Why Schools Over-Discipline Children With Disabilities

Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years ago, students with disabilities are still punished at disproportionate rates.

Students at Augustus F. Hawkins High School in Los Angeles, where the suspension rate has dropped significantly following a change in discipline policies

A quarter-century ago, on July 26, 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act to give people with disabilities equal access to services like public education. But the rate at which special-needs students are disciplined raises questions about how equal that access truly is. In public schools today, children with disabilities are far more likely than their classmates to be disciplined, removed from the classroom, suspended, and even expelled.

A report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released earlier this year found that just over 5 percent of elementary-school children with disabilities were suspended during the 2011-12 school year, more than double the overall suspension rate. Among secondary-school students, 18 percent of kids with disabilities were suspended, versus 10 percent overall. Even more striking, a third of all K-12 children with emotional disabilities—such as anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder—were suspended at least once, according to Daniel Losen, the lead author of the UCLA report.

These discrepancies amount to what some researchers and advocates call “the discipline gap,” and it potentially matters for tens of millions of K-12 students with conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and depression. These are often kids who can’t sit still, who challenge their teachers, or who struggle with social interactions, among other behavioral challenges—all of which can look like deliberate misbehavior or defiance and, in turn, lead to disciplinary action. The disparity widens when race is added to the mix: More than one in four black boys and one in five black girls with disabilities will be suspended in a given school year, according to Department of Education data.

In addition to suspension, disciplinary policies can include having a child sent to the principal’s office,  barred from recess, or verbally scolded. And in some cases—typically ones involving uncooperative students with severe behavioral challenges, such as those with autism, and educators who aren’t trained in proper protocol—kids are pinned down or isolated against their will, a practice known as restraint and seclusion. A 2014 Propublica investigation of federal data found that restraint and seclusion was used more than 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year, and that three-quarters of the students restrained—often by being tied up or strapped to a chair with materials such as bungee cords and duct tape—had physical, emotional, or intellectual disabilities. Some school officials say these practices are a necessary last resort to protect other students’ and teachers’ safety. Nonetheless, they have resulted in injuries ranging from bloody noses to broken bones—and at least 20 deaths as of 2009, according to a Government Accountability Office report cited by Propublica. Yet as of last year, only about half of states had laws prohibiting schools from using restraint.

Not only does this disciplinary imbalance appear to run counter to the law, it also seems to challenge some of America’s core values: that all people are born equal and that anyone can succeed with hard work and determination. “You can’t shun or banish kids with disabilities from public education,” Losen said. “It’s so detrimental to our society as a whole, for economic reasons as well as for our understanding of how all sorts of people can be successful. To be persisting in 2015 with policies and practices which we recognized were so undemocratic and contrary to our values as a nation in the ‘60s is very upsetting.”

The White House spotlighted punitive discipline this week, coincidentally coinciding with the ADA’s anniversary, in a gathering of educators, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders. They discussed how each suspension increases a child’s odds of becoming delinquent, abusing substances, connecting with gangs, dropping out, and falling into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Studies have found that just one suspension makes a kid three times more likely to be involved with juvenile justice in the following year, and more than twice as likely to drop out of school. These outcomes can come with severe and long-term implications given the connections between dropping out and incarceration, and perhaps even, according to a recent study, premature death. The dire situation has prompted an Obama-administration initiative to improve “school climate” and efforts in some large, urban school districts, such as Los Angeles, to ban suspensions for non-violent offenses.

Why are more than 3 million children suspended nationwide annually, despite scant scientific evidence that removing children from the classroom improves their behavior or learning? Some educators have told me they feel they have no other option when children are misbehaving, regardless of whether their acting out stems from an underlying learning or emotional disability. With strained resources, large classes, and the placement of special-needs children in mainstream classrooms, teachers feel poorly equipped to manage the kids who are especially challenging or uncooperative; some assume that any non-punitive models of school discipline will demand too much money and time. So they fall back on punishment as a reflex.

Cinthia Randolph, an office manager in Redding, California, was shocked when her son’s fifth-grade teacher regularly disciplined him by making him stand outdoors, unsupervised, even in the coldest winter days—simply because, according to Randolph, he would get out of his seat or talk when he wasn’t supposed to. “By November or December I figured out he was spending an average of an hour a day outside the classroom,” Randolph said in a phone interview. “He missed a lot in math.”

But education reformers are promoting new discipline methods that they say nudge even the most-challenging students onto the right path without a school official having to yell, use threats, or resort to suspension. The models vary district to district, but what they tend to have in common is an understanding that educators should look beyond a child’s actions to address the root causes of misbehavior, rather than labeling the student as a problem. Whether or not a child has a diagnosed disability, the issue may be a learning struggle that makes the student embarrassed or resistant to beginning an assignment. Or it could be an undiagnosed emotional or neurological condition. Discipline can be especially challenging when it comes to preschoolers, who are just becoming accustomed to a school environment and are more likely to have undiagnosed disabilities. The Justice Department in March released the first-ever report on the thousands of children suspended from preschool each year, some of them multiple times.

At the White House event, which featured new discipline guidelines and other resources for educators, a teacher Juan Govea said his Salinas, California, high school cut suspensions by 70 percent through positive behavioral interventions and support,” or PBIS, giving students the kind of acceptance they may have otherwise sought in gangs. In PBIS, which is one of the most studied and validated new discipline models being used in schools, educators are expected to teach kids both appropriate behavior and the consequences for inappropriate behavior, acknowledging when students follow the rules, whether with kudos from a teacher or a reward such as quarterly lunch with the principal.

Broward County School Superintendent Robert Runcie, for example, said his Florida district (which is one of the country’s largest) saw a dramatic drop in student arrests and suspensions after implementing its new disciplinary program. The initiative, he said, focuses on giving students support, including by pairing each student with a caseworker who follows up with the kid over the course of as many as four months after a suspension. More than 90 percent of students didn’t commit a second offense, according to Runcie, who attributed the strides to the district’s move away from punitive discipline. “It’s about changing the culture; it’s about changing beliefs,” Runcie said.

Indeed, “beliefs”—or flawed assumptions about the realities of school discipline—may be the biggest obstacle to disrupting the status quo. Some critics, for instance, have dismissed these more progressive models as impractical and too expensive. But it could be a worthy investment. One Maine school I recently wrote about used a $10,000 grant to implement school-wide collaborative discipline. That’s pennies compared to what it costs annually to incarcerate a young person in the same state: $224,960, according to a Justice Policy Institute report that estimates it costs $8 billion a year to incarcerate young people nationwide.

Meanwhile, some skeptics of non-punitive discipline argue that schools put safety at risk by eschewing harsh punishment. Yet data from a handful of existing programs suggests that these approaches can actually improve safety. After the Meridian Public School District in Mississippi implemented a new positive model, for example, suspensions and expulsions dropped by 50 percent, while 85 percent of students and teachers surveyed said they felt safer, said Vanita Gupta, a U.S. Justice Department civil-rights lawyer, at the White House event.

Schools that fall short of their legal obligation to provide equal access to students could face lawsuits. The Obama administration last January released guidelines detailing how school districts should address educational disparities based on race, which serve as both a resource for schools looking to improve their practices and a basis for legal action on all issues involving unequal educational opportunity. Some school districts are already taking action. In Syracuse, for instance, a New York state attorney general investigation of unequal suspensions forced the city’s school system to change its discipline practices, under the oversight of an independent monitor. The education department is currently developing similar guidance on disabilities.

And according to Losen, that’s sure to bolster the already-growing interest among government officials, educators, and advocates in closing the gaps. “It’s both race and disability—often it’s black students with disabilities,” he said. “The confluence of race and disability is getting more attention.”