frequent suspensions, there is this idea that there’s no cost to kicking kids out of school,” Losen said. It’s just a couple days they’re at home. It’s true there’s no immediate budget impact on the school districts’ budgets but there are some very serious economic costs that have been totally overlooked.”

A School Accused A Student Of Milk Theft. He Was Innocent But Is Still Going To Court.Education CREDIT: Damian Dovarganes, AP A middle school student in Virginia was handcuffed and charged with stealing a…thinkprogress.orgTo reduce suspensions and hopefully avoid some of these outcomes, the report suggests fewer suspensions should be a metric used to measure school success, an approach taken by the California Board of Education. The board used suspension rates as part of the state’s funding formula rubric and accountability system. Collecting and reviewing suspension data and disaggregating that data by race, gender, and other key categories is also an important step for schools and districts to take if they want to ensure discipline rates are not disproportionately high for some students and not others. Alternatives to suspension and training on things such as restorative justice practices can make a huge difference in student success, the report explains, but first, schools need to invest the resources in reforming these approaches to school discipline.

Although the Every Student Succeeds Act, the rewrite of No Child Left Behind, does include overuse of suspensions as part of the conditions of learning by which schools are judged, Losen said there’s enough flexibility to allow states to avoid addressing the issue.


“It doesn’t really explain what they need to do, so states are given a lot of flexibility as to whether they’re going to do that kind of work in a meaningful way,” Losen said, adding that statutes that tell states to stop suspending kids for vague violations, such as “disruption” and “defiance,” would likely help reduce the racial disproportionality in suspensions.

“ Just kicking kids out of school for every minor fraction does not improve safety.”

Losen said he has seen reports of teachers claiming to be concerned about safety in schools when school discipline policies change, but he said there is no reason to believe a call for less student suspensions should result in less safety.

“There is a little bit of hyperbole because no one is saying that safety is on the table. That’s not negotiable that teachers could be made unsafe that’s not what anybody is saying there are ways to intervene and address behavior that improve safety … So just kicking kids out of school for every minor fraction does not improve safety,” Losen said.

There are plenty of examples of school discipline and enforcement of dress codes going too far, and these reports overwhelmingly show students of color as those receiving the most attention from administrators and police officers, regardless of whether they violated a school code or the law. Only last month, a black middle school student was handcuffed after he was suspected of stealing a carton of milk. The student was actually on the free lunch program, but due to the student’s fidgeting and his pulling away from an officer at the time of the incident, the school and police said his behavior was still inappropriate. The student was expected to appear in juvenile court over charges of larceny. Police said he was still going to court because it appears he was trying to conceal the milk, an accusation the other of the student denied.

Last week, a black student was pulled out of his graduation ceremony by police officers for wearing a kente cloth and refusing to remove it. There are also reports of students of color being thrown to the ground, having their desks flipped over, and being placed in a chokehold at school.