Suspensions are down. What does this mean for school safety?

The overall number of suspensions in NYC public schools has decreased dramatically. The odds that an individual student will be suspended have fallen too. For example, Research Alliance analyses show that in the 2008-2009 school year, 7.6% of first-time 9th graders were suspended at least once. By the 2014-2015 school year, that rate had fallen to 5.6%—translating to more than 1,500 students not receiving a suspension during the 9th grade.

These numbers reflect a districtwide push to reduce the use of suspensions, in response to growing concern about suspensions’ negative effects and the fact that, in NYC and nationwide, students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately removed from class. In recent years, the NYC Department of Education has revised the school discipline code, encouraging alternative approaches to discipline and restricting schools’ ability to suspend students for “defying authority.”

The emphasis on reducing suspensions has not been without criticism. Some NYC educators and parents have argued that the new policy is making it harder for teachers to effectively respond to students’ behavior issues. Questions have also been raised about the reliability of data on safety incidents in schools.

Understanding what happens when a school district actively works to reduce suspensions—and what practices enable schools to meet this goal while maintaining a safe environment—will require good, in-depth research. (In fact, the Research Alliance is currently developing just such a study.) But there is a basic question that we can answer more immediately: Do NYC students generally feel safer in schools that issue fewer suspensions?

To begin exploring this question, we calculated the suspension rate [1] for the 769 NYC middle and high schools during the 2014-2015 school year.[2] We also divided the schools into three categories based on students’ average responses to safety-related questions on the NYC school survey (for the same school year).[3] The figure below illustrates our findings.

Student Perceptions of Safety and Suspension Rates in NYC Middle and High Schools (2014-2015)[4]

The figure reveals that, in general, schools with a higher suspension rate (shown in the top row) were perceived as less safe, while schools with a lower suspension rate (the bottom two rows) were perceived as more safe. However, it also shows that many schools were exceptions to this pattern.

Notably, a large number of schools (the 306 schools in the bottom row) issued no suspensions at all. In 39 percent of these schools, students perceived the environment as quite safe, relative to ratings of school safety given by students systemwide; in 33 percent, students reported feeling moderately safe, and in 28 percent, students reported feeling relatively less safe.

The figure suggests that, at least in some schools (those represented by the circles in the far right of the middle and bottom rows), it is possible to create an environment where students feel safe while limiting the use of suspensions. Of course, it’s hard to know what conditions and practices are behind these results. These schools may have fewer disciplinary problems to begin with—either because they have particularly well behaved students or because they use strategies that effectively prevent and de-escalate problems. These schools may also employ alternative approaches to discipline, such as restorative justice, that avoid removing students from class. Furthermore, as noted above, a quarter of the schools issuing no suspensions had lower perceptions of safety. All of this underscores the need to learn much more about the conditions and practices that underlie schools’ suspension rates and the perceptions of safety among students, staff and other members of the community.

Big Questions

This analysis raises many questions about the relationship between schools’ approaches to discipline and students’ sense of safety. For example:

  • What are the characteristics of schools with high perceptions of safety and low suspension rates? How do factors like a school’s size, neighborhood, resources, staff training, etc., influence disciplinary practices and perceptions of safety?
  • How varied are perceptions of safety within schools? Do students within the same school generally have similar perceptions of the environment, or do some students feel very safe and supported, while others do not?
  • What school practices hold the most promise for reducing suspensions and simultaneously improving safety? Which practices are related to more equitable student discipline outcomes (i.e., fewer disparities among those who are suspended)?

What else should the Research Alliance be asking about school safety and student discipline? Let us know via email.


This post was developed using data provided to the Research Alliance for New York City Schools by the NYC Department of Education. David Kang conducted the analyses.


[1]The suspension rate is the number of suspensions administered by a school divided by the total number of students enrolled at that school.
[2] The analysis focuses on the 769 schools with any students in grades 6 through 12 in the 2014-2015 school year.
[3] The measure of “I feel safe at school” is constructed as each school’s mean student response to “I feel safe in hallways/public spaces,” “I feel safe in my classes,” and “I feel safe outside and around school” on the annual school survey. “Less safe,” “moderately safe,” and “more safe” represent the bottom, middle, and top thirds of the distribution, respectively. It is important to note that these categories are relative and do not indicate not an absolute level of safety. For instance, “less safe” does not necessarily mean “unsafe”—it just means that a school is perceived to be less safe than the average NYC school. Likewise, indicating that a school is “more safe” simply means that it is perceived as safer than the average NYC school.
[4] Table reflects Research Alliance calculations based on data obtained from the NYC Department of Education. “Above median” and “below median” suspension rate was calculated for schools that recorded at least one suspension. The median suspension rate for these schools was 3.9%.
Posted: January 31st, 2017