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WASHINGTON (AP) – Two Democratic senators urged the Department of Education to strengthen regulations against excluding schoolchildren from class because of behaviors related to a disability – a practice known as informal removal.

Since the pandemic began, parents of kids with disabilities say the practice has been on the rise, denying their kids the legal right to an education. Disability rights advocates and legal experts say the removals likely circumvent federal protections for these children, who are not supposed to be disciplined because of their disability. 

In a report Tuesday, The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report documented the impact of these informal removals on children and families. In interviews with 20 families in 10 states, parents said they were called repeatedly, sometimes less than an hour into the school day, to pick up their children. Some said they left work so frequently they lost their jobs.

If you’ve had experiences with informal removals of children school, we’d like to hear about them:  Tell us about your experiences with informal removals.

The Education Department says it’s seen an increase in informal removal. In May, the department said it intended to strengthen protections for students with disabilities through possible regulatory amendments to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects people from being discriminated against based on their disability. 

The department also issued guidance to schools in July on discriminatory practices in discipline for students with disabilities. That guidance expressly defined informal removals as an action taken by school staff in response to a child’s behavior that removes the child for part or all of the school day, or even indefinitely.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the Education Department, Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, both from Illinois, urged that the practice be formally defined in regulation and included as a form of prohibited, discriminatory action during the final rulemaking for Section 504. 

“Informal removals not only restrict children’s personal growth and decrease their likelihood of graduating, but they also are discriminatory,” the letter said. “Federal and state laws and regulations, including Section 504, were intended to eliminate the segregation of students with disabilities.”

Related: When your disability gets you sent home from school

Students are protected by federal law from being repeatedly taken out of the classroom for disability-related behaviors. After 10 suspensions, families of disabled children are entitled to a review of whether the behaviors are a result of the child’s disability. If so, schools are supposed to make adjustments, such as providing additional accommodations or considering a change in placement.

But when the removals are not recorded, those protections are not always triggered, and families may not know they have recourse. The department’s July guidance made clear that students who are informally removed have the same rights as those who are officially suspended, including to the review process. 

In a statement Wednesday, the Department of Education said: “The ‘informal removal’ of students with disabilities is a pernicious and dangerous practice that the Office for Civil Rights has seen arise with increasing frequency. All students have the right to an education free from discrimination.”

The senators noted formal removals, such as documented suspensions and expulsions, lead to a loss of 11 million instructional hours per year. Many schools have promised to cut down on suspensions, since kids can’t learn as well when they aren’t in class.

But because informal removals are not recorded, the full scope of their impact on children remains unquantified. 

“In some cases, informal removals may result in students with disabilities missing months and even years of classroom instruction,” the senators wrote. “Missing school also deprives children of other important services, such as access to free lunch, referrals to outside services, medical care, evaluation services, access to a library and playground, extracurricular activities, and a sense of community and belonging.”

This story was produced by The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

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