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Limiting Expulsions and Suspensions

STRATEGY: Ensure school-level expulsion and suspension practices limit negative effects of lost instructional time.

Student expulsion and suspension rarely achieve their stated ends, beyond removing students who might otherwise have been disruptive to classes. These disciplinary policies result in significantly lost instructional time and often exacerbate racial inequity by targeting students of color. What students often “learn” from out of school suspension is that they are unwanted, incapable of learning or behaving, and that poor behavior is a way to escape their problems at school.

Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to repeat grades, struggle with social interactions, and ultimately drop out. Moreover, schools with high suspension rates tend to score lower on measures of school culture. In other words, schools that routinely use suspension and expulsion as disciplinary measures fail to serve both the students who are disciplined and the students who remain.


Alternatives to expulsion and suspension focus improving or correcting student behavior without limiting access to learning opportunities. They include both proactive approaches geared toward preventing incidents that might result in a suspension or expulsion, and reactive approaches that deal with incidents through less exclusionary means.

Common proactive approaches

  • Educate social-emotional skills to students to prevent or manage violent or aggressive behavior
  • Hire a school psychologist to provide direct counseling to students and families
  • Implement a schoolwide positive behavioral intervention and support program (PBIS)
  • Work directly with families to support healthy parent-child relationships

Common reactive approaches

  • Implement restorative justice, (i.e., a set of practices that address incidents through discussion with the student and natural consequences that repair harm)
  • Train and utilize peer mediators (i.e., students who can help diffuse conflicts when they arise)
  • Use in-school-suspension to remove disruptive students from classes, provide them with schoolwork, and keep them in an educational setting
  • Partner with alternative schools so that if a student must be expelled, they are transferred to a school that has specialized supports to meet the student’s needs

First Steps to Consider

  • Examine suspension and expulsion data carefully, looking for patterns that may suggest solutions. For example, are the same students being suspended regularly? Are students frequently suspended for the same infractions? Do infractions occur at specific times or in certain places or classrooms?
  • Look for bias in suspension and expulsion data. Research shows that black and Hispanic students commit infractions at similar rates as white students, but they are suspended at much higher rates. Eliminating this bias can significantly lower suspension rates.
  • Commit resources to at least one proactive and one reactive approach to lowering suspension and expulsion rates. These strategies require funding, whether it be to provide professional development for school staff, hire new staff, or designate staff time for specific duties such as monitoring in-school suspension.
  • Learn about alternative policies and practices. There are a variety of different options, not all of which are suited to specific school situations. Choosing the right one(s) to implement is critical. Seeing these practices in action in other schools is highly recommended.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Students are generally suspended or expelled both as a punishment to the student and to remove dangers or disruptions to other students. School leaders need to balance the needs of the individual student who has committed an infraction with the rights of other students and their teachers to a safe and productive learning environment. This is a tricky balance but one that is generally best served by implementing alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion.

As described above, suspension and expulsion have become sources of racial inequity in many schools and can have consequences that extend well beyond the education system. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, a situation known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Suspensions and expulsions also involve significant legal ramifications, especially for students with individual education plans or 504 plans.

Alternatives to suspension and expulsion are designed to address common pitfalls in student discipline policies, including

  • confusing students’ emotional issues and challenges with self-control issues;
  • using one-size-fits all discipline policies (i.e., zero-tolerance) that treat all infractions the same, regardless of circumstances;
  • using exclusively (or primarily) reactive approaches to discipline; and
  • not addressing the root causes of student misbehavior.

The recommended approaches described above can come with pitfalls of their own as well. For example:

  • PBIS programs rely upon systems of rewards and punishments. These extrinsic motivators may not work for all students, and often they do not address the root causes of student misbehavior.
  • Restorative justice strategies must include more than the discussion component of the technique. If students are not required to make adequate repairs to the school or classroom community, they are unlikely to change their behavior.

Guiding Questions

  • What are root causes of students’ behavioral issues and how can they be uncovered?
  • What types of training do staff members, including teachers, administrators, counselors, etc., need to support student behavior better?
  • What proactive approaches to student behavior does the school use?
  • How will students who do not present behavior challenges be affected if disruptive students are kept in the building?