Out-of-school suspension and police contact: Identifying early opportunities to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline

Project summary

International evidence demonstrates that the use of exclusionary discipline practices by schools contributes to a “school-to-prison-pipeline” that forces young people out of school and into the criminal justice system. Responding to evidence that students from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds are disproportionately affected by exclusionary discipline and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, in 2014, the Obama Administration issued guidance principles on school discipline through the US Office of Civil Rights to all 50 states. Major reforms have since been enacted to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline.

Australian schools have not yet engaged in the systemic reforms necessary to prevent pathways into the justice system. This is partly due to a lack of accessible data on school suspension and exclusion linked with criminal justice outcomes, preventing the depth and breadth of research evidence that prompted the United States government to act. Yet there are indicators that: (i) the use of exclusionary discipline is increasing, especially in primary schools, (ii) that particular cohorts are overrepresented, and (iii) that Australia may indeed have its own school-to-prison pipeline.

With rising rates of suspension during primary school potentially contributing to earlier contact with police, determining whether and how early suspension is associated with police contact is critical to informing policy reform. Also not yet known is whether the strength of these associations vary by type of police contact; whether age at first suspension, frequency of suspension, reason for and length of suspension differentially predict association with police contact; and whether and which school-based prevention and intervention programs and initiatives protect students from these outcomes. This knowledge is critical to better understand the local contours of this problem and how it might be addressed at the earliest developmental stage. To answer these questions, this project utilises linked administrative data from the NSW Child Development Study. The linked records include information on out-of-school suspensions and police contact up to the age of ~12/13 years, along with rich multi-agency records (spanning health, education, child protection, and justice systems), in a large population cohort of children from New South Wales.

Funding / Grants

  • Australian Institute of Criminology: Criminology Research Grant (2021 - 2022)
  • Professor Kimberlie Dean (UNSW)
  • Professor Melissa Green (UNSW)

boy siting outside principal's office