In the United States, about 8 million children receive special education services annually, but in recent years the U.S. Department of Education has found that disabled children have been the target of indiscriminate suspensions and expulsions, disciplinary practices that it considers alarming.
In order to ensure that the rights guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are properly implemented, on July 19 the Department of National Education ratified the principles that should guide school districts when disciplining students with disabilities.
"It's time to break the cycle of exclusionary discipline," said Valerie C. Williams, director of the Department of National Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), after releasing the federal disciplinary practices guide. "We ask schools and districts to redouble their efforts to enforce IDEA by analyzing their own data and reviewing their policies and procedures to determine if they are contributing to indiscriminate disciplinary practices."
A recent study by the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies showed that among disabled students in middle school and high school, 24 percent of African-American children were suspended at least once, compared to 11 percent of white students. In 2017-2018 alone, the year for which the most recent figures exist, disabled students, who barely represent 13 percent of school enrollment in the country, accounted for 25 percent of all suspensions.
Although the guide does not rewrite existing laws or regulations, it does send schools and school districts a strong message to push for changes in how they address the behaviors of students with disabilities, without violating their right to a fair, free and affordable education.
Here is what the new federal guidance is asking districts and schools to do in order to break the harmful cycle of unnecessary discipline:
1. A review of disciplinary practices and collection of evidence
The Department of National Education asks school districts to track down practices and collect data to confirm whether the actions taken are contributing to perpetuating unnecessary and excessive discipline. The guide points to the evidence that shows how suspensions and expulsions contribute to fueling dropout rates and sending students on the school-to-prison pathway.
2. Create safe environments by applying positive intervention practices
Federal officials stressed that in most cases, students who are not receiving the support established by law react accordingly and are unfairly punished. The guide encourages schools to do their best to prepare Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that truly reflect and provide the support that each student needs.
3. Training of teaching and administrative staff
Federal research found that students with disabilities are frequently disciplined for offenses that are a manifestation of their disability. The guide emphasizes the need to develop strategies to educate teachers and administrators in positive behavioral practices.
4. The law does invalidate the need to discipline students with disabilities
IDEA does not prohibit schools from disciplining students with disabilities or from taking action to ensure the safety of the student and others. What the guide seeks is for schools to be more productive in prevention tasks and capable of challenging conventional thinking when it comes to managing difficult behaviors.
Although the guide does not modify any established rule, it has been praised by the federal educational authorities as the most comprehensive statement that has been published about the civil rights of students with disabilities.
As students across the country prepare to return to school and as school districts continue to grapple with the ravages of the pandemic, federal recommendations seek to curb indiscriminate discipline practices such as excessive suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities.