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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.” 

Related:Hidden expulsions? Schools kick students out but call it a ‘transfer’

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. 

Related:Some kids have returned to in-person learning only to be kicked right back out

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. 

Rosalind Crawford and her five sons hug each other in their Greater St. Louis area home on June 10, 2023. The boys have shared the space since October for virtual learning after they were sent home indefinitely by their school district. Credit: Zachary Clingenpeel for The Hechinger Report 

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.

Related: How the pandemic has altered school discipline — perhaps forever

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.” 

Related: When typical middle school antics mean suspensions, handcuffs or jail

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.” 

Rosalind Crawford holds two worksheets she printed off for her sons in Greater St. Louis area home on June 10, 2023. Crawford found the worksheets online and printed them off to suplement her children’s education after her five sons were indefinitely sent home for virtual learning by their school district. Credit: Zachary Clingenpeel for The Hechinger Report 

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.” 

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Letters to the Editor

15 Letters

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  1. As soon as the parents of these out of control kids figure out a way to keep MY kids from being affected, I will be concerned. We can’t sacrifice a whole class for one kid who can’t follow the rules. Seems like a great solution to me.

  2. We don’t allow every individual to get a driver’s licence just because it is nice to have the freedom that having one brings, you have to prove driving skills. To attend school requires prerequisite skills too. With large numbers of children and few adults, students are not able to learn when others haven’t mastered basic skills such as respect for others, property, authority, and rules. Kids make mistakes sure, but when you are talking about continuous patterns of severe behaviour that affect others, they should lose the privilege to attend. This is especially true when interventions the schools can realistically try, aren’t working. I would like to see more schools implement a virtual option for children that prevent others from learning and/or place staff and students in harm’s way. Some may say to just hire more counselors and therapists, but this takes away the focus from academics and we seem to be lacking data on this approach. How much counseling would be required? If the parents, peer groups, and communities aren’t reinforcing the behaviors and thought patterns counselors are attempting to teach, will the child benefit from it enough to be able to learn in a school community with his peers and teachers? What is the probability of long term success involving significant behavior changes after intervention and how much will these interventions cost? It seems to me that parents should have more accountability. The parent is responsible for teaching respect and valuing learning. The school staff is responsible for modeling appropriate behavior and teaching academics. The schools cannot do their jobs until parents do theirs.

  3. Having taught in inner-city schools for over fifty years, I believe that transferring a disruptive, violent student to virtual learning is one of the few ways to protect the other students and teachers from physical and emotional harm. It also removes one of the obstacles to the other children learning. The schools are unable to transform a violent student into a cooperative school citizen. I believe in transferring a violent child to virtual learning for the benefit of the other students in the school. It is an unfortunate measure, but in many cases, it is necessary.

  4. It would be great if all the attorneys and other advocates would be required to be a substitute teacher for a few days each year in an inner city school. Until they have walked a mile in the shoes of someone who was trained to impart knowledge into young minds and not referee MMA brawls, they should have no opinions on this issue. Better yet, until it is their child who becomes an injured bystander of someone else’s misbehavior they feel perfectly justified in their privilege.

    I guess it doesn’t matter though as long as it doesn’t personally affect them or their families. I am praying for the day when the parents of the students who do the right thing and come to school excited to learn band together and force this broken educational system to acknowledge that there has to be a better way. We cannot continue to pick and choose which students can afford to be sacrificed for the comfort of others.

  5. This sounds like a great solution. Why do we care about one disruptive student more than their 30-40 peers who actually want to learn? Sure, all students have a right to an education. And there should be some appeal system. But how many times have we seen a single student derail an entire classroom? Let the parents deal with the problem they created. It should not be the burden of other children and overworked teachers. We are losing teachers. We should be trying to retain them.

  6. I believe every student should be entitled to an education in a public school financed by state and federal funds. That said, no one student or group of students has the right to disrupt the learning of the other students. So there is a two way street here! Disruptive students take away time and teacher focus from the others. Many times, disruptive students behavior encourages some others to join in causing more time and energy taken away from the learning environment. This has been an ongoing situation in our public schools for decades and is in my opinion the root cause of the decline and low quality of education in the U.S. today. A solution from Administrators is to try this new program or that new method of teaching which has proven slow and inconsistent gains. Getting back to the discussion in this article, virtual learning in the classroom puts the responsibility back on the student(s) and the parents cooperation. It is restitution for the damage the individual has caused in the classroom. “Taking responsibility for your own learning.” It’s really too nice to be considered punishment. Just maybe our teachers could go back to teaching rather than patrolling the class. And don’t be blindsided by our politicians promises to focus and improve our school systems. The goal now seems to be to leave the public schools behind and choose private, Christian, or Charter schools causing more class division in our nation. We already know intelligence is not blessed by race or family income.
    What is the REAL reason for decline in public education?

  7. They admit that the child is disruptive, curses at her teachers. Instead of relying on the school to deal with the “underlying issues” it might be time for the family to deal with them instead. Just because it’s public school doesn’t give a child the right to interfere with other children when they want to learn. I’m sorry, I can’t find anyway to be sympathetic to this child’s plight. Maybe if they behaved this wouldn’t be their reality.

  8. Yes this is the best solution, these kids don’t want to learn and they’re disrupting the class for kids who come to school to learn, kick them out, the parents need to deal with them at home and give them some discipline. I’m for it. I raised my kids to know that you go to school to learn and not to play, or act stupid. So as far as I’m concerned let them learn at home, they’ve shown that they don’t want to participate in school and it’s not up to the school officials to figure out what’s wrong with your kid, you ought to know you’re the one raising them!!!

  9. As a middle school teacher I know first hand how difficult it is to teach the students who want to learn, when my time and energy are constantly stolen by the ones who are angry, defiant, disruptive, and sometimes even violent. I have dealt with students who curse at me and each other, who overturn chairs in anger, and who refuse to comply with any classroom norms or expectations. Yet in the same classroom are students who are trying their best to get an education, surrounded by disruptive peers who slow the progress of an entire class. If this virtual option was standard procedure when the usual detentions or three day suspensions do not result in real behavioral changes, those who are trying to learn would surely benefit. Shouldn’t the rights of the well behaved students matter too?Those who argue against that, and see this virtual learning option as an injustice for the disruptive children, should consider how they would feel if their own children had to be in a classroom with this kind of peer. Trauma and hardship are not excuses, because the children who behave and try to learn each day are often equally suffering from trauma and hardship. Parents/guardians need to take more ownership of this situation, rather than seeking an attorney’s help to force the school to continue to “deal with it”. Furthermore, the students “falling behind because of virtual learning” are also falling behind when they are present, because they are disrupting the class, not listening to instruction or completing assigned work. The difference is that when they are present instead of virtual, they put the brakes on learning for everyone in the room, and all of their peers will fall behind with them. Attending a physical school with others is something that requires a social contract, with behavioral expectations met for the good of all. When a student’s behavior affects another’s right to learn in a safe and peaceful environment, that student should absolutely be assigned to a virtual learning format. If only this became standard operating procedure in every American school district, we might not have such extensive teacher shortages, and our schools would be more successful. Many teachers are choosing to leave schools with excessively disrespectful and disruptive students, because as adults we can seek other options. But the children who want to learn, and are stuck with those disruptive peers, quite often have no alternatives. Our school systems must start to put the rights of the well behaved children first.

  10. We need to teach Parenting skills. Of my 30 yrs of teaching. We have to hold Parents accountable. It all start at home. You have Babies raising Babies. You have to start at the root of the problem, “PARENTS”. And another of these Children are coming from broken homes.

  11. Do you see a trend in these replies? I do! Parents are fed up with their kids’ learning being less important than that of disruptive kids. Some disruptive students are in special ed. My disruptive son was. But back then, 20 years ago, students slowly transitioned from special day class to general ed. Now, full inclusion dumps students in gen ed classes without adequate support, too many firecrackers in one box. I say “dumps” because that’s what “placement” becomes in practice, thoughtless. How is this fair to special ed students or their classmates? I sub now, after 15 years of teaching, and I have seen in the past five years how full-inclusion is changing the classroom, mostly for the worse. This spring, I cleared a classroom because a third-grader threatened to throw a stapler, after throwing books. In this class, 5 students of 30 had IEPs. Some stayed in class but “worked” on virtual assignments while disrupting class! Some could watch videos as a coping tool. C’mon! Virtual learning at home beats this! My son got counseling and coping strategies. By high school he was in regular ed with no suspensions. All children need the system to return to special day, counseling and gradual, supported release to regular ed. Solve this, and there will be time and energy for helping disruptive students who are in regular ed, maybe even on campus.

  12. “They’d rather send her home than worl on the issues she is going through.” It’s not the schools responsibilities to work on her issues. It’s your job as a parent to work on your kid’s issues and thst includes getting them into counseling if need be, seeing a doctor about medication if appropriate, and the parent teaching them how to communicate and handle their frustrations in an appropriate manner. This grandmother is looking to the wrong place to fix her kid.

  13. There is missing information here. The “laundry list” of requirements to return is included to sound burdensome, but why did the school require them? I have seen similar requirements placed on students who have histories of leaving campus, bringing dangerous items to school, vandalizing bathrooms, wandering the halls to disrupt as many classes as possible, and becoming involved in altercations during transitions. They are not rules schools implement lightly because they are equally burdensome on staff.

    Lack of documentation is something to be concerned about, but the only concerning action that directly affected students (given the lack of information about the behaviors that triggered these consequences) is the supposed removal of students based on their siblings actions, which makes me think that she did, in fact, say something to the school about switching to online instruction and they called her bluff.

  14. Perhaps the editors should do a follow up piece on the amount of education lost to the other students in class due to a disruptive student.

  15. If the kids are keeping other children from learning, send them home. Parents need to step up and raise their children and discipline them and not expect teachers to do that job. Let the disruptive children know that this is not how you behave in public. Their fault, they pay, not the other students.

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