Which Students are Likely to be Excluded from School?

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Which Students are Likely to be Excluded from School?

Jim Windell


            What is the most likely form of management for students who present behavioral problems?

            That easy. It’s the same kind of practice that has been used for decades in our public schools. And that is school suspension and expulsion.

            Twenty years ago when my stepson Jonathan put up a poster in a hallway in his high school that the school administration found objectionable, what was the consequence?

            Of course. Suspend him for a week. No matter that he was a student with a 4.0 GPA or that the poster was open to a benign interpretation. Or that students who engaged in aggressive or violent behavior received a similar kind of punishment. Apparently, that was the punishment regardless of the offense.

            Fortunately, Jonathan was not a vulnerable student. He was bright and resilient, and he actually used the incident in writing his college entrance essay. But what about less resilient and at-risk students who are excluded from school?

            That was the question explored in a recent study coming out of the University of South Australia.

            According to lead researcher, University of South Australia’s Professor Anna Sullivan, schools face difficult decisions around suspensions and expulsions. “Suspensions and expulsions have been the mainstay of schools’ behavior management practices for decades, regardless of research finding that they are ineffective for disciplining bad behaviors.”

          Professor Sullivan points out that there is a clear relationship between school suspensions and a range of detrimental health outcomes, including alienation from school, involvement with antisocial peers, use of alcohol and smoking, and a lower quality of school life. “And this,” she adds, “contributes to a higher risk of dropping out of school and possible illegal behavior.”

          Analyzing the NSW Student Behaviour Strategy, which consists of a review of the various inquiries into behavior management practices in schools over the last decade, researchers found that while there was more behavior support and management in New South Wales’ schools, the new iterations still included punitive practices. It was found that children with a disability make up 20% of the school population but over 70% of exclusions. And despite best intentions to build a more inclusive and punitive-free education system, school suspensions and expulsions remain.

          “There is a distinct blind spot about how school suspensions and expulsions perpetuate wider social inequalities,” says Anna Sullivan. “Schools and policy makers must look beyond challenging behaviors to understand what is contributing to the cause – rather than treating the effect – and it’s this missing information that’s needed to develop new school policies.” 

          She says that when a student is suspended or expelled from school, we’re ultimately removing them from their education and limiting their life outcomes. And knowing that vulnerable groups are more at risk, these exclusion policies are ultimately discriminatory.”

          Instead of helping the students who need help the most, school suspension and exclusion policies are exacerbating their struggles. “We see situations where children with disabilities – some on prescribed medications – are being excluded from school on the basis that ‘they have problems already.’ As a consequence, exclusion appears to be a reasonable solution given schools do not have the time, expertise or resources to manage complex and challenging behavioral needs,” she says. 

          What should schools be doing? “What we need is more listening, more empathy to students at risk, and a willingness to challenge the impact of wider social inequalities including poverty, race, housing, and unemployment on the most vulnerable people in society. These things do not operate in isolation; they affect families and children and cannot simply be left at the school gate,” says Sullivan.

          Sullivan might have added that schools, in Australia as well as in the U.S., have a long way to go to create a more inclusive and fair education system.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Down, B., Sullivan, A., Tippett, N., Johnson, B., Manolev, J., & Robinson, J., (2024). What is missing in policy discourses about school exclusions?, Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 1080/17508487.2024.2312878


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