Callula Killingly

Do we really have a frightening school to prison pipeline in this country? Only one way to find out

Exclusionary discipline is on the rise in Australian schools, as highlighted by recent research in Queensland and South Australia. This is highly concerning that suspension does not address the reasons underlying behaviour and can instead exacerbate those behaviours. For some students, these experiences devolve into ongoing cycles of repeated suspensions. In the long term, students who experience exclusionary discipline tend to have lower educational outcomes than might have been expected and are far more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.  

Of even greater concern is the increasing body of research which shows that students from minority and marginalised groups are disproportionately represented. Such research emanates largely from the United States, where there has been decades of research showing that African American students receive suspensions for incidents that White students do not and that they also receive harsher consequences for the same infractions. 

Evidence of the entanglement between racial bias, overrepresentation in exclusionary school discipline, and overrepresentation in prison, prompted significant reforms to education and school discipline policy and practice in the United States. In 2014, the Obama Administration, together with the Office of Civil Rights, acted on the evidence by issuing a set of Guiding Principles. These principles reminded schools of the dangers of direct and indirect racial bias in the use of exclusionary discipline and advocated for the adoption of evidence-based frameworks that aim to improve school climate, student support, and teaching quality.

Despite the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our prison population, rigorous investigations of Australia’s “school-to-prison pipeline” are rare. Indigenous Australians represent 3.3% of the total population, but account for 29.6% of the adult prison population.  It has now been 30 years since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which found that Aboriginal people were “more likely to die in custody” due to their disproportionate representation in the prison system. 

We cannot afford more decades of research to confirm a link between the use of exclusionary school discipline and involvement in the criminal justice system; a link that has already been established internationally. Rather, we need to urgently identify whether Indigenous students are overrepresented in exclusionary school discipline across Australia, why, and, given its many known ill-effects, how to drastically curtail its use.  

Our recent research (with Associate Professor Kristin Laurens, School of Psychology and Counselling, and Centre for Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology and Associate professor Naomi Sweller, School of Psychological Science, Macquarie University) aimed to make a foundational contribution by examining trends in suspension, exclusion, and enrolment cancellation incidents in Queensland state schools, using publicly available data from the years 2013 to 2019. We investigated differences among Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in exclusionary discipline incidents proportionate to enrolments, and whether these trends were increasing or decreasing at different rates over time.

What do we know from these analyses?

We found that the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools has increased significantly for all students between 2013 and 2019. However, when disaggregating by Indigenous status, we found that this rise was significantly steeper for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous. There were also significant increases in exclusion rates and short suspensions for Indigenous students, but not for non-Indigenous.

Analysis of trends by year level showed that in 2019, suspension incidents peaked a year earlier (Grade 8) for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous (Grade 9). When considering the reasons for suspension, the highest degree of overrepresentation occurred for disruptive/disengaged behaviours, which includes categories such as ‘refusal to participate in the program of instruction’ and ‘absences’. 

We also considered trends by geographic location, finding that Indigenous students were disproportionately represented in all seven regions around Queensland, but most prominently in Darling Downs South West. In 2019, six regions had between 321.8 and 358.3 suspensions per 1000 students, while Darling Downs South West had 487 suspensions per 1000 students. There was no such diversity for non-Indigenous students with rates across the seven regions ranging between 85.4 and 139.4 per 1000 students.

What DON’T we know?

These analyses provide strong evidence that Indigenous students are disproportionately impacted by the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools. However, there remains much that we don’t know. 

For instance, the QLD Department of Education publishes the number of exclusionary discipline incidents, and not the number of students involved in those incidents. It is therefore impossible to tell how many suspensions went to the same students, and whether Indigenous students are receiving multiple suspensions at a greater rate than non-Indigenous students. 

Nor do we know whether these Indigenous students might also have a disability or be living in out-of-home care due to the absence of data disaggregated by Indigeneity, disability, living in out-of-home care, and gender.  

Our study points to an overrepresentation of Indigenous students in suspensions for infractions involving disruptive/disengaged behaviour, physical misconduct, and verbal or non-verbal misconduct. More research investigating the extent of potential racial bias in the reasons for issuing a suspension is required. 

Moreover, disruptive/disengaged infractions incorporate reasons such as ‘absences’ – i.e., truancy – meaning that there are students who are being excluded from school as a result of not attending school in the first place.    

Further questions include:

  • How much pressure to suspend are principals facing from other parents, teacher factions and the union? 
  • What is the average short suspension length for Indigenous students? Is it closer to the maximum (10 days) than the minimum and is there a significant difference to non-Indigenous students?
  • Why is the suspension rate significantly higher in Darling Downs South West region?
  • Is the peak in suspensions for Indigenous students occurring in Year 8 due to early school leaving?
  • Where do these students go? What relationship is there to juvenile justice involvement?
  • Most importantly, what do Indigenous students say is the reason they are getting suspended and excluded? What do THEY think needs to change?

Why it is critical to have a national inquiry into this problem and a national solution

The 2014 reforms implemented in the United States have had significant impact. One example is Chicago Public School (CPS) which restricted the use of exclusionary discipline by reducing permissible length and banning suspensions for minor infractions. Critically, CPS did not stop at discipline reform, but also undertook systemic inclusive school reform, by adopting Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is an evidence-based framework that aims to enhance students’ social-emotional learning, academic, and behavioural outcomes.

In the very same year, Queensland went the other way. 2014 brought about legislative reforms that permitted greater autonomy in the issuing of suspensions by principals and schools, while simultaneously abolishing students’ rights to appeal short suspensions and reducing the requirement to consult with parents and their children. As well, alterations were made to the length of ‘short’ and ‘long’ suspensions, with short suspensions being increased in length (from 1-5 days to 1-10 days), while long suspensions were reduced (5-20 days became 10-20 days).

The graph below shows suspension rates per 100 students before and after 2014, for Chicago Public Schools and Queensland State Schools. Notably, CPS rates of suspensions per 100 students dropped from 24.6 in 2012 to 5.17 in 2019. Conversely, in Queensland, suspension rates rose from 11.71 per 100 students in 2013 to 13.4 in 2019, with a peak in 2018 at 15.04. 

Evidence shows positive outcomes from: 

  • implementation of system-wide Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)
  • strict limits on and alternatives to the use of exclusionary discipline through legislative thresholds and safeguards
  • respectful and empathic teacher-student relationships
  • educative responses to discipline enacted within an inclusive school culture
  • systematic implementation of evidence-based practices, programs and interventions to support students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioural development.

Most critically, evidence from the US reforms indicates that the introduction of strict limits on the use of exclusionary discipline, such as banning suspension in the early years (K-3) and for minor reasons, as well as the provision of safeguards for priority equity groups (e.g., Indigenous students, students with disability, children in care) is a necessary first step for effective reform implementation. We cannot wait the decades that the US waited to respond to a problem that was staring them in the face. If some individual states won’t act, then the Australian government must.

Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) and a Professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at QUT. Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children that teachers can find difficult to teach.

Dr Callula Killingly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT and a member of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage Team (LP180100830). Her research interests include learning and memory processes, language and literacy development, and music cognition.