Recent reports have indicated that disabled students, and especially black students with disabilities, face inequitable disciplinary action in schools. Here, we’ll first discuss how schools punish students with disabilities at much higher rates than their non-disabled peers. We’ll then examine the intersectionality of disability and race as they pertain to school suspensions and lost instruction.
Across the United States, Students with Disabilities Are Disciplined Inequitably
About 25 percent of students who are suspended, referred to law enforcement, or arrested while at school have a disability, even though students with disabilities comprise only about 12 percent of all public school students. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that students with disabilities are over-represented by 13 percent for suspensions and 15.5 percent for law enforcement referrals and arrests. There was a substantial disparity in all types of public school, including charters, magnets, alternative schools, and special education programs. Affluent schools were not immune; in fact, there was an over-representation of 20 percent in suspensions (1).
A study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights revealed similar trends. They found that children with disabilities made up 28 percent of school-related arrests, 26 percent of out-of-school suspensions, and 24 percent of expulsions. Moreover, those served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) accounted for 71 percent of students restrained and 66 percent secluded. These conclusions come from a dataset that includes over 50 million students at more than 96,000 schools.
The executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Denise Marshall, told Disability Scoop that she was concerned about these findings:
“Our kids continue to be harmed by the failure of the Department (of Education) to take action to address the gross inequities and disparity in treatment. How many more generations will it take?” (2).
Racial Disparities in School Discipline and Lost Instruction
Researchers from Harvard University and UCLA recently collaborated on a study examining how lost instruction due to discipline varies based on disability and race. Their report is called “Disabling Punishment: The Need for Remedies to the Disparate Loss of Instruction Experience by Black Students with Disabilities.”
They found that black students with disabilities are suspended much more frequently than white students with disabilities – they have on average 77 more days of lost instruction. Of course, this greatly affects how much they learn.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, told Harvard Law Today that “Far too many school districts are punishing and pushing out black students with disabilities.”
Under IDEA, states must review racial disparities in discipline at the district level, and address the underlying issues.
The Trump administration has made moves toward rescinding certain IDEA regulations, including guidance aimed at reducing disparities in school discipline; this is what prompted the Harvard/UCLA study. Author of the Disabling Punishment report, Daniel J. Losen, told Harvard Law Today that, “We hope the information in this report will serve as a call to action to educators and advocates in every state.”
The report contains recommendations for education policymakers, civil rights advocates, teachers’ unions, and other groups involved in the education system (3).
Conclusions: An Intersectional Approach to Combating Inequality In Our Schools
The high rates of disciplinary action for students with disabilities are fairly distressing even without accounting for racial differences, but when considering the intersectionality between disability and race, the numbers are even more shocking. To promote change, disability rights organizations should collaborate with racial justice advocates. The issues experienced by students with disabilities are not identical to those experienced by racial minorities, but there is certainly a lot of overlap. And for students who are disabled and black, the problem of inequitable punishment must be understood and addressed from both angles.
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