The School to Prison Pipeline: Long-Run Impacts of School Suspensions on Adult Crime

Author: Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Stephen B. Billings, & David J. Deming

Project Summary

When faced with behavioral infractions, schools often turn to suspensions or other forms of exclusionary discipline as a means of managing student behavior and restoring a productive classroom learning environment. This paper estimates the net impact of school discipline on student achievement, educational attainment and future involvement with the criminal justice system. Using variation in school assignment caused by a large and sudden boundary change in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina as well as a supplementary design based on principal switches, the authors show that schools with higher suspension rates have substantial negative long-run impacts. 

Key Findings

Bacher-Hicks, Billings, Deming find that being assigned to a stricter middle school (i.e., one with a higher rate of suspensions) leads to a range of harmful consequences. For example, on average, students who are assigned to a school that is one standard deviation stricter than the average school are:

  • 17% more likely to be arrested as an adult,
  • 20% more likely to be incarcerated as an adult,
  • 15% more likely to drop out of high school, and
  • 11% less likely to enroll in a 4-year college.

Importantly, the authors also find little evidence to support the claim that high suspension rates benefit students who are not suspended. Additionally, by comparing the relative impacts of school strictness alongside these other factors, the authors find that strictness is the only predictor of students’ later involvement in the criminal-justice system, providing further evidence that their main results are driven by suspensions rather than other aspects of the school.

Implications and Recommendations

These results highlight the substantial costs of exclusionary discipline and suggest that policymakers should focus on strategies to limit their use.  The study illustrates that school suspensions have harmful effects on students who receive them, without any clear spillover benefits to their classmates who are not suspended. Overall, attending a strict middle school increases the likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system and decreases educational attainment. The analysis also points to some important insights around the role of school leadership in these effects and may suggest a focus of support to principals in implementing discipline policies within their buildings.