Here’s an interesting report out of Denver from researchers looking to uncover what schools with low suspension rates have in common. 

Nothing here will be terribly surprising; the findings definitely provide support for the continued movement away from suspensions and toward restorative practices.

Some highlights:

Younger students, more integrated. Of the 33 schools, 58 percent were elementary schools and 58 percent were traditional district-run schools (meaning they aren’t charter or innovation schools).

The schools also had fewer children of color and fewer low-income children than other DPS schools, making them more racially and economically integrated.

An average of 61 percent of students at those 33 schools were children of color, as compared to the district average of 78 percent. An average of 56 percent were eligible for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty, as opposed to the district average of 74 percent.

The schools also had fewer English language learners and students with disabilities.

Not surprising that elementary schools have fewer suspensions, as younger students typically exhibit fewer challenging behaviors (or are more easily controlled, depending on how you want to look at it). “More integrated” is a funny way to phrase the fact that the schools with fewer suspensions were whiter and richer.

Relationships matter. Many educators interviewed attributed their school’s low suspension rates to strong relationships between teachers and students. Teachers who know their students’ strengths, challenges and triggers are more likely to understand the underlying reasons for misbehavior and be in a better position to respond, they said.

The relationship between relationships and discipline is probably not as well understood as people think, but the positive effects seem to be very consistent.

Solutions, not consequences. Many of the schools use restorative practices to address misbehavior. Students who break the rules are asked to reflect on what happened, identify the harm done and come up with a plan to repair any damage, the educators said.

While that approach takes more time than meting out a suspension, the educators said it allows students to develop conflict resolution skills and an understanding of accountability.

This is a bit circular: of course the schools who don’t use suspensions as a primary strategy are going to have fewer suspensions. I’d be more interested to find out whether the restorative approaches were successful in promoting adaptive behaviors.

Keep students in the classroom. A majority of the schools abide by the philosophy that classroom teachers should be the first to respond to misbehavior and conflict — and that students should be sent home from school only as a last resort.

“You can’t just send them home because you needed to take a break,” an elementary school principal told the researchers. “When they come back, they’re going to do the same thing.”

See above.

Be aware of racial inequity and bias. While the researchers noted that many educators were uncomfortable talking about the role of race in their discipline process, educators at about a third of the 33 schools explicitly discussed their use of culturally responsive practices.

They recognize that students of color have often been marginalized and that extra efforts should be made to connect with them and their families. By understanding the impact of racism and bias, the researchers wrote that educators at those schools “took responsibility for changing student academic and discipline outcomes, rather than blaming students and families.”


Student support services are crucial. Many educators credited their school’s social workers, counselors, psychologists, interventionists and restorative practices specialists with helping put in place positive responses to student misbehavior that helps kids instead of punishing them.

Sounds a lot like what worked in the turnaround I wrote about last week.

At this point, it’s not clear who is still supporting suspension-heavy policies. Are suspension-heavy policies happening only at schools where administrators and teachers simply don’t feel they have other options (or the other options are simply too costly in terms of the capital required to shift their approach)? Or is there legitimate support out there for suspensions? I’m not quite sure what that would look or sound like, although it’s always good to remember that zero-tolerance policies were once considered forward-thinking. I do worry just a little that those with legitimate disagreements with restorative practices are being silenced because of the racial aspect (who would be willing to come out publicly in support of policies that have been shown to be racially biased?). But not that much.


One thought on “Figuring out what’s working in schools with low suspension rates

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