Ed spécial a un problème de suspension injustjanuari 6, 2020
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School suspensions have been widely criticized because blacks are far more likely to be disciplined than other students. But that racial-equity debate misses the vulnerable group disproportionately suspended at many schools: special education kids.
A RealClearInvestigations analysis of New York City’s most recent Department of Education data shows that at nearly every school with such statistics available, special education students are suspended more frequently than those in the general student body.
Figures from the 2017-2018 school year show that:
- At J.H.S. 223 The Montauk in Brooklyn, 15% of students are special needs but they made up over half of suspensions.
- At J.H.S. 226 Virgil I. Grissom in Queens, 21% of students are special needs but they made up over 64% of suspensions.
- At I.S. 347 School of Humanities in Brooklyn, fewer than a quarter of students are special needs, but they made up over 60% of suspensions.
- At Susan B. Anthony Academy in Queens, only 13% of students fall into the category, but they made up more than half of suspensions.
Beyond New York City, same situation: Disability experts told RCI they believe disproportionate special needs suspensions are common throughout the country.
The data “tells a very bad story,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children of New York, a disability organization that has worked with many disabled students who have been suspended.
Although special education is usually associated with children who have severe mental and physical disabilities, it actually encompasses a wide range of students who warrant extra services under the 1990 Individual with Disabilities Education Act. Many of these students suffer from emotional and behavioral issues such as autism, intellectual disabilities, and speech or language impairments.
Across the country about 14% percent of students have special needs. In New York City, the figure is about 20%.
A helping hand. But critics say educators are hurting special needs students when it comes to suspensions.
Jacqueline Dormer/The Republican-Herald via AP
Most experts seem to agree that these numbers show that the schools are failing disabled kids. But a disagreement arises between those who see the key problem as a lack of proper support for the kids, and those who say the suspension rates result from failed policies that have mainstreamed disabled students who would benefit from more individualized instruction.
And lurking behind such critiques is always another: not enough money and resources.
The law provides protections for disabled kids from being suspended due to their disability, but there’s no science to determining whether a student is manifesting his or her disability or just misbehaving.
In New York City, the exact connection between a student’s suspension and disability is murky because it does not maintain a database that lists the infraction for which a student is suspended and the disability. But advocates say the problem is clear.
“We absolutely see time and time again that students with disabilities are suspended for reasons related to their disability,” said Yuster.
The mother of a disabled elementary school student who insisted on anonymity says that her son’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) means that he gets easily frustrated and has trouble controlling his impulses. These “are all symptoms of his diagnosis,” she said.
But what parents see as their child struggling with a disability, teachers and administrators often see primarily as violent behavior.
In a fairly harmless incident last year at the boy’s Manhattan elementary school, the mother said, a student threw an apple at her son and he tossed it back. He doesn’t mind if you push him, she said, but if you “put your saliva all over a piece of fruit and then you throw it at him, he’s gonna react.” Despite her belief that the behavior was due to his disability, her son was given an in-school suspension.
Distinguishing between bad behavior that should be controlled and symptoms of a disability is often a judgment call requiring educators to balance the interests of the disabled student and the safety of classmates.
“I think the central question there is: you’re trying to balance the right of the individual kid to a free and appropriate public education that does the best we can to meet his needs, and the right of the organization and everyone within the organization to be safe,” said Amy Klinger, director of programs at the School Safety Network. “And so that’s always the push-pull.”
Violence is not a manifestation of ADHD, said Klinger; rather, the condition is marked by difficulty with impulse control. But determining which is which might seem like splitting hairs. A kid with the disorder “throwing back the apple probably is a manifestation of his disability,” said Klinger, referring to the elementary school student’s case, but if he were to go up and punch a kid in the face, that would not be. “That’s where we need to be careful.”
The students’ school did not respond to request for comment on its disciplinary actions.
Assessing the special education suspension rate is further complicated by the lack of firm standards in determining who is disabled.
Only certified experts like school psychologists can diagnose a student with a disability. But the criteria for making that determination are not precise. There are only vague federal guidelines, and schools have a lot of discretion.
Rachel Fish: Early interventions are “one of the most powerful ways we can support kids.”
New York University
New York University professor Rachel Fish’s research indicates that increased school resources for special education can actually have an unintended result: increasing the number of kids labeled with a disability who don’t really need it.
When there are more resources to diagnose kids, “it’s easier to diagnose,” said Fish.
While it’s important for disabled students to get the benefits that they need, being labeled with a disability can stigmatize students, Fish said. Teachers assume that they are not intellectually capable, and fellow students assume that they do “baby-work.”
Another complicating factor in deciding whether to suspend a disabled student is the harm in keeping students from services and instruction they need, said Lori Podvesker director of disability & education policy at INCLUDEnyc, a disability organization in New York City.
The mother of the Manhattan elementary school student said that by his nature, her son “is not an aggressive kid.” Rather, she said, his behavior is due a lack of proper services from his school. If the school were “more proactive around what his issues are,” she said, “he probably would not have had the opportunity to get into the situation he was getting into that resulted in him getting in trouble.”
Critics say educators, parents and others involved need to understand this complicated issue before spending more money. As a first step, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, New York City should study why disabled kids are being disproportionately suspended.
Hess said New York already spends more money per pupil than any other large school system in the country (in 2017, $25,199), including spending “at much higher levels” for kids with special needs.
Putting more money into the school system does not target the root problem, said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who studies education. Many disabled kids are suspended because they are in a school environment that is not “suitable for them and their needs.”
Federal law requires that kids be placed in the least restrictive environment. In practice, Eden said, when evaluating how to treat a particular child, teachers and administrators say, “Let’s just keep this kid as much as possible within a normal classroom setting” — even if a more individualized plan would be more beneficial.
The incentives are clear: avoiding the stigma associated with being a special-education student, and saving money by keeping kids in a mainstream classroom.
A number of studies suggest that with the right early interventions, far fewer kids would need placement in special education.
While physical disabilities are unlikely to be changed, “There are certain categories of special education that can be prevented,” said Kenneth Dodge, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, who co-wrote a paper finding successes in high-quality pre-K programs.
Early interventions are “one of the most powerful ways we can support kids,” said Fish. “You basically prevent things from getting worse cumulatively.”
“We could spend less money if we provided early education and intervention services,” said Dodge.