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Jerry Webster

Students with Disabilities Are Disproportionately Punished

By June 15, 2010

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Delaware Online, an online news outlet for Wilmington News Journal, reports that 20% of students suspended or expelled in Delaware are students with disabilities, although they only represent 14% of all students.  The article reports that the problem is most reflected in students with "invisible disabilities," like children on the autistic spectrum.

The article also points out that children with disabilities are supposed to be protected by provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act that requires a Manifestation Determination Review. The fact that so many are still being expelled probably reflects the fact that districts:

  1. Ignore the law.
  2. Browbeat Parents.

I know from first hand experience.  My oldest boy has struggled with ADD.  He is very, very bright but also very impulsive and has a high need for excitement (you should see him on a snowboard.)  He also seems to get trapped in every disciplinary snare.  He was suspended for a week when he took a large jack knife on a school camp out (it had been his recently deceased grandfather's.)

He also got scooped up on a witch hunt when the local Dare Officer's daughter got caught with a crib sheet for rap songs with some rather illicit meanings.  Initially he was suspended for two weeks, which was changed to two days (Pennsylvania State law requires a due process hearing for a suspension longer than 3 days, which would have been a big disappointment.) We were then called into the local police station and browbeaten by the self same Dare Officer (who should not been involved in any way because of his daughter's involvement.)  Zach went into a Juvenile Deterrent Program, although the volunteer counselors for the program did a lot of snorting after stating that it was a simple school disciplinary and not a criminal problem.  Today I would get a lawyer and sue both the school district and the police department.

How many parents, like me, just try to get it over with?  How many kids become discouraged and give up, instead of learning appropriate ways to express frustration, avoid confrontations and calm themselves down?

The article in Delaware Online also notes that another need is for the state or the districts to provide positive behavior management skills to general education teachers.  Amen.  A lot of general education teachers are poorly prepared to provide positive behavior supports to students, especially needed by children with disabilities.  There is a lot of blaming directed at special educators and their charges by general education teachers.  They will say "I was never trained to deal with those children (insert appropriate degree of scorn.)"   Sorry, folks.  Least Restrictive Environment legally makes most of you legally responsible for the included child, not the special educator.

One of the things I would like to see would be Autism Speaks, the Autism Society of American would set up legal funds to challenge some of the craziness that parents deal with from districts.  One reader informed me her district informed her that she should move to a larger district because they would have to send her child away.  I wrote her she should have taken them up:  my residential program costs a district between $150,000 and $200,000 a child.  It would be cheaper to hire a single teacher than to send the child to a residential program. But, once again, districts will try to browbeat parents.

Will they ever learn?  I sure hope so.  I'm sure going to do my best to remind districts what their responsibility is to help these often difficult children how to succeed in social situations. Enough with the punishment!


June 17, 2010 at 12:14 am
(1) Laura says:

While setting up legal funds would help to provide a surplus of cash to aid in court action, I feel strongly that a more pragmatic approach would be to actively pursue class action lawsuits when the situation calls for it. These actions often pin legal expenses on the losing party, making the action accessibly without much funding. Thanks for the post, I found it incredibly empathetic as an individual who has had several friends and colleagues with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

June 17, 2010 at 1:21 pm
(2) CYOU says:

It is just as bad when the pendulum of discipline swings to the other extreme. Children with behavioral disorders allowed to run wild by both the school division and the court system. We all just need to remember that balance is what is best for everyone involved, including the student.

June 19, 2010 at 9:12 pm
(3) specialed says:

It is true that some districts (it was true of Philadelphia) let students with significant behavior problems run wild until they injure someone and then the county mental health organization can pay for “treatment,” but since the majority of special education students are learning disabled, I wonder if the problems are much less serious than would justify a “Emotional Support” placement.

June 21, 2010 at 2:41 pm
(4) HS teacher says:

Since our job as teachers (regular and SpEd) is to prepare kids for adulthood, “running wild” behaviors should warrant responses that teach the students better alternatives while making it clear that the behaviors are not to be tolerated. Getting the courts involved should be a last resort (because it is sometimes the only resort left), largely because, in my part of CT at least, the response is a stern talking to with threats of further action if it happens again or nothing much at all. I’ve had students return from court appearances almost cocky with victory because “they didn’t do anything to me…”. The whole idea of general education teachers having resposibility for all of their students is foreign to many of my colleagues and to be honest the “I haven’t been trained to deal” argument can apply to me just as well…

June 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm
(5) Maria M. says:


I recently compiled a list of the Top 40 Special Education Blogs, and I
just wanted to let you know that you made the list! It
is published online at

Thanks so much, and if you think your audience would find useful
information in the list or on the site, please feel free to share the
link. The blog is just starting up, so we always appreciate a linkback
as we’re trying to increase readership.

Thanks again, and have a great day!

Maria Magher

June 24, 2010 at 11:50 am
(6) Rochelle says:

The problem is that law also states that students who commit a crime are not to be exempt. the loophole is that schools claim crime instead of first establishing manifestation of disability as opposed to wilful crikinal action. It would be the court creating circumstances for change of placement … not the district, so they get around manifestation determination mandate.

June 27, 2010 at 1:05 pm
(7) Michael says:

There ought to be a balance between punishing inappropriate behavior regardless of whether or not a student has a disability but also realizing that students with learning disabilities have special needs that may not be best served by traditional methods of discipline. It is surprising to learn that school districts seem to ignore the laws that are meant to protect kids with special needs from overly harsh punishments. There ought to be an emphasis on, for lack of a better word, rehabilitation so that special needs students are given the help they need so that they can lead productive lives.

June 27, 2010 at 3:14 pm
(8) dgovert says:

I find the statistics given at the beginning of this blog entry to be very eye opening, and alarming for children in these situations. There seems to be something going wrong with communication between administrators in school systems to miss this.

June 30, 2010 at 10:07 am
(9) Andrea says:

Decades of research suggest that quality of teachers, class size and targeted/individualized programming works to the advantage of all learners.
Yet teacher preparation, growing class sizes and
politcally pressured standardization have underminded
education in America. The legal system is far more expensive than the educational system (i.e. the cost of one lawyer ,$100.00 an hour; the average for teachers is $23.00 an hour). It is complexly a matter of public will, professional growth and allocation of resources. Until education becomes a national priority we will all suffer and pay dearly for the consequences.

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