Students with Disabilities Are Pushed Out of School in Many Ways

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Last year, a video of a sheriff’s deputy handcuffing a young boy with disabilities in a Kentucky school went viral. The child, an 8-year-old boy, was so small that the school resource officer locked the handcuffs around the child’s biceps and forced his hands behind his back, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU. In the video, the boy, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a history of trauma, cries out in pain. 

Shocking cases like these rightfully make headlines, and they are part of a broader problem: Every year, more than 40,000 Washington public school students are suspended or expelled, and special education students make up nearly a third of these students. 

In fact, special education students are suspended or expelled at a rate more than double the rate of discipline for their non-special education peers. In 2015, 7.9 percent of special education students in Washington public schools were expelled or suspended compared to just 3.2 percent of non-special education students. And 7.9 percent is just the statewide average — more than two dozen school districts suspended or expelled more than 10 percent of special education students in their districts.

Suspensions and expulsions contribute to what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Students who are suspended out of school or expelled are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school than students who are not suspended out of school or expelled, and they are more likely to become involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Students who don’t complete high school are, in turn, likely to have fewer educational and employment opportunities, and experience higher rates of unemployment overall.

Formal discipline is just part of the problem: students with disabilities may be pushed out of school in insidious ways. Schools may persuade parents of special education students to agree to shortened school days for their children, depriving them of appropriate education. Students with disabilities may spend a portion of a school day outside of class, in a hallway or another classroom, where they don’t participate in lessons. And parents of students with disabilities may get frequent calls to pick up their child from school as early as the first hour of the school day.

While incidents such as these don’t make for viral videos, they can cause significant harm. Depriving students of instructional time causes them to fall behind academically and may contribute to a pattern of disengagement that leads to dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system. 

Under Washington’s constitution, it is the paramount duty of the state to provide education to all students. Even when a student is suspended or expelled, that duty is not diminished. All children have the right to an education encompassing “the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today’s economy and meaningfully participate in this state’s democracy.” In addition, our state’s anti-discrimination laws make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their disability. 

The ACLU strives for an America free of discrimination and where all students can receive a meaningful education. Behavior related to students’ disabilities should not serve as a basis for exclusion, or worse, police involvement. Rather, such behavior should be addressed with approaches that are specific to the particular student’s disability. For example, a child who needs movement could be given opportunities to take breaks outside of a classroom, or a child who has attention issues could be seated in quieter area.

 When students with disabilities are pushed out of school, they are deprived of their right to education and put at risk of further being institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and jails. 
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