The data doesn’t lie. In many school districts, the disproportionate rates of students of color in special education being suspended or expelled can be seen in the numbers across the country. But data also can help solve the problem.

For example, the Iowa Department of Education found in a 2018 audit that the Davenport School District was placing a disproportionate number of African American students in special education programs and a disproportionate number of these students were being suspended or expelled.

A lack of understanding of the procedural safeguards of IDEA can put school leaders in a difficult position in terms of disciplining students with disabilities. IDEA does allow schools to discipline students with disabilities in certain circumstances.

However, the law’s procedural safeguards were designed to ensure that students receiving special education and related services are not arbitrarily removed from their parent-approved program without consent. These students are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education within the least restrictive environment.

Discipline Disparities

Ethnic disproportionality in disciplinary rates is often called discipline disparities or a school discipline gap. According to the National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, “discipline disparities refer to instances in which students who belong to specific demographic groups (e.g., race/ethnicity, sex, disability status) are subjected to particular disciplinary actions disproportionately — at a greater rate than students who belong to other demographic groups (e.g., black males are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white and Asian males).”

In the case of the school district in Iowa, the state Department of Education told the district leaders to work with a national expert to deal with a disproportionate number of students of color identified for special education services, as well as a disproportionate number of African American special education students subjected to disciplinary actions.

Data of discipline rates of student subgroups often are used as indicators to evaluate school districts regarding compliance with laws and practices. In Davenport, African American students made up 18.9 percent of the population but received 62 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 42 percent of in-school suspensions last year.

The 2018-19 data continuously show that African American students, 19.9 percent of the district’s population, account for 42.2 percent of suspensions, and 21 percent have received at least one suspension. It is apparent that the percentage of disciplined African American students with disabilities is large in comparison with the total number of African American students served in special education in the district.

It should be noted that the discipline gap in Davenport mirrored a national trend. Recent data published by the U.S. Department of Education show that among students ages 3 through 21 served in special education, less than one-fifth are African American (17.7 percent), but African American students account for more than one third (36.6 percent) of individuals who experienced disciplinary removal.

Nationwide, the proportion of African American students who experienced 10 days or fewer in-school suspensions/expulsions is twice as large as that of their white peers, and three times as much as that of their Hispanic peers.

In eight states, over 60 percent of students with disabilities disciplined in the 2016-17 school year were black. In states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, African American students make up approximately 40 percent to 50 percent of the total served in special education, but over 70 percent of students subjected to disciplinary removals totaling more than 10 days are African American.

The data are disturbing. Disciplinary removal is an undesired practice in schools, as students lose precious learning time in the classroom.

From Data to Positive Practice

Data about discipline disparities suggest a daunting and unsettling fact. African American students with disabilities lose three times as much instructional time from discipline as their white peers, according to a report in Education Week. Researchers and school psychologists found that when education is disrupted by long absences (such as expulsion), students with special needs are more likely to drop out from school and never complete a diploma, and more likely to remain unemployed and economically dependent.

Data show time and again that the discipline gap exists, but “fewer people seem to have a solid answer as to why,” reported the National Public Radio. As a complex issue in special education, the reason for discipline disparities is multidimensional and inconclusive.

For instance, researchers Amanda L. Sullivan and Aydin Bal in 2013 studied one Midwestern urban school district and found that while socioeconomic controls attenuate the impact of race, African American students remain more likely than others to be identified for special education.

In the meantime, research also shows that among Medicaid-eligible children with autism diagnoses, African American children with autism are less likely to be placed in special education as early as their white peers.

IDEA reinforces parents’ right to participate in their children’s education, including any disciplinary decision schools make. As for best practices in special education, schools should ensure that students with disabilities be treated equally and fairly, and any type of behaviors that affect learning be discussed with parents and addressed within their IEP.

Data can inform schools of certain issues, but to support every student’s success in learning, schools need to adopt positive practices that involve parental engagement and effective preventive measures.

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