Proponents of federal orders to reduce or eliminate suspensions are waving this study around as confirmation that federal intervention is necessary to stop the flow of suspended minority students into prisons later in their lives.
Before jumping on this bandwagon, people should more closely scrutinize what this study actually examines and how it claims that its results are causal.
Importantly, this research does not look at how changing school discipline policies affects students. Instead, it looks at how students are affected by being in a school with more suspensions versus one with fewer.
Schools with identical school discipline policies could vary substantially in the rate of suspensions based on how the school is run and whether there’s a concentration of students inclined toward behavior problems in it.
That is, a poorly run school may be unable to maintain classroom order without having to suspend a lot of students, while a well-run school could have the same discipline policies, but relatively few suspensions.
The researchers mischaracterize their work as answering whether there is “a causal link between experiencing strict school discipline as a student and being arrested or incarcerated as an adult.”
That’s inaccurate because schools of equal “strictness” could produce very different rates of suspensions, depending on how well-run they are and how many students with behavior problems they have.
Another way to describe what they’re examining is whether there’s a causal link between going to a poorly managed school with a lot of behavioral problems and later-in-life incarceration.
If the answer were yes, it would not mean we would want to have the feds crack down on suspensions. It could mean that we need to improve school management quality and strengthen families and communities so that students are less likely to come to school with behavioral difficulties.