Discipline and Punishment: How School Suspensions Impact the Likelihood of Juvenile Arrest

“Three strikes and you’re out” is an adage familiar to many children, and not because of baseball.

In recent years, the struggle to keep violence and crime out of schools has led to the implementation of three-strikes policies: three warnings and the student leaves class, three visits to the principal and the student is suspended, three suspensions and the student is expelled. A new study, however, finds that suspension or expulsion from school is associated with a more than doubled likelihood that students are arrested—calling into question the value of these policies.

In “From the School Yard to the Squad Car: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest,” published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence in February 2014, Kathryn C. Monahan, Susan VanDerhei, Jordan Bechtold, and Elizabeth Cauffman study the impact of mandated leaves of absence from school on the likelihood of arrest for juveniles.

The researchers find that youth are more likely to be arrested on days they are suspended from school—often as the result of so-called three-strikes policies. Furthermore, the increased likelihood of arrest is troublingly strongest among youth who do not have a history of criminal behavior.

Why is there a link between forced removal from school and contact with the juvenile justice system? Are the same factors that cause students to be suspended driving them to be arrested, or are suspensions actually increasing the likelihood of arrest?

The study addresses these questions using data collected on individual students between 2000 and 2006 as part of a larger study of juvenile offenders in two major metropolitan areas. The researchers tracked 1,354 youths between the ages of 14 and 17 with juvenile records for serious felony offenses, comparing juvenile arrests for individuals in months where they were suspended or expelled from school with months where they were not.

The researchers found that students were more than twice as likely to be arrested during months in which they were forcibly removed from school.

It might be expected that youth with a long history of criminal involvement would be the most vulnerable to these effects. However, the likelihood of being arrested actually increased the most for those students who had at least one juvenile offense but did not have a significant history of criminal behavior. Instead of deterring first-time juvenile offenders from criminal activity, suspensions seem to increase the likelihood of recidivism. Factors such as gender, race, parental monitoring, peer group, and the student’s self-reported commitment to school did not blunt the impact of schools’ policies.

One major limitation of this study is the inability to track if students were forcibly removed from school before or after being arrested for a crime (the data only shows arrests and removal from school by month). Such information is clearly crucial to understanding the true story behind the association of forced removal from school with the likelihood of arrest. Additionally, the study was limited to those youth with at least one serious offense on their juvenile record, raising questions about whether the findings extend to other youths as well. Looking at this study, it is therefore unclear if suspension raises the likelihood of arrest for all students. Future research on the impact of forced removal from school for all youth, not just those with preexisting juvenile records, will help determine if the effects seen in this study are unique to youth with prior criminal involvement.

Despite these gaps, this study represents an enlightening attempt to quantify the impact of school suspensions and expulsions beyond the school building. With results linking forced removal from school to a doubled likelihood of arrest, it is clear that school districts across the country should be taking alternatives to suspension and expulsion policies seriously.

Article Source: Kathryn C. Monahan, Susan VanDerhei, Jordan Bechtold, and Elizabeth Cauffman, “From the School Yard to the Squad Car: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest,” The Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Feb 2014). 

Feature Photo: cc/(Chris Yarzab)

Cheryl Healy
Cheryl Healy is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in educational policy. She has also been published in Counterpoint Magazine at Wellesley College.

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