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Ten Alternatives to Suspension

By Reece L. Peterson

The suspension or expulsion of students with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) has been problematic and controversial. Requirements of IDEA, and case law before that, have indicated that long-term suspension or expulsion violate the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guarantee for students with disabilities. Schools have struggled to meet these requirements, but the problems with suspension and expulsion are larger than issues of EBD or disability.

Today, many schools are rightfully concerned about the numbers of all types of students who are being suspended or expelled for their behavior. This concern is driven by the over-representation of some minority groups among those who are suspended or expelled from school (Wu, Pink, Crain & Moles, 1982; Townsend, 2000; Skiba, Michael, Nardo & Peterson, 2002). Equally important is the emerging research that indicates that these consequences are not likely to change the inappropriate behavior of the students involved, nor do they serve to deter other students from engaging in the same behaviors (Skiba, Peterson & Williams, 1999, 1997). Instead, these consequences make the suspended student’s academic progress more difficult, and they may increase the likelihood of the student dropping out of school or having other negative outcomes.

As a result, many schools are beginning to examine their school discipline policies with an eye to making them both more effective and less reliant on traditional exclusionary consequences. These changes may also help schools to better serve students with EBD. Schools that try to improve their discipline system ask the questions “What do we use in place of exclusionary consequences in our discipline policies?” and “What are some disciplinary consequences which might be more effective?” The examples that follow illustrate the kinds of actions that could be built into a school’s formal disciplinary code of conduct as part of an array of consequences for inappropriate behavior. Each of these examples has at least some research demonstrating positive behavioral-change outcomes for students, and is an opportunity to maintain or re-engage students in school rather than pushing them out of school. While additional information beyond that provided here will be needed for appropriate implementation, the examples below describe multiple promising alternatives to suspension:

Many of these will be familiar to teachers who have worked with students who have EBD and there is a promising research base for these alternatives. Other alternatives might also be generated. Some schools are already using some of these, but few are using very many of these, and fewer yet use these systematically as a coordinated behavior improvement strategy built into their disciplinary codes of conduct.

To make these alternative options work as a disciplinary consequence, some “prerequisites” may also be needed. A school climate supportive of positive behavior, efforts to build positive interactions, appropriate instruction, and ongoing close supervision may prevent behavior problems from growing to crisis proportions and requiring disciplinary consequences. Here are several examples of programs that support the previous alternatives to suspension:

Each of these “prerequisites” is also supported by a body of research that indicates positive, promising effects on student behavior in school. If they are to be effective, these “foundations” must be implemented in such a way as to become a normal part of that school’s culture. They enable the “disciplinary alternatives” listed earlier to be effective by providing the context and skills for appropriate behavior. They may permit a substantial reduction in the use of suspension and expulsion as disciplinary options, and have the side effect of decreasing staff stress related to behavior, and increasing academic achievement for all students. They may also provide a way to reduce the involvement of students with emotional or behavioral disorders in the problems associated with suspension and expulsion.

Note: The contributions of Russell Skiba and Courtney Miller toward the ideas in this manuscript are gratefully acknowledged.


Skiba, R., Michael, R., Nardo, A., & Peterson, R.L. (December, 2002). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. The Urban Review, 34(4), 317-342.

Skiba R.J., Peterson, R.L. & Williams, T. (January, 1999). The dark side of zero tolerance: Can punishment lead to safe schools? Phi Delta Kappan, 80(5), 372-381.

Skiba R.J., Peterson, R.L. & Williams, T. (August, 1997). Office referrals and suspension: Disciplinary intervention in middle schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 20(3), 1-21.

Townsend, B. (2000). Disproportionate discipline of African American children and youth: Culturally-responsive strategies for reducing school suspensions and expulsions. Exceptional Children, 66, 381-391.

Wu, S.C., Pink, W.T., Crain, R.L., & Moles, O. (1982). Student suspension: A critical reappraisal. The Urban Review, 14, 245-303.

Reece L. Peterson is a professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders, University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He may be reached at 402/472-5480 or


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