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'You never really catch up:' ISU assistant professor studies the impact of suspensions on students

Illinois State University
Dr. Charles Bell is an associate professor of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.

An assistant professor of Criminal Justice Science at Illinois State University says America’s schools are doing their students a disservice by suspending them.

Charles Bell says he became interested in his specific field of education research after growing up as a Black child in Detroit, and seeing less and less other Black students as he progressed into higher education.

“I just thought that was very strange coming from Detroit Public Schools,” Bell said. “Detroit is predominantly an African American city, and just not seeing anyone that looked like me.”

In studying barriers to higher education, Bell learned about the “school to prison pipeline,” or the concept that criminalization of student behavior in schools through policies like zero tolerance and school policing make students more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

“I can remember looking at that term and reading it,” Bell said. “And a light bulb just flashed in my head. I could just see the pipeline in my own community.”

Bell focused his research on suspensions in particular, interviewing Black students in 9th, 10th and 11th grade in Detroit who had been suspended. Bell says Black students are disproportionately suspended.

“Nationally, black students make up about 16% of the school age population,” he said. “And about 39% of those who are suspended in any given year.”

Those figures are from the most recent data available from the 2020-2021 school year.

Bell followed the students for a significant amount of time, some of them were interviewed between 2015 all the way until 2022. Bell describes the results of this research in his book Suspended: Punishment, Violence and the Failure of School Safety.

Bell says the students he interviewed would be suspended for a variety of reasons. Some were involved in fights or bullying, others were targeted for hairstyles, dress, or other code violations. The length of the suspensions vary too. Some students received five day suspensions, others ten, one student in Bell’s research was suspended from school for 39 days.

“That one suspension is really a de facto expulsion,” Bell said. “And you have to repeat the grade after that, as you never really catch up.”

For that reason, Bell says the problem of suspensions is cyclical and self-sustaining. Students are suspended, they don’t receive proper access to make-up work and they can’t catch up. Some students just never return to school. If the student was suspended for a fight, they return to school and are branded a “tough” individual who other students want to challenge. On the other hand, if they had run from a fight or went to a teacher, they could be labeled as weak and picked on mercilessly. Either way the student feels unsafe at school and falls further and further behind.

“Many of these students were trapped,” Bell said. “I expected these students to have between one and five suspensions and quite a few of them had between 15 and 20.”

Bell says the ongoing implementation of zero tolerance policies and the introduction of safety measures like metal detectors and police officers have only intensified the feeling of danger at school for the students he interviewed.

“They’re really not learning when they’re in school, because they’re always shifting, looking around to the sides,” he said. “Out of fear that: ‘hey, who has a weapon today? Who’s going to hurt me today?’”

Bell says the dynamic created by this environment can lead to alliances and rivalries, not unlike the dynamic that creates gang culture.

“When we think about what a gang is, again, it's just an informal alliance, an agreement to protect yourself and everyone else in your sort of alliance,” Bell said. “So gang development kind of starts in schools, because this is the very first setting that students learn that I'm not safe if I’m unprotected.”

The issue of unreliable safety measures and an atmosphere of danger spreads to teachers too. Bell says a chapter in his book is dedicated to “teacher victimization.”

“I had teachers actually say they were bringing guns to school illegally as a result of their fear of being harmed in public school,” Bell said. “So it is tough for everyone.”

Bell also interviewed the parents of suspended students. State policy for Michigan calls for schools to notify parents their child was suspended and give the opportunity for a hearing on the decision. Bell says many schools where he interviewed students weren’t following the law.

“If you are a parent and your child has been suspended and didn't have an opportunity to defend themselves in a hearing, or you didn't know about the hearing, or let's say that the student actually did not do what they were accused of doing, parents were really frustrated about those cases,” Bell said.

Bell said parents also told him there were instances where they couldn’t receive make-up work for their children, even when contacting the school directly.

Bell says undoing the damage of school suspensions and reworking discipline policies starts with bringing students to the table. He says, without a voice at the table, students defy policy they perceive as coming exclusively from adults, or “the top down.”

“If students don't feel safe, and they don't feel like they're being heard, then they will undermine the school security rules themselves and create dangerous environments,” Bell said. “But if we invite students to the table, and then allow them to shape policy with us, then it won't feel like it's adults. It’ll feel like it’s our rules, and they will self police. You’re not violating their rules, you’re violating our rules.”

Bell acknowledges this will take a much deeper analysis of the causes of school safety issues generally. But, he believes the existing systems aren’t giving students enough credit.

“The students that I was interviewing, they really wanted to be in school, they had very high goals and dreams,” Bell said. “And they knew that if they didn’t get a high school diploma, the dreams were over at that point.”

Bell is speaking about his book at the Peoria Public Library’s Lincoln Branch on Feb. 17 at 1 p.m.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.