75 Percent of Texas Special Ed Students Suspended or Expelled
The majority of special education students in Texas, which has the second-largest public school system in the US, have been suspended, expelled or both, at least once, says a new study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. A total of 75 percent of middle and high school students with disabilities in Texas have faced such disciplinary measures; 55 percent of students without a disability have been suspended or expelled.
In other words, for students in grades seven to twelve in Texas, you’re in the minority if you graduate without being suspended or expelled.
The study also found that the punishments were issued disproportionately based on students’ race, abilities and school, according to an analysis by Nirvi Shah at EdWeek. 75 percent of African-American students had been expelled or suspended, compared to 50 percent of white students.
The study, “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement,” was conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. The researchers looked at the discipline and criminal records of all Texas students who were seventh graders in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and tracked them through a year past the date at which they would have graduated with their class. While the study is only about one state, the researchers argue that it has “implications for the rest of the country because Texas has the second-largest public school system in the country and one where almost two-thirds of students are nonwhite.”
In contrast, an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found that countries that tend to suspend or expel students with low academic performance “tend to have weaker, more expensive, and more socially inequitable education systems.” OECD indeed found that one in ten US students repeats a grade. In contrast, fewer than three percent of students in 13 countries including Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom report students ever repeating a grade. Finland and Korea, whose students are top-performing countries, Finland and Korea, do not allow students to repeat grades. These are impressive figures, but it’s necessary to consider how these country’s educational systems address the needs of students with disabilities and also students with behavior issues.
For special education students in Texas, punishments differed based on their disability. More than 90 percent of students with emotional-behavior disorders were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, and half had been suspended or expelled at least eleven times. 76 percent of students with a learning disability were suspended or expelled; 63 percent with a physical disability; and 37 percent of students with autism or mental retardation.
As Shah writes on EdWeek, “for all students with a disability, less than 2 percent of their actions required suspension or expulsion by state law, similar to what was true for all students regardless of whether they had a disability.” For students without a disability, only 3 percent were for behavior that is required to be punished with such measures according to Texas law.
Furthermore, 15 percent of students had been suspended or expelled repeatedly, a figure that puts into question current procedures for disciplining them. Currently, disciplinary procedures include sending students to an alternative school and also simply not having them attend school — that is, nothing. Should school districts not be more pro-active in helping students who’ve been suspended or expelled by reintegrated into public schools? Writes Shah:
“Seeing how common it is for students to be suspended or expelled … we probably can do better,” [Michael D. Thompson, director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Justice Center] said. Also, the study raises concerns about how nearly half the students disciplined 11 or more times also were in contact with the Texas juvenile justice system, raising the specter of the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline.
In addition, at schools within Texas with similar demographics, the use of the punishments varied widely, “indicating, I think, that it’s possible by relying less on suspensions and expulsions to reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” he said.
Suzanne Machmann, a spokesperson for the Texas Education Industry, said that the study suggests that educators and others need to reassess how they are addressing student discipline:
In particular, if students’ punishment entails being sent to an alternative setting or juvenile justice setting, school districts need to be sure the teaching at those schools is high quality, she said.
“School districts need to take a closer look at the level of instruction that’s taking place at these alternative settings when [students are] punished so when [students] are released back to districts they’re not behind academically and they’re not frustrated,” she said, triggering a cycle of misbehavior that sends a student back to one of those alternate settings.
In regard to students with disabilities, the report should be a wake-up call to schools to revisit how they are addressing special ed students’ behavior issues: Are they simply punishing students or using positive behavior supports and other pro-active methods to help students with disabilities better manage their behaviors? The study notes that the decision to suspend or expel a student also seems to rest too much on the decisions of administrators at individual schools; should there not be statewide policies? Are we really seeking to educate all students, or simply shuffling those with “problem behaviors” off to alternative school and juvenile justice settings without intervening?
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Photo of entrance to school in Douglass, Texas by Jeff Attaway