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Jessica S Davis Ganao, Facelys Suero Silvestre and Jonathan W Glenn

excerpted from: Jessica S Davis Ganao, Facelys Suero Silvestre and Jonathan W Glenn, Assessing the Differential Impact of Contextual Factors on School Suspension for Black and White Students , 82(4) Journal of Negro Education 393 (October 1, 2013).

The purpose of the current study is to examine the differential impact of contextual factors for school suspension on Black and White youth. Although, school suspension is the direct result of decisions made at the school level, understanding contextual factors that influence the process would have implications for policies and programs for students who are suspended and who are atrisk for suspension. More specifically, this study examines a comprehensive list of factors simultaneously. Previous studies have examined limited factors to include neighborhood and school factors, which do not offer a comprehensive understanding of the problem of school suspension and race. In addition, limitations on juvenile research are often due to the data available, many studies use small data sets that are not nationally representative of the population. This present study uses nationally representative data, which reduces issues related to data quality.

Literature Review

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954) started the process of equalizing education opportunities for all people in the United States regardless of race. Since then, there have been increased legislation aimed at expanding opportunities for others including students with disabilities. During the George W. Bush presidency, "No Child Left Behind" became the governing legislation regarding equality in the classroom, especially for poor children. However, research shows that the education system in the United States continues to struggle with the notion of education equality regarding race and other socioeconomic factors. The issue of equality is prevalent in the statistics regarding dropouts and school discipline with respect to race and other socioeconomic factors.

The Children's Defense Fund of 1975 was one of the first studies that showed that Blacks were suspended at higher rates than their White peers. Since that time, the vast majorities of studies are consistent and reveal the same disparity. Research suggests the frequency by which Blacks and Whites are suspended from school is generally high overall. Blacks, not including any other minorities, make up 32% of all suspended students. Moreover, Blacks are suspended at a rate that is 2.3 times higher than White American students. Research also suggests that Black students are less likely than White students to receive less punitive alternative sanctions once they are referred for disciplinary action.

One explanation for the disproportionate suspension rates is due to the socioeconomic differences among Blacks and White American students. However, most of the data do not support this hypothesis. The disproportionate representation of minorities in school suspension is the same after controlling for socioeconomic status. Another hypothesis is that Black students and minorities do engage in more severe and violent behaviors. However, research that controls for the severity and violence of the offenses committed by students still show disproportionate treatment of Black students.

Individual Level Factors and School Suspension

Peer delinquency. Delinquent peer association has always been associated with poor academic performance. The characteristics of friends influence the motivation and attitudes of adolescents . Associating with juveniles who have problems in school may discourage school engagement. It is also important to note that positive relationships with peers are also necessary and in fact helpful. Consequently, positive or negative reinforcement from peers can influence individual behavior . Youth have the capacity to learn from others in a way in which others behaviors might alter and change their own behaviors. Therefore, the interaction among children and their peers is an important one. Students, who have peers in good academic standing, are also more likely to do well in school.

Empirical data have shown the tendency of an individual to engage in deviant behavior is affected by the prevalence of that behavior among their peers. School settings force students to interact with one another on a regular basis that leads to the adaptation of behaviors. Schools tend to be a place where students establish friendships that might have a negative impact on their behaviors . Interaction among peers is an important factor when explaining school dropout and suspension rates.

Delinquency. In terms of delinquency, research has shown that contextual factors influence the relationship between educational experiences and delinquency. However, there is little consensus on the direction of this relationship. In other words, do negative school experiences cause delinquency or does delinquency cause negative school experiences? Or is there a third set of variables that increase the likelihood of both negative school experiences and delinquency ? In addition to understanding the direction of influence regarding delinquency and school suspension is whether and to what extent the influences are affected when race is considered. For the purpose of this study delinquency is the number of selfreported acts of theft, property crimes and aggression in the past 12 months.

Family Level Factors and School Suspension

Parental influence. The home environment is an important indicator of the behavior of juveniles. Research has shown that certain parenting practices, monitoring and problem-solving strategies are linked to certain anti-social behaviors. In addition, previous findings show that despite peer influences and other factors, when parenting skills are effective and in place, the likelihood of anti-social behavior is minimized. When parents monitor the behavior of their children, and are supportive, involved, and responsible, their children are less likely to get involved with anti-social behaviors. These characteristics are positively correlated with school engagement. Parent involvement has been linked with juveniles' success in school. According to Finn, parent concern was found to influence administrators and teachers' decision to suspend someone from the school.

Research has shown that social controls within a family can impact juvenile behavior. When bonds and control are not present, the likelihood of anti-social behaviors increases. Parental control has been positively associated with classroom conduct and attentiveness. Family supervision and support are considered to be relevant in a juvenile's life, as they predict whether a child is likely to be suspended from school. When parents are aware of their children's surroundings, both their behaviors and academic achievement benefit.

Parental expectations. Research has shown that among the many variables that contribute to children's academic achievement, parental expectation is one of the most important. When parents set higher standards for their children, they are more likely to meet the standards and achieve academically. It is not the mere fact that parents have high expectations of their children, and therefore they perform well in school; it is that children's perception of their parents' educational expectation is what fosters academic achievement among juveniles. Children are usually aware of whether adults have high or low expectations from them and this is what makes the difference. Children's perception of their own performance is based on other's expectations, especially of parents and school teachers. Consequently, when juveniles do not see high expectations from parents and teachers, they start to underestimate their own abilities. They start to build negative perceptions of themselves which lead them to drop out of school or perform in a way that will eventually lead them to suspension.

Family structure. Family structure represents an important risk factor for anti-social behavior . The majority of the literature has suggested that adolescents from single parent homes are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior as a result of weakened family function and structure .

In terms of race, research is mixed on the impact family structure has on behavior. Some research findings have concluded that Black youth appear to be more resistant to the negative effects of being raised in a nontraditional family structure than White adolescents. It is believed that Black communities often have stronger extended family structures in place, which help mitigate the negative effects of father absence. Research contradicting these findings suggests Black males do suffer the effects of father-absent households.

Community/Neighborhood Characteristics and School Suspension

Neighborhood characteristics. Adolescents who live in neighborhoods that are cohesive typically perform better than students who live in poor neighborhoods. Research suggests that students who live in more cohesive neighborhoods where neighbors have common goals in keeping property values high. The children living in those neighborhoods are more likely to have role models, consistent adult supervision, and access to good schools. Sampson and Groves ( 1989) developed a theory of delinquency in which they argued that delinquency is a direct product of neighborhood characteristics. Children who grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods participate in a subculture where involvement in anti-social behavior is typical. The National Center for Education Statistics (2003) found that those living in urban areas are less likely to graduate from high school than those living in suburban areas. In addition, research has shown that minorities attending predominantly minority schools in urban areas are also less likely to graduate.

Empirical studies have provided some explanations as to why urban schools that are predominantly minority are poor in terms of retention. According to Wilson, large metropolitan areas have been vulnerable to industrial and geographic changes which have led to the increase of unemployment among working class minorities. These neighborhoods are increasingly poor, with high crime rates and single-parent families. These neighborhoods and the people living within them have become socially isolated from society, which adds to the increase of deterioration of these communities. Youths in these neighborhoods grow up being less considerate of their neighbors and are more likely to participate in anti-social behaviors. Children must learn to negotiate within the street culture in order to survive and they are forced to choose the values of the street over other values, such as valuing education.

Another explanation for the disproportionate number of minorities that are being suspended from schools is that living in high crime areas reduces the parents' ability to control their children's behaviors, which also impairs the function of the family. Juveniles in better neighborhoods are more likely to make more progress because there are better organized activities and additional recourses available to them when compared to other urban communities.

Gap in Knowledge

The nature of race and school suspension is a complex multilevel and multi-systemic issue. Previous research on school suspension has shown that school, neighborhood, and family contextual factors are correlated to school suspension. However, there is very little attention given to the differential impact of these contextual factors regarding race. In addition, few investigations have been both comprehensive and detailed, regarding the contextual factors and their relationship to school suspension overall. The current research examines the differential impact of several contextual factors on school suspension for Whites and Black students, utilizing a national data set.

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There is a plethora of research that shows that Blacks are disproportionately suspended from school as compared to Whites. There is also evidence that contextual factors can inform the understanding of school suspension. The current study attempts to close the gap in knowledge related to the role contextual factors differentially inform our understanding of school suspension by race. The current study shows there are differences in the impact of the contextual factors examined in this study to explain the school suspension of Whites and Blacks. The findings in this study have implications for schools and programs that address the issue of school suspension at the school and community levels.

Overall the findings show the factors identified in the individual, family, and community level models are good predictors of school suspension for Whites; however only a few indicators are good predictors of school suspension for Blacks. In terms of the individual level model, age, grade level, friend's delinquency, respondent's delinquency, and physical abuse were significant for Whites; whereas, for Blacks delinquency was the only significant predictor of school suspension. The findings for Whites are consistent with previous research, which shows peer delinquency can impact behavior. Past research has shown that being suspended from school or dropping out of school increases the probability of delinquency two-fold.

The family level model outcomes were similar to the findings in the individual level model as it relates to Blacks and Whites in this study. For Whites, family income, parent concern, family drinking problems, and family disruption were significant predictors of school suspension; whereas for Blacks, family disruption was the one predictor in the family level model that was significant to school suspension. The research for Whites overall is consistent with previous research on family indicators predicting behavior.

The findings related to the community level indicators show more consistency between Blacks and Whites in predicting school suspension. For both Whites and Blacks, neighborhood safety and exposure to crime were significant predictors of school suspension. The community problems indicator was not significant for school suspension with either group in the regression analysis. The overall findings of the community problems predictor are consistent with prior research that shows that neighborhood characteristics can have an influence on school suspension.

The final models show a comparison of the 16 contextual factors that were analyzed in this study. Seven factors were significant for White students and four were significant for Black students. The findings from the final iterations show the need to conduct race-specific analyses, since these findings indicate that policy and programs related to school suspension should consider delinquency, family disruption, neighborhood safety and crime, and race differences prior to implementation of school suspension policies.

Policy and Program Recommendations

The findings show there are differences between Blacks and Whites when understanding the contextual factors that impact school suspension for both groups. Overall the findings reveal many more indicators that impact the understanding of school suspension for Whites compared to Blacks. The results from this study have implications for policy and programs. School executives and principals have guidelines established for situations and circumstances that occur in school and warrant suspension according to school policy. However, this significant research indicates that in some cases, other significant factors should be examined and explored to reduce the suspension rates of Black and White students. School executives need access to studies to inform and make decisions based on reliable data and research.

School systems have in place policies to address school suspension after the child has been suspended. As it relates to policy, the findings in this study point to the need to identify students who are "at-risk" for suspension in a similar manner in which programs target individuals at-risk for delinquency identify their populations by targeting individuals early on and prior to committing delinquent acts. Therefore, if a student who is at-risk for suspension is identified early, the potential for reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions could be addressed. Factors identified in this study should help pinpoint those students who are at-risk for out-of-school suspension.

In addition, the findings from this research suggest that programs addressing students at-risk for suspension and those who have already been suspended should be multi-tiered. A multi-tiered approach should address individual, family, and community level factors, since there were indicators at each level that were significant for both groups in this research. School administrators and district level administrators should use some form of situational decision-making when implementing discipline that will result in an out-of-school suspension. Finally, programs should address student needs with an emphasis on race. The findings in this study show very few of the identified factors were significant for Blacks; however, the indicators that were significant for Blacks (i.e., delinquency, family disruption, neighborhood safety and exposure to crime) show the odds of suspension being significantly higher when the identified factors were present. A comprehensive school suspension program that focuses on the significant factors revealed in this study for Blacks and Whites would address the specific needs of each group.

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