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Discipline and special ed: Schools work to reduce suspensions

Why We Wrote This

Educators strive to balance school safety and fair discipline practices. Right now, there’s much debate about how best to do that, but these two important goals don’t have to be in conflict.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Seventh grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student using a restorative justice approach – a suspension alternative – at Ed White Middle School, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in San Antonio. States are trying to adjust discipline policies, which disproportionately impact students of color and those with disabilities.

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Educators are being asked to pay more attention to equity in their discipline policies. While the focus remains on reducing suspensions for students of color, the number of special education students being suspended is also of concern to advocates. Last month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published a report showing that students with disabilities made up 12 percent of enrollment in 2015-16, but accounted for 26 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension and 28 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested. Troubling statistics are among the reasons more states are taking action. Tennessee lawmakers just passed a bill banning the spanking or hitting of special education students; Washington State, which is facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, is promising changes to its policies by the fall. Lindsay E. Jones of the National Center for Learning Disabilities says it’s time to address the issue. “There’s no evidence to suggest [students with disabilities] should have more behavior issues,” she says.

Debra Barr understands how everyday occurrences in schools can escalate and result in multi-day suspensions. Until recently, that was commonplace in her district.

“We realized that what we were doing wasn’t working,” says Ms. Barr, the director of student services and behavior supports at Port Huron Area School District in Michigan. Prior to a district-wide emphasis on school culture, she says, “we were losing too many students to dropping out or the criminal justice system.”

How to approach discipline in an equitable way is being debated across the United States, as educators struggle with finding a balance between being too punitive and feeling limited in their options for creating safe learning environments. The Department of Education signaled recently that it may alter or rescind Obama-era guidance aimed at addressing disparities in discipline, in part because of mixed feedback. That move has rekindled discussion about the number of students of color who are being suspended, and about another group overrepresented in discipline data – special education students. 

Last month, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published a report showing that students with disabilities made up 12 percent of enrollment in 2015-16, but accounted for 26 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension and 28 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested.

Regional numbers offer a similar picture. In Washington State, the American Civil Liberties Union last year filed a lawsuit, arguing that special education students there are expelled or suspended “at more than twice the rate of their non-special education peers.” One of every four special education students in Florida receives an out-of-school suspension, while 17 schools in Tulsa, Okla., have in recent years expelled more than half of their students with disabilities.

“There’s no evidence to suggest [students with disabilities] should have more behavior issues,” says Lindsay E. Jones, vice president and chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “The vast majority have problems with reading, math, and paying attention. These numbers are shocking, we need to address them.”

Data prompts changes

Various states are in the process of making changes to their discipline policies. In Tennessee, one of 22 states that allows corporal punishment, lawmakers passed a bill in April banning spanking or any other type of hitting of special education students unless parents give their consent. The bill, which has not yet been signed  by Gov. Bill Haslam, came after state statistics showed students with disabilities were hit at a higher rate than students without disabilities.

In Washington State, the ACLU lawsuit, filed a year ago against the office of the superintendent of public instruction, is bringing more attention to the issue. It alleges mistreatment of several students, including a 13-year-old with multiple special education diagnoses who was given a five-day suspension for an incident that started when he refused to change out of his gym clothes. In total, he was suspended or sent home from school for 52 days in one school year. 

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages but is asking for “systematic reform,” says Eunice Hyunhye Cho, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s Washington state office. 

Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent, says the state is holding public hearings and hopes to have a new policy in place for the beginning of the 2018 school year. “We want to make discipline decisions a last resort, not a first resort,” Mr. Reykdal says.

States that have already taken steps are seeing results. California banned out-of-school suspensions for all students from kindergarten to third grade for “willful defiance” – which is basically nonviolent disruptive behavior – after statistics showed that this category targeted minorities in disproportionate numbers. Los Angeles and San Francisco banned suspensions for this behavior for all students. In the five years between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, suspensions of all types in California dropped 46 percent. The ban for grades K-3 is set to expire on July 1.

Suspensions and consequences don’t teach skills, argues Jessica Minahan, a behavioral analyst and  coauthor of  “The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students.” She trains both teachers and school leaders about the neural science of how students respond to various events. “The traditional way to handle behavior can exacerbate anxiety in students,” she says.

Better communication by adults within schools can help, especially with special education students who have individual education programs (IEPs), says Anurima Bhargava, who worked in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice under President Obama, and is founder and president of Anthem of Us, a strategic advisory and consulting group. One teacher may not know a student’s IEP especially well, for example, or another may not be aware of a family situation that could be affecting the student. 

While the law prohibits schools from suspending students with disabilities for behavior that their IEP team determines is a manifestation of their disability, it is clear, she says, citing the examples in the ACLU’s Washington lawsuit, that in many cases students are suspended exactly for that reason. 

National guidance

The Department of Education has tried to help districts by offering guidance on issues related to disability – and race. An April report from the Center for Civil Rights and Remedies, Disabling Punishment, concludes that black students with disabilities lose about 77 more days of instruction every school year due to discipline than white students with disabilities. The report is the first to break down suspension disparities for students with disabilities state by state.

“There are no excuses for states to ignore these profound disparities,” said Dan Losen, the director of the center – an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles – when the report was released.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering revising or rescinding guidance related to discipline and race issued in 2014. The “Dear Colleague” letter from the Departments of Education and Justice warned schools not to discriminate racially when disciplining students. Secretary DeVos met with both critics and supporters last month as she considers next steps.

Advocates say the Obama-era guidance protects civil rights and has led to reflection and positive changes in districts as well as lessening the school-to-prison pipeline. Those with concerns say that it affects school safety by limiting teacher discretion and ability to maintain order – and that factors other than school policies, such as the impact of poverty, may lead to students of color acting out more. 

A new poll by the School Superintendents Association shows that just 16 percent of district leaders say they changed their schools’ discipline policies after the 2014 document was issued. The survey did conclude that pressure from the Office for Civil Rights, in the form of investigations or compliance reviews, seemed to move more districts to alter discipline policies. The office opened hundreds of investigations and reviews starting in 2009. The association has not taken a position on the possible withdrawing of the guidance. 

District-wide buy in

In Port Huron, the change in approach originally came about to address a racial imbalance in suspensions in the district. But the effort has helped lower incidents with special education students too, according to Barr, the student services director.

The district has seen a 20 percent decrease in student suspensions overall in the past three years, she says. When expulsions and suspensions are considered together, the decrease is 35 percent.

In the past, she says, schools made hit-or-miss use of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program – designed to recognize good behavior to improve the school culture, while at the same time lessening actions that call for discipline.

Now, as part of a plan set-forth by a new superintendent, PBIS is being used district-wide. When discipline is needed, Barr can walk administrators through seven factors to help them decide whether a suspension is appropriate. More important, she says, teachers and all school staff are being trained in how to deescalate situations such as students refusing to follow directions, in the hope of avoiding the need for discipline. “If you can predict behavior is going to happen, you can prevent it most of the time,” she adds. 

She emphasizes that the district is far from finished. “Systems take a long time to be built,” she says “It’s a huge task.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the period of time during which the student in the ACLU lawsuit was suspended or sent home. It was 52 days in one year, rather than over the course of two. 

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