Since the emergence of zero tolerance discipline policies in the 1990s, schools have increasingly relied on suspensions as a behavioral management tactic. But these policies can potentially stigmatize students and expose them to the criminal justice system. A field of developing research strongly suggests a correlation between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out, arrests, and incarceration.
A working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research reports some of the first causal evidence that strict schools do indeed contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. The study’s authors are Andrew Bacher-Hicks and David Deming of Harvard University and Stephen Billings of the University of Colorado–Boulder.
The study explores the relationship between suspensions, achievement, and incarceration in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district (CMS) in North Carolina, in which 23% of middle school students are suspended each school year and suspensions are concentrated heavily among minority populations.
CMS provided a rigorous way to test the causal effects of suspensions because, in 2002, schools were redistricted and roughly 50% of all students were assigned to new schools that fall. This new assignment meant researchers had access to an ideal sample: students from the same neighborhood, some of whom had attended schools with a high rate of suspension and now attended schools with a lower rate, others who had moved from a less-strict school to one with more suspensions, and students whose school had not changed.
Researchers used available school administrative records, data on arrests and incarcerations, and college attendance records to assess the impact of school environments on later life outcomes.