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The phone call from her son’s school was alarming. The assistant principal told her to come to the school immediately.

But when Lisa Manwell arrived at Pioneer Middle School in Plymouth, Michigan, her son wasn’t sick or injured. He was sitting calmly in the principal’s office.  

John, who has ADHD and finds it soothing to fidget during class, had been removed from the classroom after he refused to stop using a pair of safety scissors to cut his cuticles.

When she asked why he couldn’t stay for the rest of the day, Manwell said the school told her they would call child protective services if she didn’t take him home.

The call was just one of a dozen that Manwell received last fall telling her John couldn’t stay in school because of behaviors she says stemmed from his disability. Many schools have promised to cut down on suspensions, since kids can’t learn as well when they aren’t in class. But none of these pickups were ever recorded as suspensions, despite the missed class time.  

The practice is known as informal removal, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as an action taken by school staff in response to a child’s behavior that excludes the child for part or all of the school day – or even indefinitely.

Related: Senators call for stronger rules to reduce off-the-books suspensions

Excessive use of informal removals amounts to a form of off-the-books discipline — a de facto denial of education that evades accountability, advocates and legal experts say. It has special implications for kids with disabilities: Informally removing these students circumvents federal law that protects them from being disciplined or barred from class for behaviors related to their disability.

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.

Since the pandemic began, parents of kids with disabilities say the practice is on the rise, denying their kids their legal right to an education.

“This is a repeat issue that we see in enforcement across the country, over years,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for the department’s Office for Civil Rights. “And that means that the practice has taken hold in a way that is dangerous for students and needs to be addressed.”

“We do not want our school communities to be sending a message that there’s some category of kids who can’t be there.” 

 Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education

In July, the department issued guidance on discriminatory practices in discipline for students with disabilities. Lhamon said the guidance included informal removals because of how often they appeared in the office’s investigations of complaints against school districts. Informal removals can happen through frequent parent pickups, shortened school days or hours spent in “time-out” rooms.

The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report interviewed 20 families in 10 states who described being called repeatedly and at all hours of the school day to pick up their children. In some cases, parents were called less than an hour into the school day. Others said they had to leave work to get their child so frequently they lost their jobs. Many felt they had no choice but to change schools, or even districts.

Related: Why disability testing has become so expensive

Because the removals aren’t recorded, there’s no way to quantify how often they happen. But the National Disability Rights Network says it has seen an increase during the pandemic.

Teacher shortages mean there are fewer staffers available to do evaluations and provide services for students with disabilities, creating “more of an incentive or more of a push for getting kids with behavioral needs out,” said Dan Stewart, the organization’s managing attorney for education and employment.

Students of color with a disability appear to be disproportionately affected based on anecdotal reports to the network from disability rights advocates around the country.

Children are not supposed to be removed from classrooms for extended periods of time without recording the action as a suspension, although it happened to John Jinks a dozen times last year. Credit: Paul Sancya for The Associated Press

“It’s pervasive,” said Ginny Fogg, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, “And the reason for that is that most parents don’t know their rights, and the consequence for the school system is not enough to make them not do it.

“The remedy isn’t, ‘You just can’t go to school,’” she added. “The law was enacted 50 years ago to prevent this very outcome — that students with disabilities aren’t allowed to go to school and participate in an education.”

Manwell said the calls from her son’s school felt relentless.

“They would be calling my personal phone, my work phone. They were calling my husband, who works nights,” said Manwell, a resource planner at Ford Motor Company. “It was impossible. I couldn’t function. I never knew when they were going to call or what was going to happen.”

An official from the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district in Michigan where John goes to school said he couldn’t comment on specific student issues, citing federal student privacy law.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Rethinking claims of racial bias in special education

Federal law protects students with disabilities from being repeatedly disciplined or removed from school for behaviors related to their disability. If they are suspended for more than 10 days, families are entitled to a meeting with the school to determine whether the behaviors are a result of the child’s disability. If so, then the school must offer adjustments instead of suspension. For example, if a child’s disability makes it difficult for them to focus in a loud classroom with dozens of other children, the parent has the right to request a quieter classroom or one with fewer children.

The Education Department’s July guidance made clear that children who are informally removed have the same rights, such as reviews of whether the student’s behavior was a result of their disability, as those who have been officially suspended.  

Tricia Ellinger says she would have requested a hearing to make sure her 10-year-old daughter Cassie was getting appropriate services and support, had she known that her frequent removals from the classroom amounted to suspensions.

One day last spring, she received three phone calls in rapid succession, telling her to immediately pick up Cassie from Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School in Emmett, Idaho. When she arrived, her daughter was sitting quietly in the school’s resource room eating a snack. She says a school staff member told her that Cassie was refusing to do her work and needed to go home.

“When I got her in the car, I asked her, ‘Cass, what happened? Did you tear up your notebook, did you throw your pencil?’” Ellinger recalled. “She said, ‘No, it was just hard. Math is hard.’”

The call was one of about 20 Ellinger says she got last year from the school, which is designed specifically to educate students with disabilities. She says her daughter was also taken out of class repeatedly and kept in a room by herself. None of the removals were recorded as suspensions.

“The remedy isn’t, ‘You just can’t go to school.’ The law was enacted 50 years ago to prevent this very outcome — that students with disabilities aren’t allowed to go to school and participate in an education.” 

Ginny Fogg, attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina

Emmett School District Superintendent Craig Woods said he couldn’t comment, citing federal student privacy law.  

Families often do not know what grounds they have to lodge a complaint, Lhamon said. Sometimes they aren’t aware their child should not have been suspended in the first place.  

“That is so concerning when schools are excluding students for reasons that are unlawful,” she said. “We want our kids to be in class, learning with other students, fully participant and respected as learners. We do not want our school communities to be sending a message that there’s some category of kids who can’t be there.”  

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

Manwell said most of the calls she got last year from her son’s school were a result of bullying.  On the fourth day of school John got shoved in the locker room, and she got a call to pick him up. Another time, he went to the bathroom and another student threatened to beat him up.  

Because of his disability, John was supposed to be granted access to a quiet room so he could recover from difficult incidents. But often, she said, either there wasn’t a room or when he didn’t want to return to class, she’d get a call to come pick him up.

“It was just the stress of never knowing what I was sending my kid into each day. I was worrying the whole time he was gone,” said Manwell. “I could see the damage.”

“He was withdrawing. He started talking about hurting himself,” she said, her voice breaking.  

In January, she made the decision to switch John to homebound instruction, sending him to a tutoring center every day for a couple of hours and rearranging her work schedule.  It made her life more predictable, she said, and John began to act like his old self.  

She said she’d like to send him back to school but doesn’t trust what will happen.

“You want to protect your kids, right?” she said. “I just can’t send him to a school where he won’t be safe.”

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

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Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

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  1. If a child shows evidence or behavior that makes him a risk to harm himself or others, they should be removed for the protection of the students around them. If a child cannot thrive in a traditional school environment it is the onus of the parent, not the school, to find an appropriate learning facility for their child.

  2. It may be your personal opinion that the burden should fall on the parent, but it is absolutely not in line with federal disability education law, which requires public schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all students with disabilities. Not only that, the article clearly shows that the students in question were not a danger to themselves or their classmates. They were simply considered a burden or a disruption. (I’m a teacher, and have heard plenty of similar stories from parents.)

  3. I am a teacher as well and I get that schools are supposed to provide FAPE but there are limits to that. I agree that informal removals that aren’t documented are not the solution and violate the law. But what is a school, or school staff, supposed to do when a student needs more support and accommodations than the school is able to give? At some point there are students that need specialized programs that can provide the kind of supports that some children need and that may require that the parent enroll the student in a different school.

  4. I agree with both Chris and Skylar. Parent responsibilities do not stop at the school door, and FAPE does protect students with disabilities. I hope readers will consider that there are two sides to a story. This article could easily lead readers to believe the referenced school districts are not commenting due to covering up bad decisions. In reality school employees and district officials are not permitted to comment on student discipline or investigations due to laws protecting children/family privacy. Maybe the referenced child with scissors was trying to cut the cuticles of other students and staff. Districts would not be allowed to share this. I hope readers will also consider the following three points. First, schools are not trained, staffed, nor funded to effectively deal with students with significant behaviors. Second, there is a national teacher shortage and with even a smaller pool interested in working with students that are routinely physically aggressive or extremely disrespectful toward students and staff, regardless of disability. Third, schools should be accountable to document suspensions appropriately and make every effort to redirect behavior at school. But to what expense? The beauty of FAPE is the advocacy and rights of the individual student. Unfortunately, FAPE fails to recognize the needs of all students served within a school, particularly when the child is a harm, or creates a routine disruption to the class/school.

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