Children in stricter middle schools are less likely to go to college — and more likely to get arrested

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Students who attend schools that are “stricter” in doling out suspensions can experience far-reaching impacts on their criminal records and educational outcomes, a new study distributed Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests.

Researchers from Harvard University’s Kennedy School and the University of Colorado analyzed data on middle-schoolers at North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, which underwent a sudden boundary change that reassigned some students to a stricter school, during the 2002 to 2003 school year.

“We find that stricter schools have negative long-run impacts on students. Students who are quasi-randomly assigned to schools with higher conditional suspension rates are significantly more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults,” the authors wrote. “This shows that early censure of school misbehavior causes increases in adult crime — that there is, in fact, a ‘school to prison pipeline.’”

As always, correlation is different from causation, statisticians say.

Students who attended one-standard-deviation-stricter middle schools were 1.7 percentage points (15%) more likely to drop out, 2.4 percentage points (11%) less likely to go to college, 3.2 percentage points (17%) more likely to have been arrested, and 2.5 percentage points (20%) more likely to have been incarcerated, the researchers found.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data has long shown a link between education and earnings. Median weekly earnings in 2017 for people with a high-school diploma and no college were $712; for those with a bachelor’s degree, they were $1,173.

Minority and male students experienced the largest negative impacts from attending schools that were stricter on suspension, “suggesting that strict suspension policies expand pre-existing gaps in educational attainment and incarcerations,” the researchers wrote. There was “some limited evidence” that white male students’ academic achievement improved, on the other hand, showing “the potential to increase the achievement of some subgroups by removing disruptive peers.”

The study findings also suggested that suspension rates changed with the entry or exit of a new principal.

“Taken together, the evidence suggests that principals and other school officials have considerable discretion over discipline policy, and when they lean toward harsher discipline it has negative long-run impacts on students, especially minority males,” the study said.

The authors analyzed administrative school data, arrest and incarceration data, and college attendance records from the National Student Clearinghouse, an enrollment-verification nonprofit. Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are “fairly representative of large, urban school districts” in the South despite their above-the-national-average suspension and crime rates, the study said.

Previous research has demonstrated that black students are suspended far more often than their white peers. A 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that while black students made up less than 16% of public-school students, they accounted for some 39% of suspended students.

The Education and Justice Departments in December rescinded Obama-era guidelines aimed at reducing racial discrimination in school discipline after a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended their withdrawal. The commission argued that the previous administration’s guidance “may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe” and raised legal concerns, while civil-rights organizations and Democrats opposed the move.

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