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.