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Government Releases New Guidance on School Discipline, But What About Students With Disabilities?

Written by Meghan Casey, NCLD Policy & Advocacy Associate | January 10, 2014

This week, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice issued a school discipline guidance package for schools. (You can read it here.) Through this guidance, the government is trying to make school discipline fairer and decrease suspensions and expulsions. The guidance is user-friendly and contains an online interactive map that can show you the laws and regulations in your state.

Schools Are Punishing Students of Color and Students With Disabilities at High Rates

The Department of Education says guidance is needed because civil rights data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are being disciplined at higher rates than other students.

African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended. Likewise, students who receive special education are only 12 percent of students in this country, but represent 19 percent of students expelled and 23 percent of students arrested in relation to school. Moreover, students with disabilities (special education and Section 504) represent 14 percent of students, but nearly 76 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.

One troubling issue is that kids are being punished for small infractions. The Department of Education cites a study finding that 95 percent of suspensions from school were for nonviolent, minor offenses like being late or disrespect. Punishments like suspension and expulsion take kids away from their classrooms and instructional time and are known as “exclusionary discipline.” These punishments can have long-term consequences for self-esteem and academic achievement. They can also push kids toward prison and future criminal behavior, something people have called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The Government’s New Guidance on School Discipline Is Practical and Will Help Schools

The new school discipline guidance is very good for a few reasons. First, it’s practical—schools will actually be able to use these resources. The guidance gives schools a simple way to determine whether discipline practices are discriminating against students, even unintentionally. They also include real, concrete examples that show how this is happening. Second, the guidance provides important principles for schools to follow: (1) create positive climates and focus on prevention; (2) develop clear and consistent expectations and consequences; and (3) ensure fairness and equity. Implementing these principles in schools will help all kids, not just those who are impacted by discriminatory discipline practices.

School discipline has been an ongoing issue for years. It’s wonderful to see that the government has dedicated time, attention and resources to publish this guidance. The Department of Education’s release of data on disproportionality is also helpful. We applaud this effort and recognize that it is a step in the right direction.

We Need a Bigger Focus on Students With Disabilities

Yet, while the new guidance is a strong first step, it largely ignores students with disabilities. Aside from sharing some compelling statistics and making a reference to the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, there is little guidance to schools about how to properly handle discipline policies regarding students with disabilities.

The Department says that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended. What about African-American students with disabilities? That number is even higher. The Center for Public Integrity reported on a study that found that 36 percent of black male students with disabilities (in middle and high schools) were suspended at least once during a single academic year. (For a personal take on this issue, read Tamara Shockley’s story about her son.)

The Best Approach Is Holistic and Includes All Students

While these two issues may bring different considerations and solutions to the table, we need to keep in mind that the best approach is a holistic one. Teachers need to be trained and culturally competent in not only race but also disability issues. The Department of Education’s guidance recognizes that anytime you talk about school discipline, these policies have to include protections for students with disabilities. Yet, this guidance does not include any examples about students with disabilities, nor does it provide schools with legal frameworks on disability rights laws. Schools cannot apply the guidelines as they exist to students with disabilities when they only specifically discuss racial and ethnic discrimination.

In the new guidance, the Department promises to develop resources to help schools and teachers do better by students with disabilities. While there is no timeline on when this might happen, we are glad to hear that it’s being worked on. We’ll be following up with the Department on this issue. We need every parent to hold schools accountable for implementing fairer disciplinary policies.


Meghan Casey is the Policy Research & Advocacy Associate at NCLD. She is part of the Public Policy and Advocacy team which implements NCLD’s legislative strategy in Washington, D.C., and advances government policies that support the success of individuals with learning disabilities in school, at work and in life.

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