Special Report
Special Education

Discipline Practices Erect Detours for Special-Needs Students

By Evie Blad — May 29, 2015 7 min read

One of the biggest hurdles many students with disabilities must clear on their path to a high school diploma isn’t academic, advocates say.

A growing body of data show that school discipline practices disproportionately target students with disabilities—often causing them to miss out on needed instruction. Special education students frequently become disengaged in class after repeated suspensions. And that can lead them to drop out before finishing high school.

In addition, some administrators expel students for behaviors related to their disabilities, or “counsel them out” rather than addressing those behaviors under processes included in federal civil rights laws, advocacy groups say.

School leaders need to “sit down and have a frank conversation about ‘how did we get here?’ Because only then are you going to know how to undo it,” said Diane Smith Howard, a senior staff lawyer for juvenile justice and education issues at the National Disability Rights Network, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In recent years, many schools and policymakers at local, state, and national levels have worked to reshape school discipline practices to try to address racial disparities and to reduce reliance on exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions.

Although those general efforts have, in many cases, improved discipline for students with disabilities, educators should also consider specific measures targeted to this population when they overhaul their discipline policies and practices, Ms. Smith Howard said.

Data on DisparIties

In the 2011-12 school year, 13 percent of all students with disabilities received an out-of-school suspension, compared with 6 percent of students without disabilities, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

Those disparities are even more pronounced for students who are also members of racial-minority populations. In that same period, 34 percent of boys with disabilities who belonged to two or more racial groups, and 27 percent of girls in that category, received at least one out-of-school suspension, compared with 12 percent of white boys and 6 percent of white girls with disabilities, the data show. Among black students with disabilities, 27 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls were suspended.

“It’s bad enough to be a kid with a disability or a child of color, but when those two pieces come together, the impact on school removal is exponential,” Ms. Smith Howard said.

And though students with disabilities represented just 12 percent of enrollment, they accounted for 25 percent of school-based arrests and 25 percent of referrals to law enforcement that year, the data show.

Legal Protections

Those disparities persist because schools punish students, typically those with emotional and behavioral disabilities, for behavior that is associated with their disabilities, a violation of federal laws, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Since the law says you should never suspend a student because of their disability, if [discipline] was done right, there would be no difference [in the data] between kids with disabilities and their peers,” he said.

Suspension Patterns

Eighteen percent of all secondary school students with disabilities are suspended from school, twice the rate of their counterparts who are not enrolled in special education programs. For each major racial and ethnic group, suspension rates for students with disabilities exceed those of their peers. In both general and special education in secondary schools, black, Latino, and American Indian students have higher suspension rates than white and Asian youths.

33DC Climate1 C1s

Source: Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project, UCLA, 2015. Analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection (2011-12)

In the 1988 case of Honig v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court set limits on how schools can discipline students under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. In that case, the court ruled that schools may not exclude students with disabilities from class unless a panel of educators determine that the disruptive or dangerous behavior at issue is not associated with his or her disability, even if that disability is emotional or behavioral.

Under the IDEA, a suspension for more than 10 days triggers a “manifestation determination,” where a team decides if the offending behavior is related to the student’s disability. But for suspensions of less than 10 days, no such determination is required.

But schools don’t always scrutinize shorter-term suspensions or classroom removals as carefully, researchers say, and they don’t always analyze discipline data enough to recognize troubling patterns of discipline for students with disabilities.

Those patterns can develop because teachers in mainstream classrooms may not be familiar with the individualized education programs, or IEPs, of special education students, they may be poorly trained to address behavioral issues, or they may not recognize that disruptive behavior is associated with an emotional or behavioral disability, Mr. Losen said. Schools may also face pressure from parents and teachers to remove disruptive students from the classroom, regardless of whether the behavior is disability-related.

What’s more, resource-strained schools often fail to adequately or consistently provide such services as counseling and individual support to students with emotional disabilities, which is the subgroup of special education students that is usually the target of unfair discipline, he said.

“Those kids more than any others should absolutely be getting all kinds of behavioral supports and services,” Mr. Losen said.

Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities are also frequently funneled into what civil rights advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline” when they are reprimanded or arrested by school-based police officers who may not be aware of their special educational needs, those advocates said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then-Attorney General Eric Holder referred to that connection when they visited a juvenile-detention facility in Alexandria, Va., in December.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Roughly 9 percent of all 6- to 21-year-olds are placed in special education programs. Placement rates for American Indian (13.3 percent) and black (11.4 percent) students exceed the national average. Black students are diagnosed with intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance at particularly high rates. Enrollment in special education services among Latino and white students mirrors the national average, a rate two times higher than for Asian students.

33DC Climate2 C1s

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2015. Analysis of data from U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs and U.S. Census Bureau (2013)

Incarcerated students, many with emotional disabilities, sometimes say they feel more support coming from educators in youth lockups than they did in traditional schools, Mr. Holder said, calling such experiences “unacceptable failures” and “lost opportunities.”

Changes in Syracuse

Schools that have attempted to rein in higher discipline rates for students with disabilities have done so by implementing positive behavioral supports, which introduce more targeted and intensive services for the students most in need of them.

Some districts also provide additional teacher training to ensure fair disciplinary practices.

After a New York attorney general’s investigation revealed unfair use of suspensions in the Syracuse public schools, for example, leaders implemented a plan to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline.

That plan includes teacher coaching, regular training for all teachers on emotional disturbances and behavioral disorders, and training on students’ due process rights, Syracuse Superintendent Sharon Contreras told a meeting of civil rights advocates in Washington this spring.

While disability-rights advocates applaud national efforts to examine discipline data and hold schools accountable for troubling patterns, they say such initiatives may have an unintended consequence: “informal removals.”

That’s the term advocates use when districts repeatedly send students home sick for nonmedical reasons or transfer them to an alternative classroom to avoid counting the act as a formal suspension, Ms. Smith Howard said. Without a formal discipline determination, students with disabilities miss out on mandated hearings designed to prevent future problematic behavior, and schools lose an accurate picture of how their practices are affecting students, she said.

A group that the National Disability Rights Network assembled this year to explore the discipline of students of color who have disabilities plans to recommend that federal officials issue guidance on students’ rights to attend a full day of school. States could also intervene by requiring schools to document attendance several times a day to catch students who are dismissed after morning enrollment counts are made, Ms. Smith Howard said.

Schools should be concerned not just with meeting the dictates of federal civil rights law, but they should also take every opportunity to prepare all students for the world beyond high school, she said.

“The purpose of the IDEA is not just to get us all through school, but it is to produce individuals at the end who are capable of civic life and working,” Ms. Smith Howard said."The same problems that cause you to be sent home [from school] at 11 every day will also be problems in the workplace. Workers also can’t have meltdowns at 1 o’clock, either.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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