Since the 1960s, education researchers have repeatedly raised concerns that students from marginalised and minority groups are subject to exclusionary school discipline at rates disproportionate to their representation in the total school population (Dunn, 1968; Waitoller et al., 2010). This is concerning given that there is a host of protective factors associated with being in school and negative outcomes linked to being excluded from the school environment (Quin, 2019). For example, mutually respectful teacher–student relationships and inclusive school cultures are associated with higher student attendance and engagement, and lower problem behaviours (Pyne, 2019; Quin, 2019). Further, effective academic instruction and behaviour support structures protect against the risk of suspension, school failure and early school leaving (Christle et al., 2005). Exclusionary school discipline, however, negatively impacts relationships, school belonging, and academic achievement (Jacobsen, 2020; Lacoe & Steinberg, 2019; Noltemeyer et al., 2015). These effects hold when controlling for factors such as prior achievement, indicating that exclusionary school discipline precipitates rather than mitigates problem behaviours, introducing significant long-term risks, which include poorer educational outcomes than might have already been expected (Rosenbaum, 2020), escalating antisocial behaviours (Hemphill et al., 2006), and early school leaving (Homel et al., 2012; Noltemeyer et al., 2015).
Beyond these adverse educational sequelae, disproportionate representation in school suspension and exclusion has been linked to overrepresentation in the criminal justice system (Hemez et al., 2020). Research evidence is particularly rich in relation to the criminalisation and incarceration of low-income African American, Latinx, and American Indian/Alaska Native children and young people (Cruz et al., 2021; Hirschfield, 2008), with exclusionary school discipline now considered a key contributor to a phenomenon described as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (Novak, 2019). However, research investigating disproportionality in the use of exclusionary school discipline in settler colonies with a white non-indigenous majority outside of the United States—such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—is astonishingly rare, despite long documented evidence that indigenous (or First Nations) peoples are significantly overrepresented in these nations’ criminal justice systems (Perdacher et al., 2019). In Australia, for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Indigenous Australians) are estimated to account for just 3.3% of the total population but comprise 29.6% of the adult prison population (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2021). Indigenous overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system is even greater and it varies by state. In the state of Queensland (QLD), for example, Indigenous children and young people accounted for just 7% of the 10–17-year-old population between 2015 and 2019, but 55% of those under youth justice supervision (Queensland Family and Child Commission, 2021).
The possibility of a link between exclusionary school discipline and entry to the justice system in Australia is particularly important at the 30-year anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Johnston, 1991), which found “Aboriginal people are more likely to die in custody because they are arrested and jailed at disproportionate rates” (Evershed et al., 2020, np). This is not because Indigenous Australians have a “higher offending rate” as claimed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott (Karp, 2020), but because they are more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to be stopped, questioned, fined, arrested, sentenced, and incarcerated, rather than receive bail or community service orders, and this can occur for as little as swearing in public or failing to pay fines (Australian Law Reform Commission, 2017). These outcomes strongly indicate a precipitative role for racial bias in community policing and the judicial process; one that remains unaddressed after 30 years (Langton, 2021).
Research from the United States has identified similar racial bias in the use of exclusionary school discipline, with African American and Latinx middle school students more likely to be subjected to exclusionary practices than White students for all types of violations, except disruption in the case of Latinx students (Skiba et al., 2011). This same research found that African American students are four times as likely and Latinx students twice as likely to be suspended or expelled for minor offences in primary school (Skiba et al., 2011). While the overrepresentation of Indigenous students in the use of exclusionary school discipline has also been observed in the Australian context, only a very small number of studies have investigated this to date (Beauchamp, 2012; de Plevitz, 2006; Gardiner et al., 1995; Graham et al., 2020a; O’Brien & Trudgett, 2020). None has been national, most have used only descriptive statistics or reviewed existing literature, and only one (Graham et al., 2020a) has conducted longitudinal or disaggregated analyses. These evidence gaps are principally due to the lack of publicly available data in Australia (Sweller et al., 2012), as well as differences in disciplinary processes and recording across a wide range of education providers (Graham et al., 2020a). These issues have to date prevented Australian researchers from investigating the local contours of this problem (Sweller et al., 2012); knowledge that is critical to secure the political commitment necessary for systemic reform.
Not only does this lack of data transparency prevent public scrutiny and problem identification but it also leads to gaps in public policy. An example is the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (Australian Government, 2020), which involves strengths-based strategies to reduce inequalities in life expectancy, children’s mortality, education, and employment. The most recent analysis of progress against 17 agreed targets found that there has been no improvement in the school attendance rate of Indigenous students in the last 10 years (DPMC, 2020). Interestingly, the report does not mention the use of exclusionary school discipline and nor does the Agreement include targets to reduce its use, despite its known negative effects on school attendance, early school leaving, and increased contact with the criminal justice system. This appears to be a missed opportunity, given that 2 of 17 Closing the Gap targets are to reduce Indigenous overrepresentation in the criminal justice system (Australian Government, 2020).
If Indigenous children and young people are suspended and excluded from school at disproportionate rates and for disparate reasons, and if exclusionary school discipline is linked in any way to criminal justice trajectories, then we must, as a matter of urgency: identify overrepresentation in school suspension and exclusion, and any patterns related to it; challenge implicit bias, racism, and discrimination wherever they may exist; and strengthen culturally appropriate evidence-based prevention and intervention frameworks, as well as implement them with fidelity on a system-wide basis. Achieving equity in school discipline outcomes in Australia will require legislative reform and the introduction of safeguards to protect Indigenous students from inappropriate use of suspension and exclusion with mechanisms to monitor system compliance, as well as systemic reform to test viable alternatives suitable for the Australian context and to reduce educators’ reliance on exclusionary discipline. Such reforms, however, require a fundamental reset in knowledge, attitudes, and capability both within and outside a largely non-Indigenous teaching profession (Morrison et al., 2019; Riley & Pidgeon, 2019). For a model on how this might be achieved, Australia needs to look no further than the United States, where mounting evidence of the ill-effects of exclusionary school discipline, together with the overrepresentation of African American children and young people, has prompted far-reaching education reforms which are gradually making their way through US public-school systems (Cruz et al., 2021; Nese et al., 2021; Steinberg & Lacoe, 2017).
Turning its back on zero tolerance
In January 2014, the Obama Administration, through the Office of Civil Rights, released a set of Guiding Principles on school discipline to (a) warn school administrators against engaging in direct or indirect discrimination based on race, and to (b) encourage public-school systems to engage in evidence-based reforms aimed at improving school climates, teaching quality, and student support (US Department of Education, 2014). While the Guiding Principles referred specifically to race discrimination, it was noted that “much of the analytical framework … also applies to discrimination on other prohibited grounds [e.g., disability]” (US Department of Education, 2014). Later that same year, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the US Department of Education (2014), jointly issued a statement strongly discouraging the use of exclusionary discipline with young children, due to known ill-effects on children’s academic, social-emotional, and behavioural development.
Many US public-school systems have since adopted substantial reforms: California banned the use of suspensions and exclusions for children in the early years of school (K-3; Freedberg, 2019), Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Philadelphia reduced permissible suspension length, and all three jurisdictions either banned or limited suspensions for minor reasons. Recognising the tendency for exclusionary discipline to reinforce task and school avoidance (Graham, 2018), Arkansas banned out-of-school suspension for truancy and Miami-Dade County Public Schools eliminated suspensions entirely (Anderson, 2020; Hinze-Pifer & Sartain, 2018). Within 1 year of the Guiding Principles being issued,
…22 states and the District of Columbia had revised their laws in order to require or encourage schools to: limit the use of exclusionary discipline practices; implement supportive (that is, nonpunitive) discipline strategies that rely on behavioral interventions; and provide support services such as counseling, dropout prevention, and guidance services for at risk students. (Steinberg & Lacoe, 2017, p. 44)
And, within 2 years of the Guiding Principles being issued, “23 of the 100 largest school districts nationwide had implemented policy reforms requiring nonpunitive discipline strategies and/or limits to the use of suspensions” (p. 44).
While each of these reforms met with opposition from industrial associations and conservative commentators, with claims that they would lead to an increase in school violence (Eden, 2019), empirical evidence over time showed the opposite. Abolishing suspension for minor incidents in Californian public schools, for example, did not result in predicted “chaos” or increased school violence (Losen & Martin, 2018). Rather, longitudinal analyses reveal a significant decline in suspensions, alongside improvements in school climate and academic outcomes. The same research found a large and significant decline in the number of instructional days lost and a narrowing of the racial gap in exclusion rates, attributable to reduced use of suspension for minor incidents (Losen & Martin, 2018). These and other positive outcomes from California’s reforms paved the way for the banning of suspension for elementary and middle school children (Kindergarten through Grade 8) for classroom disruption and “wilful defiance” (Freedberg, 2019). Importantly, these reforms—like those in other US public-school systems that have successfully reduced the use of exclusionary discipline, such as Chicago Public Schools—did not just involve banning or limiting the use of exclusionary discipline. In addition to severely limiting and monitoring the use of suspension and exclusion, these systems also required schools to use evidence-based educative responses, delivered through a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) framework designed to improve students’ academic achievement, social-emotional understanding, and behavioural interactions. By implementing MTSS, school systems in the United States went beyond discipline reform and instead engaged in systemic inclusive school reform.
What is systemic inclusive school reform?
Upon ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD; United Nations, 2008), Australia is committed under international human rights law to engage in systemic inclusive school reform (Graham et al., 2020b). General Comment No. 4 (GC4) on Article 24 of the CRPD, which articulates the human right to inclusive education, defines inclusion as follows:
…a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment (United Nations, 2016, para 11).
GC4 also outlines the nine core features of an inclusive education system: whole system, whole school and whole person approaches; committed leadership, supported teachers, respect for and value of diversity, learning-friendly environments, effective transitions, and recognition of partnerships. Critical to the success of systemic inclusive school reform are frameworks that promote consistency in policy logics and practice across regions, schools, and classrooms.
MTSS is a “fully braided” (McCart et al., 2014, p. 252) prevention and intervention framework that was developed from research in the fields of implementation science and inclusive education, and which is increasingly being used internationally to support systemic inclusive school reform (Sailor et al., 2018). MTSS guides school-wide consistency in the delivery of processes and practices that enable regular schools to enrol all students in their local catchment. This is achieved through the universal provision of high-quality accessible pedagogies and evidence-based programs at Tier 1 together with reasonable adjustments, followed by timely evidence-based supports targeted to small groups or individuals at increasing levels of intensity and frequency (Tiers 2 and 3) identified through data-based decision making (Sailor, 2015). It is through these tiered approaches that some public-school systems in the United States, such as Chicago Public Schools, have been able to reduce suspension, while improving safety, school connectedness, attendance, and academic outcomes (Hinze-Pifer & Sartain, 2018). Reducing disproportionality has been more difficult, as attitudes that drive implicit racial bias can remain intact, despite structural reforms (Trinidad, 2021).
Systemic inclusive school reform as articulated in GC4 goes beyond the decontextualised or ad hoc provision of prevention strategies and support programs by grounding them in a strong foundation of inclusive school cultures developed through culturally appropriate (relational) pedagogies, positive teacher–student relationships, and mutually respectful parent-school partnerships (Graham et al., 2020a). These need to be contextualised in and for unique Australian contexts and guided centrally with adequate support for educators to determine—quickly and easily—which programs and practices have the best evidence and are most likely to be effective (Laurens et al., 2021b). Research is needed to evaluate how these programs and practices can be adapted for local needs through co-design, particularly with and for Indigenous young people (Shay & Miller, 2021), yet still implemented with fidelity (Laurens et al., 2021b). This is critically important considering the diversity of some Australian schools and the heterogeneity of cultures within them (Keddie et al., 2013). Recent results of a best-evidence synthesis investigating the effectiveness of school-based interventions in reducing disproportionality suggest, however that proscribing or banning the use of exclusionary discipline may be a critical first step to support meaningful change in both attitude and practice, which is a necessary foundation for successful reform implementation (Cruz et al., 2021).
Reforming discipline in Australia
Australian school systems have not yet implemented the systemic reforms necessary to reduce educator reliance on exclusionary discipline, although it is clear from recent reports that viable alternatives are needed urgently. For example, in 2014—the same year that the Obama Administration intervened—the QLD state government instead expanded school principals’ disciplinary powers leading to large and sustained increases in the use of exclusionary discipline in QLD state schools (Graham, 2018). Concern over rising suspension rates in other education jurisdictions in Australia prompted the South Australian (SA) state government to commission an independent Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion processes in South Australian government schools (Graham et al., 2020a) and the New South Wales (NSW) state government to commission an evidence review (Pearce et al., 2019). Both final reports, released in 2020, recommended reforms aimed at improving the provision of appropriate, timely and evidence-based supports to students who experience learning and behavioural difficulties at school: systemic inclusive school reform supported by legislative reform and the implementation of MTSS in SA (Graham et al., 2020a), and a system of social-emotional skill building and complex behaviour support in NSW (Pearce et al., 2019).
The SA government has since committed to many of the Inquiry’s 76 recommendations, along with $15 million to “develop a systemic strategy to minimise suspensions for all students—but especially suspensions for Receptions to Year 2 s, Indigenous students and children with disabilities or in state care” (Williams, 2021, para 2). The strategy will implement new data dashboards to enable system monitoring and set reduction targets to stop the use of suspensions for minor reasons, such as not following instructions, minor physical acts and talking in class. Both Flexible Learning Options (FLOs) and exclusions will be abolished, communication to parents and students about their rights will be improved, and complaints and appeals processes strengthened.
Following the release of their evidence review, the NSW government proposed a new Behaviour Strategy (Department of Education NSW, 2021), noting that “suspension rates for vulnerable students in NSW are too high, and disproportionately so for students with disability, Aboriginal students, students in rural and remote areas, students in out-of-home care and students experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage” (p. 7). The proposed NSW Behaviour Strategy made the case for educative alternatives to the use of exclusionary discipline, stating that there is “no evidence that suspension is an effective mechanism for improving or managing student behaviour”, and that it “does not provide students with the support they need to achieve behavioural change” (p. 7). Like some US public-school systems, the NSW government proposed a reduction in the maximum suspension length from 20 to 10 days for students in Grades 3–12, in addition to limiting suspensions to a maximum length of 5 days for students in the early years of school (K-2) and only then for serious circumstances. The proposed reductions are mild in comparison to those enacted in many US systems where suspension is banned for any reason in K-2, and across K-8 for wilful defiance (e.g. California), or is limited to 3 days duration even for serious misdemeanours (e.g. Chicago Public Schools; Graham et al., 2020a). Nonetheless, the proposed reductions have been “vehemently” opposed by “the Federation of Parents and Citizens Association of NSW, the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, the NSW Primary Principals’ Association, and the NSW Teachers Federation” (para 2), who collectively argue the proposed reforms will reduce the authority necessary for schools to achieve “safe, calm learning environments” (New South Wales Teachers Federation, 2021, para 2).
The Queensland context
The QLD state government school system is Australia’s third largest behind NSW and Victoria. In 2021, over half a million students were enrolled in 1254 schools across an immense area two and a half times the size of Texas (Department of Education Queensland, 2021a, 2021b). With more than 220,000 Indigenous Australians, accounting for 4.6% of the state’s total population, QLD has Australia’s second largest population of Indigenous peoples behind NSW (Indigenous Education and Research Centre, 2021). However, due to higher fertility and higher mortality rates, the age distribution of Indigenous Australians is skewed towards younger age groups (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2021). For this reason, Indigenous students account for 10.9% of QLD state school enrolments (Department of Education Queensland, 2021b).
Various education reforms have been enacted over the past decade in QLD, some of which have impacted the use of exclusionary discipline (Graham, 2018). In 2014, legislation was passed via the Education (Strengthening Discipline in State Schools) Amendment Bill 2013 (Queensland), which resulted in greater autonomy for government (or public) school principals to issue suspensions, reduced obligation to consult with students’ families, stripped students of the right to appeal short suspensions, introduced the ability to suspend for criminal offences or non-criminal behaviours occurring outside the school environment, and changed the length of short and long suspension: increasing short suspensions from 1–5 to 1–10 days, and decreasing long suspensions from 6–20 to 11–20 days (Carden, 2018). These changes were intended to relieve the burden on teaching staff obviated by onerous paperwork processes, as well as to reduce suspensions, exclusions, and enrolment cancellations. The latter two consequences were particularly in focus, as their rate had more than doubled in the years 2006–2013 (DETE, 2014).
Recent research has demonstrated that these legislative reforms have not been effective—and may, in fact, be harmful—especially to young children just commencing school and those transitioning from primary to secondary school (Graham, 2018). While enrolment cancellations did decline after the 2014 change in legislation, exclusions remained steady and suspension rates rose steeply, surpassing enrolment increases. Graham’s (2018) analyses disaggregated by calendar year, school phase and grade level, but did not investigate differential impact for Indigenous versus non-Indigenous students. This was noted as a critical gap in the extant research, “given prior evidence that Indigenous students, students in out-of-home care, and students with disability are overrepresented in suspensions and exclusions” (Graham, 2018, p. 16). The use of exclusionary discipline and its disproportionate impact on students in these three priority equity groups has since been raised in Hearings of the current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation against People with Disability, which has focussed a great deal of attention on the QLD government school system (Iaria, 2020). Noted at Hearing 7 was QLD’s very high suspension rate, which at 150.37 suspension incidents per 1000 students far outstrips those of comparable Australian jurisdictions: almost double that of NSW (87.62 suspensions per 1000 students), and almost triple that of the Australian Capital Territory (58.05 suspensions per 1000 students; Graham et al., 2020a).
Concerns have also been raised as to the impact of QLD’s rising number of school exclusions on Indigenous students and its relationship to the school-to-prison pipeline by those working with youth in the community legal sector, who noted that 38% of the 55,752 Indigenous students enrolled in QLD state schools were either suspended, excluded, or had their enrolments cancelled in 2018 (Iliffe & Stevenson, 2020). Despite these alarming statistics, the current Queensland government has not conducted any reviews of their approach to school discipline or proposed any reforms since the legislative changes enacted in 2014. And, although the United States has backed away from zero tolerance, Queensland’s Minister for Education has in recent years defended large increases in suspension and exclusion rates, even those affecting Queensland’s youngest Preparatory (Prep) year children, attributing them to her government’s “zero tolerance approach” (Caldwell, 2019). Due to a lack of data and research, it has not been possible to examine who exactly is being impacted by this approach or what its long-term effects on vulnerable young Queenslanders might be.