Background: Educators’ increased use of suspension and expulsion has led to some students repeatedly losing access to learning opportunities. Students excluded from school are at a higher risk of dropping out, with those who receive multiple sanctions, often called “frequent flyers” by K–12 educators, faring even worse. The loss of access to classroom instruction resulting from exclusionary discipline disproportionately affects low-income students of color, reflecting a discipline gap between White students and their minoritized peers.
Purpose: While discourse regarding persistently disciplined students typically positions them as poor decision-makers who squander opportunities, a growing number of studies examine how educators and social contexts play a role in student exclusion. This study investigates middle school students’ experiences with becoming “frequent flyers” to understand whether and how they adopt educators’ labels of them as “bad” and how this label may shape their educational experiences.
Setting and Participants: Data collection occurred at Peninsula South Middle School, an urban school located in the Southeast. Participants included four African American boys, five African American girls, and two girls of mixed racial descent. During the school year in which we interviewed them, these students were suspended between one and six times and received an average of 28 office referrals.
Research Design, Data Collection, and Analysis: We interviewed each student four times, with each interview lasting between 45 and 60 minutes, asking them about their school experiences starting from kindergarten through their current grade. We coded all transcripts according to our symbolic interactionist theoretical framework and derived themes.
Findings: Students explained how they experienced an iterative cycle of labeling and exclusion; they viewed “badness” as fleeting but believed that teachers saw it as a pervasive character trait; and, in their descriptions of the challenges they attempted to make against a system they perceived as unjust, students’ accounts revealed that those attempts only heightened the power their “badness” elicited from institutional agents.
Conclusions: While participants did not see themselves as “bad kids,” their descriptions of their schooling suggested that labeling occurred as written documentation of infractions via office referrals led to students’ physical exclusion from school. Students discussed how their previous punishment led educators to presume students’ guilt and employ more exclusionary discipline with them. Students did not adopt the label of “bad” as part of their identities even though their responses, reactions, and resistance led them to play the role of “bad kid” in some situations.