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BREAKING SCHOOLS’ RULES: Study of Texas Seventh Graders Finds Students with Disciplinary Actions Five Times More Likely to Drop Out

“An important take-away from this study is that individual schools within a state, working with the same resources and within the same statutory framework, have the power to affect their school disciplinary rates.”

Nearly six in ten public school students were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and twelfth-grade school years, according to a new study of nearly one million Texas public secondary school students released by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University. The report, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, also finds that disciplinary actions had a significant impact on whether a student graduated from high school.


As shown in the graphic to the right, students with disciplinary actions were five times more likely to drop out (10 percent) than students with no disciplinary action (2 percent). Additionally, students with disciplinary actions were more than six times more likely (31 percent) to be held back at least once, compared to students without (5 percent). The report also finds that nearly 60 percent of students who were disciplined eleven times or more did not graduate from high school during the study period.1

Of the students studied, approximately 70 percent who were followed for up to three years after their expected completion of high school either graduated or received a General Education Diploma (GED). Of the 30 percent of students who left school, 6.7 percent were formally identified as dropouts. Other reasons for leaving school prior to graduation were enrollment in an out-of-state school (41 percent), home schooling (23 percent), private school (14 percent), or return to a home country (17 percent).

The report notes that although the 6.7 percent dropout number is “consistent” with the official seventh- to twelfth-grade longitudinal dropout rate reported by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), there are “reasons to believe that it underreports the percentage of students who actually dropped out.” It attributes the difference to TEA’s use of a “less inclusive measure of annual dropouts than that recommended by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).” As a result, the report likely “understate[s] the impact that school discipline had on student dropout rates.”

Breaking Schools’ Rules also finds that students who were suspended or expelled had a greater likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system in their middle or high school years, particularly when they were disciplined multiple times. Specifically, students involved in the school disciplinary system (including those students subject to mandatory removal from the school) were ten times (23 percent) more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system than were those without (2 percent).

According to the report, student removals were nearly always discretionary actions for violations of the school’s locally determined code of conduct. In fact, a student was suspended or expelled nine times out of ten for violating the school’s code of conduct (for which school officials have broad discretion on responsive actions). About 5 percent of violations were for non–code-of-conduct rule violations that are defined in state law but still allow school officials broad discretion, while less than 3 percent of violations were related to behavior for which state law mandates expulsion or removal.2

“An important take-away from this study is that individual schools within a state, working with the same resources and within the same statutory framework, have the power to affect their school disciplinary rates,” the report notes.

The report also determines that African American students were more likely to be disciplined during their seventh- to twelfth-grade school years than were their white or Hispanic classmates. In fact, more than 80 percent of African American male students had at least one discretionary violation, compared to 74 percent of Hispanic males and 59 percent of white males. Even after controlling for eighty-three different variables including income, attendance rate, and number of disciplinary actions, researchers determined that African American students were 31 percent more likely to have a school discretionary action, compared to otherwise identical white students. Additionally, a much larger percentage of African American (26.2 percent) and Hispanic (18 percent) students were placed in out-of-school suspensions for their first violation, compared to white students (9.9 percent).

The report is careful to note that the study is not based on a sample of students. Instead, the research team examined individual school records and school campus data for every student who was in seventh grade in a Texas public school in 2000, 2001, or 2002. Those students’ records were analyzed for at least six years and researchers were also given access to all matching records during this time period for youths who came into contact with Texas’s juvenile justice system. Slightly more than half of the 928,940 students in the study were male (51 percent); 14 percent were African American, 40 percent Hispanic, and 43 percent white. Sixty percent of the students studied were classified as “economically disadvantaged” based on their eligibility for free or reduced-cost meals.

“We hope these findings strengthen efforts underway in Texas to improve outcomes for students, and help other states’ policymakers in examining school discipline practices so they can enhance students’ academic performance and reduce juvenile justice system involvement,” said CSG Justice Center Director Michael Thompson. “This report reflects an impressive commitment among Texas leaders to developing state-of-the-art electronic record-keeping systems and then using the data to answer important questions. Such data-driven policymaking should be the goal of state officials everywhere.”

“For anyone determined to lower dropout rates, improve academic performance, and decrease the number of children involved in the juvenile justice system … those efforts should include strategies to change student behaviors that can reduce the use of suspensions and expulsions,” the report concludes.

The complete report is available at


1 The report notes that a student who did not graduate may have dropped out or may have repeated a grade at least once and still been involved in the Texas public school system in some capacity when the study period concluded.

2 Texas has two categories for disciplinary actions: mandatory and discretionary. Within the mandatory category, there are specific serious criminal behaviors that qualify as felony offenses (use of firearms on school grounds, aggravated assault, and sexual assault) and trigger mandatory removal of the individual from the school. Within the discretionary category, there are less severe offenses, which include conduct occurring off campus or at a school-sponsored or school-related activity (felony criminal mischief; misdemeanor drug, alcohol, or inhalants offenses; and fighting/mutual combat). For these offenses, school district officials have the discretion to remove a student from the classroom or school. Each school district also must adopt a student “code of conduct” that includes additional offenses requiring disciplinary action. These codes of conduct provide written guidance to students, teachers, and parents on acceptable student behavior; describe which violations dictate mandatory or discretionary action; and outline district processes for disciplining students who break these rules.


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