Autism Awareness Month


New Reports Reveal Extreme Discipline Disparities for Students with Disabilities

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

As Autism Awareness Month comes to an end, several recent reports show that students with disabilities as a group are more likely to be suspended and expelled, ultimately putting them at higher risk of dropping out of high school altogether.

Three reports––Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities from the United States Government Office of Accountability (GAO); Disabling Punishment, a joint effort by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies and Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institution for Race & Justice; and the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) Student Climate and Safety Data––investigate the inequalities in school discipline that plague the larger population of students with disabilities. They also come at a critical time, as the U.S. Department of Education considers rolling back Obama-era guidance on school discipline.

While students with disabilities make up for 11.7 percent of the K-12 population, they account for a quarter of suspensions and expulsions, and nearly 30 percent of students referred to police, the GAO report found.

Figure: Students with Disabilities' Overrepresentation Among Students Who Received Disciplinary Actions, School Year 2013-14

Furthermore, analysis by both race and sex showed that black students with disabilities and boys with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined across all six actions. Black students with disabilities represented about 19 percent of all K-12 students with disabilities, and accounted for nearly 36 percent of students with disabilities suspended from school (about 17 percentage points above their representation among students with disabilities).   

“These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended,” the GAO report concluded.

The five school districts GAO visited, as a part of their overall research, reported a range of factors that may lead to behaviors resulting in disciplinary action, including the effects of poverty, trauma, and mental health issues. As many school districts seek to make classrooms more inclusive of students with disabilities, the growing awareness of the complex challenges that certain students face has, in part, motivated the push for better trainings of teachers and staff on how to promote positive social and emotional development.

In addition to facing disproportionate suspension, expulsion, and policing, the CRDC report showed that students with disabilities are subject to restraint and seclusion (a practice in which individuals are physically pinned down or isolated against their will) at rates far exceeding their peers. Tracking data from the 2015-2016 school year, analysis showed that students with disabilities represent 66 percent of students subject to seclusion and 71 percent of those restrained, a substantial overrepresentation.

Figure: Percentage Distribution of Students Subjected to Restraint or Seclusion, by Disability (IDEA)

The Long-Term Effects of Disproportionate School Discipline

The consequences of these disciplinary inequalities? That’s where the third study comes in. According to Disabling Punishment, such practices result in chronic exclusion from school and lost opportunities to learn.

"For kids with disabilities, they are getting a lot more in terms of supports and service when they are in school,” said Daniel Losen, director for the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and lead author of the report. “When they are missing school because they are suspended, they lose more."

Disabling Punishment analyzes instruction lost to suspension for students with disabilities at both state and national levels. Using states’ reporting on school suspensions, the report tracked days of instruction missed each school year per 100 students with disabilities.

Figure: The Five States With the Largest Racial Disparity in Loss of Instruction for Students with Disabilities in 2015-16By tracking how students have been excluded from instruction, researchers hoped to show the profound effects of exclusionary discipline on students’ education and development. As the report observes, lost instruction negatively impacts students’ academic achievement and increases the likelihood of dropping out and risk of future incarceration.

“The difference in days of lost instruction means that there are huge inequities in the opportunity to learn,” the study ultimately noted.

When broken down by race, the data reveals an alarming national divide: per 100 students with disabilities, white students lost 43 days of instruction, while black students with disabilities lost 121 days. And in the majority of states, that gap is growing.

On average nationally, students with disabilities lose more than 56 days of instruction for every 100 students enrolled.

“We hope the information in this report will serve as a call to action to educators and advocates in every state,” Losen told Harvard Law Today. “There are no excuses for states to ignore these profound disparities.”

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