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The debate over students with disabilities, suspensions and race

New research finds that disabilities might have nothing to do with why black students are suspended more than white students

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put the brakes on Obama-era regulations to monitor suspension rates among students with learning disabilities. A new research study questions whether these students are a particular disciplinary problem for schools.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A look at raw numbers of who is most likely to be suspended from school indicates that black students and students with disabilities* are at the top of the list. For example, 23 percent of black students and 18 percent of students with disabilities were suspended from high school during 2011-12 school year, compared with fewer than 7 percent of white students overall.

Combine the categories of black and disability with gender and the statistics are even more troubling. Almost 34 percent, or more than a third of black boys with a disability were suspended in high school, double the rate of white boys with a disability. On the face of it, black students with disabilities are the most targeted group for suspensions and account for a big chunk of the school-to-prison pipeline. (That’s a term researchers use to describe how kids who are frequently suspended become prime candidates for dropping out of school entirely. Uneducated, without employment prospects, they’re more likely to become criminals and end up in prison.)

Indeed, the Obama administration was so worried that black kids with learning disabilities were getting suspended from school too often that it used the nation’s laws that govern educating students with disabilities to create a new rule for how states should monitor discipline rates among racial and ethnic groups. The new rule also called for a reallocation of funds in school districts that were found to have disproportionately suspended black students to force the districts to invest in more support services.  But just before the rule was supposed to go into effect in 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put it on hold.

Now a new study could be used as evidence that DeVos was right to stall and continue to study the issue. A team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine, has found that students with disabilities aren’t being suspended from school more frequently than their peers without disabilities once you factor in other explanations, such as race, a student’s socioeconomic status, student behavior and the poverty rate at the student’s school. While the researchers do find that black children are being suspended at twice the rate of white students, they don’t find any evidence that schools are more prone to suspend black students who have a disability. I would sum it up like this: racism exists but disabilities aren’t compounding the problem or increasing a black boy’s likelihood of getting suspended.

“For students who are black, being identified as having a disability was not an additional risk factor for being more frequently suspended,” said Paul Morgan, lead author of the study and a professor of education at Penn State. “If you look at the simple, descriptive statistics, children with disabilities are suspended at greater rates. We’re not questioning or disputing that. Some say this is evidence of bias or discriminatory practices. But they’re not adjusting for other explanatory factors.”

Morgan also checked to see if particular categories of disabilities, such as emotional disturbances or speech impairments, increased a student’s odds of suspension, but they didn’t.

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

Morgan crunched the numbers on a national data set of more than 6,700 children whom the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department, tracked from kindergarten in 1998-99 through eighth grade in 2006-07. The students were selected to represent all demographic groups, regions and income levels so as to closely mirror the actual U.S. school population. In surveys, parents were asked how many times their children were suspended through eighth grade. That is what Morgan relied on to conduct his analysis.

In addition to a child’s race, school poverty proved to be an important driver of suspensions in Morgan’s analysis. Regardless of a child’s disability status, a student was more likely to be suspended if he attended a school where many other students were from low-income families. Morgan said that stricter “zero tolerance” discipline policies may be more common at low-income schools.

Morgan is fond of using asthma as an analogy. Black children are more frequently diagnosed with asthma than white children but you probably wouldn’t accuse pediatricians of making racist diagnoses. Instead, you might reason that black children are more likely to live in poor housing and environmental conditions where they’re exposed to more allergens and those conditions are triggering the asthma. Substitute suspensions for asthma and you can get a sense of the logic. Schools might be suspending a high percentage of black boys with disabilities. But these black boys are more likely to be raised in low-income families with less educated parents, attend high-poverty schools and exhibit aggressive behaviors in kindergarten. It’s those other attributes that are more strongly associated with suspension rates regardless of a student’s disability status.

The study, “Are students with disabilities suspended more frequently than otherwise similar students without disabilities?,” has completed the peer-review process and is currently set for publication at The Journal of School Psychology. It is expected to be published online soon and I was given an advance copy.

But the conclusions and implications are controversial among those who say it remains important to monitor discipline rates among black students with disabilities. Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, says studies that “control” for so many other explanations, such as race, student behavior and school poverty, “take off the table all the things you’re concerned about.”

For example, the new study controls for how teachers rated each student’s behavior in kindergarten. That means one of the reasons this study finds no difference in suspension rates between children with disabilities and those without is because the researchers are comparing kids who were similarly aggressive, likely to hit, kick and fight.  Behavior ratings like these are not only susceptible to teachers’ racial biases, there’s also a big overlap between these kids who act out and those who eventually qualify for special education services. That complicates the analysis, statistically.

Related: Mississippi leads south in black student suspensions

At the same time, national data can mask wide variations on the local level, where some school districts may be suspending black boys with disabilities in much greater numbers. “If black kids are getting disproportionately suspended, that’s still wrong,” said Losen. “We should be identifying those districts and taking action.”

Losen and Morgan have previously disagreed over the subtleties of race and disabilities. In a previous body of research work , Morgan has made the case that black students aren’t over-classified as students with disabilities — something that the raw figures would also suggest. Instead, through the same methodology of comparing similar students, Morgan contended the opposite, that black students are under-identified for special education and not enough black kids are getting the support they need. That is, between white students and black students who present with the same behavioral issues and learning difficulties, black students are less likely to get an individualized education program.

This research debate is important because it could ultimately affect federal policy on reducing suspension rates. If you think that teachers are frustrated with behavioral outbursts related to disabilities, then you should be paying extra attention to these disability figures and focusing on interventions for students with disabilities. But if they’re not, then it’s a waste of resources and time that could otherwise be spent on the root causes of unfair suspensions.

Morgan doesn’t think his study is proof that DeVos is right. He admits that his data has problems and it’s not ideal to measure suspensions by what parents can remember. He would like confirmation from studies that use administrative data on suspensions. But it’s an indication that policymakers might be moving in the wrong direction if they’re trying to solve the school-to-prison pipeline by training teachers to do a better job of working with students with disabilities. Implicit or subconscious biases of teachers and strict disciplinary traditions in low-income neighborhoods might be bigger factors.

This story about school suspensions and learning disabilities was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

*Correction: This story has been changed throughout to correctly identify the category of students examined in the study. It is students with disabilities, not students with learning disabilities.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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The debate over students with disabilities, suspensions and race, represented my views fairly, but the article missed some critical points.

First there is well established research that demonstrates that suspensions from school are neither informative, nor useful interventions in most cases. To the contrary, they are highly predictive of dropping out and juvenile justice involvement. Suspensions are not really interventions, but are best though of as denial of access to education. This is why the Academy of American Pediatrics has a position statement saying they should be reserved as measures of last resort.

The IDEA, which is the law behind the regulations being debated, has, since 2004, told states to monitor districts for large disparities by race for those with disability status and to intervene if the level of disparity meets the state created standard for intervention. The law was passed with bi-partisan support and signed by Republican President Bush

The Obama administration developed regulations to strengthen the implementation of those parts of the law requiring states to monitor districts and for districts to shift the use of their federal IDEA funds. To clarify the record, President Obama did not create a new rule to address a problem that suddenly caught his personal attention in 2014. Congress was concerned about the problem well before then.

Another point that deserves greater emphasis because it is one of agreement, is that Morgan's research findings include his conclusion that Black students were likely disciplined more severely than similarly situated White students because of race. Morgan's conclusion applies equally, meaning it includes all Black students that also have disabilities. My disagreement with Morgan is that when he controls for things like behavioral ratings in kindergarten, he is assuming that those factors are free from both racism and that the the behaviors observed in kindergarten are not in fact manifestations of the students disability. Without these questionable controls his findings would likely be more robust. Simply put, Morgan overlooks a huge problem because if those kindergarten behaviors are manifestations of the children's disability then suspending them later because the exhibit disability linked behavior is likely unlawful. Instead, other educational responses designed to correct the behavior are warranted.

Finally, most readers will not understand that in those districts that states do flag, the IDEA funded interventions can and should address the root causes of the racial disparities as they are exist in that particular district. The district is tasked with figuring out what those root causes are. Moreover, the interventions are supposed to benefit both students with AND without disabilities. In fact the entire intervention prompted by the IDEA law could focus on trainings to diminish the impact from implicit racial bias. In sum, the federal policy being debated, by design, lets districts fashion the remedy.

Therefore, the core of the debate is not whether the cause of discipline disparities is either racial discrimination or a lack of supports and services for students with disabilities. Districts can choose to address both, or some other problem that they discovered on their own.

The real debate is whether the dramatic racial discipline disparities observed at the district level should ever be the subject of a system of state oversight, and if so, whether remedial interventions should be triggered. Ironically, I find that Morgan's findings suggests that the racial discipline disparities should not go without a remedy. On that issue I believe most can agree.

- from Dan Losen, Director the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA, Dec 11, 2018

Ms. Barshay,

I read your article and would like to counter some points made in your article. First, the school to prison pipeline is not a term just for researchers; it is the lived experience of too many students of color and students with disabilities through the over-criminalization in the school discipline process.

The Obama administration did not create a new rule for how states should monitor discipline rates of students with disabilities among racial and ethnic groups. I believe the rule you are referencing is significant disproportionality and it has been around pre-Obama. The rule is designed to ensure that districts look within when they identify, place in more restrictive settings, or discipline children from any racial or ethnic group at markedly higher rates than their peers. Each state was charged with developing a formula to identify disproportionality. And that was the problem; states developed widely varying formulas oftentimes letting systems off the hook for disproportionate impact. The Obama administration standardized the formula so that all states are using the same formula. This would have been a great for everyone. Systems could be easily targeted to receive support around identification and discipline. Now, only the students and families will suffer because districts aren’t getting needed support.

I contend that disabilities do compound the problem of increasing a black boy’s likelihood of getting suspended and for the same behavior as their non-disabled peers. One need only follow the extensive research and writing by Daniel Losen of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and Russell Skiba to fully understand the deep seated racism, ableism, and all-around bias black boys with a disability specifically, and black children generally, face every day in school. For far too many students of color, the disciplinarian at school is the same one in their community—the police. I refer to the numerous headlines about unarmed black people murdered by the police. The same justice in the streets happens in our schools. A child hasn’t died—yet, but they are slammed and tased for misbehavior. In Gwinnett County schools, black children are arrested for fighting, while their white peers may get in/out of school suspension. I also suggest that you read about the class action lawsuit filed against Georgia’s special education GNETS program.

I agree with Morgan that his data has problems and Losen that these types of studies “take off the table all the things you’re concerned about.” Gwinnett SToPP always encourages our parents and community members to dig deep for answers. I hope you and your readers will do so by not taking race and disability off the table.

Thank you.

Marlyn Tillman

Executive Director/Co-Founder

Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett SToPP)

- from Marlyn Tillman, Dec 11, 2018