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Lucy C. Sorensen

Lucy C. Sorensen, Andrea Headley, Stephen B. Holt.

Involvement with the juvenile justice system carries immense personal costs to youth: 30% of detained youth drop out of school (relative to 5% nationally) and 55% are re-arrested within one year. These personal costs are compounded by societal costs – both directly in $214,000 of expenses per confined youth per year – and indirectly in lost social and economic productivity. While much of the extant research on the “school-to-prison pipeline” focuses on school disciplinary practices such as suspension, less attention has been given to understanding the impact of school referrals to the juvenile justice system on students’ relationship with school. Using novel administrative data from North Carolina, we link 3 years of individual educational and disciplinary infraction records to juvenile justice system records to identify the effect of juvenile justice referrals for school-based offenses on student academic and behavioral outcomes. We find that, even for the same offense type and circumstance, relative to students only punished for infractions internally in the school, students referred to juvenile justice experience lower academic achievement, increased absenteeism, and are more likely to be involved in future juvenile system contact. We show that these juvenile referrals are not inevitable and instead reflect a series of discretionary choices made by school administrators and law enforcement. Moreover, we examine demographic disparities in school-based referrals to juvenile justice and find that female students, Black students, and economically disadvantaged students are more likely to receive referrals even for the same offense type and circumstances.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Montserrat Avila Acosta, John Engberg, Shawn D. Bushway.

U.S. public school students increasingly attend schools with sworn law enforcement officers present. Yet, little is known about how these school resource officers (SROs) affect school environments or student outcomes. Our study uses a fuzzy regression discontinuity (RD) design with national school-level data from 2014 to 2018 to estimate the impacts of SRO placement. We construct this discontinuity based on the application scores for federal school based policing grants of linked police agencies. We find that SROs effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools, but do not prevent gun-related incidents. We also find that SROs intensify the use of suspension, expulsion, police referral, and arrest of students. These increases in disciplinary and police actions are consistently largest for Black students, male students, and students with disabilities.

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Stephen B. Holt, Katie Vinopal, Heasun Choi, Lucy C. Sorensen.
While a growing body of literature has documented the negative impacts of exclusionary punishments, such as suspensions, on academic outcomes, less is known about how teachers vary in disciplinary behaviors and the attendant impacts on students. We use administrative data from North Carolina elementary schools to examine the extent to which teachers vary in their use of referrals and investigate the impact of more punitive teachers on student attendance and achievement. We also estimate the effect of teachers' racial bias in the use of referrals on student outcomes. We find more punitive teachers increase student absenteeism and reduce student achievement. Moreover, more punitive teachers negatively affect the achievement of students who do not receive disciplinary sanctions from the teacher. Similarly, while teachers with racial bias in the use of referrals do not negatively affect academic outcomes for White students, they significantly increase absenteeism and reduce achievement for Black students. We find the negative effects of both more punitive and more biased teachers persist into middle school and beyond. The results suggest punitive disciplinary measures do not aid teachers in productively managing classrooms; rather, teachers taking more punitive stances may undermine student engagement and learning in both the short- and long- run. Furthermore, bias in teachers' referral usage contributes to inequities in student outcomes.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Shawn D. Bushway, Elizabeth J. Gifford.

Nationwide, school principals are given wide discretion to use disciplinary tools like suspension and expulsion to create a safe learning environment. There is legitimate concern that this power can have negative consequences, particularly for the students who are excluded. This study uses linked disciplinary, education, and criminal justice records from 2008 to 2016 in North Carolina to examine the impact of principal driven disciplinary decisions on middle school student outcomes. We find that principals who are more likely to remove students lead to reductions in reported rates of minor student misconduct. However, this deterrence comes at a high cost – these harsher principals generate more juvenile justice complaints and reduce high school graduation rates for all students in their schools. Students who committed minor disciplinary infractions in a school with a harsh principal suffer additional declines in attendance and test scores. Finally, principals exhibiting racial bias in their disciplinary decisions also widen educational gaps between White and Black students.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Stephen B. Holt.

Since their introduction in the 1990s, charter schools have grown from a small-scale experiment to a ubiquitous feature of the public education landscape. The current study uses the legislative removal of a cap on the maximum number of charters, and the weakening of regulations on these new schools, in North Carolina as a natural experiment to assess the intensive impacts of charter school growth on teacher quality and student composition in traditional public schools (TPS) at different levels of local market penetration. Using an instrumental variable difference-in-differences approach to account for endogenous charter demand, we find that intensive local charter entry reduces the inflow of new teachers at nearby TPS, leading to a more experienced and credentialed teaching workforce on average. However, we find that the entry of charters serving predominantly White students leads to reductions in average teacher experience, effectiveness, and credentials at nearby TPS. Overall these findings suggest that the composition of the teacher workforce in TPS will continue to change as charter schools further expand, and that the spillover effects of future charter expansion will vary by the types of students served by charters.

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Lucy C. Sorensen, Helen F. Ladd.

High teacher turnover imposes numerous burdens on the schools and districts from which teachers depart. Some of these burdens are explicit and take the form of recruiting, hiring and training costs. Others are more hidden and take the form of changes to the composition and quality of the teaching staff. This study focuses on the latter. We ask how schools respond to spells of high teacher turnover, and assess organizational and human capital effects. Our analysis uses two decades of administrative data on math and ELA middle school teachers in North Carolina to determine school responses to turnover across different policy environments and macroeconomic climates. Based on models controlling for school contexts and trends, we find that turnover has marked, and lasting, negative consequences for the quality of the instructional staff and student achievement. Our results highlight the need for heightened policy attention to school specific issues of teacher retention.

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