Over recent months, the Policy and Research team at SCORE has explored connections between health and education outcomes for students in Tennessee. One of the challenges associated with this work is defining what it means to be a healthy student. Although we cannot ignore the importance of physical and mental health indicators such as physical activity and nutrition, we must also acknowledge the impact of school climate on student health. A school’s environment can play a large role in meeting and developing the academic, social, and emotional needs of its students. In fact, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to incorporate “nonacademic” factors into their accountability systems to promote a holistic understanding of student success.

One such factor receiving attention in Tennessee is school discipline data. In recent weeks, stakeholder groups ranging from the Assessment Task Force and Career Forward Task Force to the State Board of Education have all considered discipline disparities in our state. Emerging research suggests that school discipline policies can influence school climate and affect student well-being. Excessive use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, referred to as exclusionary disciplinary policies, can both disrupt the school climate and add to academic and behavioral issues for some students.

A growing body of research indicates that student misbehavior could result from a deeply biological response to stress. For children who grow up in poverty, exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can permanently rewire their brains and lead to long-term problems. Tennessee is aiming to be the first state to launch a comprehensive public policy to prevent long-term problems for children exposed to ACEs. The biological nature of childhood trauma means that implementing harsh disciplinary policies will do little to reduce student misbehavior, especially for those from low-income backgrounds.

Exclusionary disciplinary policies also have a disproportionate impact on students of color. African American and Hispanic students are more likely to be negatively affected by disciplinary policies. For example, African American students make up a quarter of Tennessee’s student population but receive three-quarters of expulsions in the state. One of every five African American Metro Nashville Public Schools students in 2013 received either an expulsion or suspension—a rate nearly three times that of their white classmates.

In addition, exclusionary disciplinary policies for students of color mean lost instructional time, which can negatively impact academic performance and further widen the racial achievement gap. Research also suggests that students who have been suspended are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out because of academic problems. Repeated suspensions and expulsions also increase a student of color’s likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

In response to these sobering numbers, several school districts across the country are eliminating the use of suspensions and expulsions for younger students. Tennessee districts are also working to address the issue of disciplinary policies in their schools. In 2014, Knox County leaders assembled a Disparities in Educational Outcomes Task Force to address inequity in academic achievement and discipline outcomes. A final report released by the Task Force in May 2016 included several recommendations such as requiring ongoing cultural competency training for staff and implementing restorative justice practices.

Too often, students who need the most support in school are more likely to be suspended or expelled. These students deserve a school environment that is safe and nurtures them, rather than one that punishes them. Limiting the use of exclusionary disciplinary policies is a necessary first step to ensuring that the health and wellbeing needs of these students are met.