When students get suspended from school for a few days, they may not be the only ones who miss out.
A report released today by UCLA's Civil Rights Project tries for the first time to quantify the full social cost of so-called "exclusionary discipline."
The authors calculate that suspensions in just one year of school — 10th grade — contributed to 67,000 students eventually dropping out of high school. And that, they conclude, generates total costs to the nation of more than $35 billion.
Russell Rumberger, a co-author of the study and a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that number is conservative. "That's just for a single year."
This study used a two-step process to put a price tag on school suspensions, by calculating:
1) The likelihood that a suspended student will leave school altogether.
2) The cost to society when people drop out of high school.
The second step, from dropouts to money, is pretty well established:
- People who don't earn a high school diploma on time tend to earn less money, which means they pay less in taxes.
- They are less likely to have health insurance. Which means less access to prevention, and eventually worse health. They'll need more care — with a higher share of the cost paid for by taxpayers.
- They are more likely to have trouble with the law, which costs taxpayers in the form of court and prison costs.
- And they rely on public assistance at higher rates.
In California, for example, it's been estimated that the average high school dropout generates $168,880 in losses to federal, state and local governments over the course of a lifetime.
That first step, calculating how likely a suspended student is to drop out, requires a little more explanation.
In the U.S., only 71 percent of 10th-graders who were suspended at least once in the 2001-2002 school year graduated from high school two years later, the UCLA report says, compared with 94 percent of sophomores who were never in serious trouble. That's a 23 percentage point difference.
Still, clearly students who get suspended are different from the average student in lots of ways that make them less likely to graduate.
So the researchers tried to control for factors like family income, parental education and test scores. After all that, they still found a 12 percentage point impact on dropout rates from suspensions alone.
There is good news buried in this report, though. It turns out that school leaders have a great deal of control over who gets suspended and how often.
"Schools can do something about it, and they are," says Rumberger.
While suspension rates rose from the 1970s through 2013, they have sunk surprisingly quickly since then.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the U.S., for example, the suspension rate fell from 8 percent in 2008-2009 to 0.55 percent in 2014-2015.
Partly this is a response to a growing national awareness of racial disparities in student discipline.
Most U.S. school districts today actually have pretty low suspension rates. And high school graduation rates are going up. Which is exactly what you would expect to see if, as the authors write, suspensions really contribute to the dropout rate.
However, Rumberger cautions that just "keeping bodies in the door" isn't going to improve outcomes.
The study concludes that in-school suspensions are just as bad when it comes to their impact on dropout rates. And in places like LA Unified, teachers have complained that class disruptions go up when they don't have the power to remove certain students.
What works instead, says the report, are evidence-based practices like restorative justice and social and emotional skill-building, where educators actively help teenagers resolve conflicts and manage tough emotions to get at the roots of misbehavior.
And of course that takes time, training — and money.