The Impact of Childhood School Suspension on Dropout and Arrest in Adolescence: Disparate Relationships by Race and Adverse Childhood Experiences

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 4, April 2022, 550 –569.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Disparate Relationships by Race and Adverse
Childhood Experiences
The University of Alabama at Birmingham
Despite its widespread use, school suspension is related to negative outcomes in adolescence, including delinquency and
low academic attainment. However, it remains less clear how other sources of adversity affect the relationship between
suspension and negative outcomes. Drawing on longitudinal data on a sample of at-risk youth, this study examines the
roles of two sources of disadvantage—being a racial minority and experiencing high levels of adverse childhood experi-
ences (ACEs)—in the relationships between school suspension in childhood and arrest and high school dropout in adoles-
cence. Results reveal that suspension increased odds of dropout and arrest regardless of race, even after accounting for
high ACEs and other covariates. Among Black youth only, the impact of suspension on dropout was amplified for those
with high ACE exposure. Findings shed light on the complex connections between sources of adversity and their relation
to negative outcomes in adolescence.
Keywords: adolescence; criminology; delinquency; juvenile justice; youth; trauma
Punitive consequences in school are a widespread practice in the United States, with a
rapid increase in rates of suspension and expulsion following the popularity of zero-
tolerance policies in the 1990s (Losen & Gillespie, 2012; Wald & Losen, 2007). Designed
to deter problematic and delinquent behavior among students, school zero-tolerance poli-
cies often mandate exclusionary discipline—out of school suspension or expulsion—for
students’ behavioral infractions. Annual school suspensions doubled from 1974 to 2014
(U.S. Department of Education, 2014). School officials often use exclusionary discipline as
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors have no known conflicts of interest to declare. This research did not receive
any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Lindsay Leban, Department of Criminal Justice, The University
of Alabama at Birmingham, 1201 University Boulevard, Suite 210, Birmingham, AL 35294; e-mail: leleban@
1041387CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211041387Criminal Justice and BehaviorLeban, Masterson / Suspension, Race, Aces, and Adolescent Outcomes
a response to misconduct, with 35% of students facing suspension at least once in K–12
(Shollenberger, 2015), and 2.7 million total students in the United States experiencing sus-
pension in the 2015-2016 school year (Office for Civil Rights, 2019).
Furthermore, racial disparities in suspension exist, with Black students facing heightened
likelihood of suspension compared with White students (Skiba et al., 2011). Relative to
White students, Black students have 2 to 3 times increased likelihood of being suspended
(U.S. Department of Education, 2014). This is the case even after accounting for other
covariates, such as socioeconomic status and family structure (Pesta, 2018). Even when
Black and White students engage in the same or similarly severe behaviors, Black students
are more likely to receive suspension (Skiba et al., 2011). The disproportionate number of
Black students receiving suspensions has grown along with the rise of punitive school dis-
cipline as a whole. Specifically, Black students suspended annually grew from 6% in 1972
to 17% in 2011, while the percentage of White students rose from 3.1% to 5% during the
same period (Losen & Gillespie, 2012).
The widespread reliance on punitive school disciplinary polices has been subject to criti-
cism, particularly the ways that exclusionary school discipline may mimic the formal crimi-
nal justice system. This trend has led to the discussion of the “school to prison pipeline,” a
pathway through which youth face school punitive disciplinary policies which move them
through the school system and into the criminal justice system (Wald & Losen, 2007).
Indeed, suspension may function as an early criminalization experience, with a large body
of work showing that students who receive a suspension are more likely to be arrested than
those who do not (Mowen & Brent, 2016; Wolf & Kupchik, 2017). Moreover, suspension
is related to other risk factors for arrest, such as dropping out of high school (Losen &
Martinez, 2013; Shollenberger, 2015).
Although a large body of research has documented the relationship between suspen-
sion and negative outcomes, it remains less clear how other sources of disadvantage and
adversity may affect these relationships. The cumulative disadvantage perspective empha-
sizes how sources of disadvantage and adversity accumulate to promote a chain of nega-
tive outcomes throughout life (Sampson & Laub, 1997). Disadvantages pile up to restrict
opportunities and resources, putting individuals in especially vulnerable positions in
which they are ill-equipped to overcome additional adversities. From this perspective, the
harms of school suspension should be worse for those youth who experience multiple
sources of disadvantage.
Race is important to consider in the cumulative disadvantage perspective, especially
given the long history of structural inequality facing the Black community in the United
States, which shapes ongoing structural barriers and lack of resources in everyday life
(Bonilla-Silva, 1997; Crenshaw et al., 1995). Sources of risk can interact with race, poten-
tially having a stronger damaging impact on people of color (Sampson & Laub, 1997). It
follows that the harms of suspension may be amplified for Black youth, given their
already disadvantaged social position. However, relatively few studies have assessed how
the impact of suspension differs by race (e.g., Jacobsen et al., 2019; Pesta, 2018; Raffaele
Mendez, 2003; Shollenberger, 2015), even despite it being well-documented that Black
youth are at an increased likelihood of experiencing suspensions compared with White
Furthermore, many sources of childhood adversity remain unexplored in relation to sus-
pension, despite their theoretical relevance as sources of risk that may accumulate in the

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