It wasn’t the first time Ventrese Curry’s granddaughter had gotten into trouble at school. A seventh grader at a charter school in St. Louis, Missouri, she had a long history of disrupting her classes and getting into confrontations with teachers. Several times, the school issued a suspension and sent Curry’s granddaughter home.
In each instance, the school followed state law: The punishment was officially recorded and assigned a set length of time, Curry was formally notified and she and her granddaughter had a chance to appeal the decision.
But one day in February, after refusing to go into her classroom and allegedly cursing at her teachers, the seventh grader was sent home to learn online indefinitely. Curry said she wasn’t given any sense of when her granddaughter would be able to return to the classroom, just that the school and administrators would determine the best learning environment for her. In the meantime, the middle schooler would be left to keep up with her schoolwork on her own, on a district-issued tablet that Curry says would often lock her granddaughter out.
“They’d rather send her home than work on the issues she was going through,” Curry said. “She missed out on a lot of work, a whole lot. It makes me feel bad. It wasn’t fair at all, the way they were treating her.”
“There’s a pattern that the easiest solution is to remove a student rather than deal with the underlying issues.”Sabrina Bernadel, legal counsel at the National Women’s Law Center
Lawyers and advocates across the country say that the practice of forcing a student out of the physical school building and into online learning has emerged as a troubling — and largely hidden — legacy of the pandemic’s shift to virtual learning. Critics charge that these punishments can deprive students and their families of due process rights. Students risk getting stuck in deficient online programs for weeks or even months without the support they need and falling behind in their academics. Sometimes, there is no system in place for tracking how many students are being punished this way or how many days of in-person classroom learning they are forced to miss.
“We are speaking about an equal right, an equal opportunity to access education,” said Sabrina Bernadel, legal counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Instead of taking traditional or legal pathways,” she said, “there’s a pattern that the easiest solution is to remove a student rather than deal with the underlying issues.”
In 2020, nearly every school district in the nation was forced to come up with a way of providing education online. Later, as students returned to in-school learning, that infrastructure remained, making it easier than ever for districts to remove students from the classroom but say they were still educating them. The pandemic showed, however, that the quality of virtual instruction varies greatly and that online classes work best for only a minority of students; vast learning loss and student setbacks resulted.
Still, districts nationwide are now placing students in online learning in response to misbehavior, in a process referred to in certain circles as “virtualization.”
Some school districts consider virtual learning an alternative to discipline — not a form of discipline itself. Other districts embrace virtualization as a disciplinary measure and have started to develop official policies around using this punishment.
In Clayton County School District, outside Atlanta, “misdeeds” committed by a student can lead to mandatory online learning until “behavior challenges are identified and mitigated,” according to a statement provided over email by Charles White, a district spokesperson. He said that virtual assignments are intended to be temporary and not to serve as in-school suspensions “or elimination of the expected learning experience.”
In Toppenish School District in Washington State, serving Yakima County, however, the transfer of a student to online learning for 10 to 20 school days is used as a top-tier disciplinary sanction, according to its student handbook. This action is considered a “long-term out-of-school suspension” and is to be used only after a number of other less drastic methods have failed to achieve behavior change, the handbook says. The district did not respond to requests for comment.
“I have worked on a lot of cases where the attorney gets involved, and suddenly the school lets the kids back in, no questions asked. They aren’t making any arguments as to why the child should be out of school — because they have none.”Maggie Probert, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri
Paula Knight, superintendent of Jennings School District in Missouri, said students can be placed in online learning for anywhere from a few hours to a full semester as a punishment, calling the virtual option a “game changer” in how the district is able to deliver instruction.
An afternoon away from the classroom in virtual learning is “almost like a restoration practice, giving them an opportunity to cool down or cool off,” Knight said. For other students, virtualization has its “pluses and minuses,” she said. “It just depends. When the kids are academically on target, for example, you don’t want them to lose that momentum, and we allow [virtual] as an option.”
Knight said that online learning has not yet been written into the district’s disciplinary code, but that there are plans to incorporate it more formally at some point. Currently, students are recommended for involuntary virtual learning by the principal, she said, and these placements are tracked aggregately along with suspensions, which makes identifying the particular impact of virtualization difficult.
Rosalind Crawford moved her five young boys, all in elementary and middle school, to Jennings, just north of St. Louis, in the spring of 2022. A single mom, Crawford left her longtime home of Memphis to get her family away from gun violence near their home. She enrolled her boys in the local schools that April.
It wasn’t long before she started hearing about two of the boys getting into trouble. Crawford said she could see that they were dealing with trauma and struggling to behave in school as a result. She also believes they were being bullied. She says she met with administrators several times to raise concerns about her kids’ relationships with their peers and their performance in school.
After a fight broke out involving two of her children and other classmates in October 2022, Crawford and her lawyers say all five of her kids were placed on virtual learning.
Jennings School District officials did not respond to follow-up questions about Crawford’s case, but a letter addressed to the family said that the boys were transferred to home-school learning at Crawford’s request. She denies making this request and says she sought legal help to get them back into school.
In the meantime, Crawford said, the boys were provided with laptops and Google Classroom access.
For the better part of the school year, they tried to learn from home. Crawford says that sometimes they only received two lessons per week and that there was no teacher instruction, which made it hard for them to learn. She watched as they fell behind in everything from academic courses to physical education. Her sixth grader soon was at risk of being unable to move up to seventh grade in fall 2023.
“I feel like a failure. How do you tell your kids — when you see the devastation — that this isn’t their fault?” Crawford said. “Virtual learning is basically putting the kids somewhere [the school doesn’t] have to deal with them.”
“I feel like a failure. How do you tell your kids — when you see the devastation — that this isn’t their fault.”Rosalind Crawford, parent of children placed on virtual learning
Ventrese Curry’s granddaughter was also in danger of falling behind due to the amount of schoolwork she missed while learning virtually, her grandmother said. In all, she missed nearly a month of school.
“They never gave her homework. I was calling every day asking if they could give me a package of her work,” she said. “They were telling me she might have to repeat the same grade.”
The school did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The stakes of such discipline playing out in schools across the country “are fairly enormous,” said Sara Zier from TeamChild, a youth advocacy organization in Washington State that also provides legal services. Lost classroom time reduces social and emotional skills, hinders academic progress and can decrease a student’s likelihood of graduating; lower levels of education can lead to lower employment and financial prospects in adulthood. “It’s not something we can solve by representing one kid at a time,” she said. “It’s a much bigger challenge.”
Yet because many schools don’t separate virtualization from other suspensions or, in some cases, even record it as a removal from the classroom, it’s almost impossible to know how often it’s happening and to whom.
For example, although Clayton County uses virtual learning as a disciplinary tool, the district has no records of how many students have been put into online programs involuntarily.
Hopey Fink, a lawyer at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said, “We suspect that there is an attempt to obscure and euphemize the suspension data that’s kind of embedded in part of this” in order to evade accountability. Without data, advocates like Fink worry that disproportionate disciplinary measures against already-marginalized groups could be hiding in plain sight.
In the 2015-2016 school year, Black students lost 103 days of learning per 100 students, 82 more days than their white peers.
Typically, discipline overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities. Research from the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies, using data from the 2015-16 school year, concluded that Black students lost 103 days of learning per 100 students, 82 more days than their white peers. Another study found that Latino students were more likely to receive disciplinary action than white students. U.S. Department of Education data from the 2017-18 school year shows that students with disabilities accounted for 16 percent of total enrollment but received 25 percent of in-school suspensions and 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Disparities for Black students with disabilities were even worse.
“We can only extrapolate” that disparities are comparable in other newer forms of discipline, such as virtualization, said Bernadel of the National Women’s Law Center. “Without formal data, we can’t speak to that directly and address that problem, and it’s a huge issue.”
Getting back into the classroom after being placed on virtual learning can be more difficult than returning after a suspension. Lawyers in Washington State say clients have been required to make behavioral and academic improvement in a virtual setting before returning to the classroom, and when students do return, they’re typically saddled with cumbersome and alienating rules.
Documents show a laundry list of requirements that a middle-schooler in Washington’s Toppenish School District would need to re-enroll in brick-and-mortar classes: pick-up and drop-off in the main office; random student searches; escorted transition times five minutes before class is over; and chaperoned bathroom trips with a staff member, among others.
For Crawford’s children to return to the classroom in the Jennings School District, she and two of her sons were required to participate in a conflict resolution program through the St. Louis County Juvenile Courts, according to a November 7, 2022, letter from the Jennings School District superintendent and security director. Failure to do so risked “further disciplinary action” that could result in “virtual learning for the remainder of the 2022-2023 school year.”
In all, it took nearly five months and a lawyer’s involvement for Crawford to get her kids reenrolled. The boys also needed to sign a behavior contract, but were ultimately admitted back into the classroom in March.
Indeed, family and student advocates say that the legal credibility of this practice of virtualization is fragile. If families are able to get legal support, school districts tend to quickly allow the student to reenroll, said Maggie Probert from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. But even free legal aid can be difficult for already-vulnerable families to access.
Probert worked with Curry to get her granddaughter back into her regular classes after more than three weeks of online learning.
“I have worked on a lot of cases where the attorney gets involved, and suddenly the school lets the kids back in, no questions asked,” Probert said. “They aren’t making any arguments as to why the child should be out of school — because they have none.”
This story about online learning and school discipline was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.