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Interrupted School Attendance and Suspension

Executive Summary

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Substantial research has shown a strong link between interrupted school attendance and contact with the criminal justice system. The Australian Law Reform Commission has recognised that ‘links between lack of employment opportunity, lack of educational attainment, and subsequent entry into the criminal justice system are well established’.

Positive outcomes from school suspension may occur where the student has ‘good mental health, no major trauma, a safe and supportive home environment, adequate access to in-school supports, and few outside factors impacting negatively on their education’.

However, suspension often indicates a student is facing other underlying issues,3 and exclusion from schooling may compound existing, multifactorial forms of disadvantage experienced by vulnerable groups:

The risk of being excluded from school is significantly higher for young people who are already facing disadvantage. These include young people in out-of-home care, young people with disabilities [including cognitive, behavioural and learning disabilities], Aboriginal young people, [young people with mental health issues, trauma, or at risk of harm] and young people living in some (not all) suburbs with high rates of socio-economic disadvantage. Being excluded from school increases the risk that these young people will become even more marginalised.

A 2021 meta-analysis of school exclusions and criminal behaviour found that all forms of disciplinary exclusion were associated with more rather than fewer ‘delinquent outcomes’.

Research shows various negative impacts as a result of interrupted schooling:

  • Interrupting a student’s schooling can lead to lowered educational and employment outcomes.
  • Diminished educational outcomes are a predictor for future contact with the criminal justice system.
  • Low educational engagement (both a symptom and a cause of suspension) has been linked to poor health and wellbeing outcomes.
  • Exclusion from the supervisory context of a school can reinforce existing feelings of marginalisation, particularly in students who are already experiencing challenges at school due to other underlying issues.
  • Absence of supervision can be a catalyst for an increase in antisocial behaviour and criminal activity due to increased contact with antisocial peers and the vulnerability of young people unsupervised in public spaces to have contact with police.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are at particular risk of multiple school exclusions and inappropriate placement in schools for students with disruptive behaviour or juvenile justice schools due to undiagnosed disability. Students in behaviour schools are more likely to graduate to juvenile detention, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline.

The potential relevance of evidence of interrupted schooling and suspension in sentencing proceedings includes an assessment of moral culpability; moderating the weight to be given to general deterrence; and determining the weight to be given to specific deterrence and protection of the community. There may also be issues relating to the likelihood of hardship in custody, a finding of special circumstances and the shaping of conditions to enhance prospects of rehabilitation.

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