#RethinkDiscipline: Students of color with disabilities can’t learn if they’re not in school

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at ACLU-PA, offered comment on the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in public schools today before the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Here is his statement.

Harold Jordan of ACLU-PA with Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at today’s briefing on school discipline in Washington, D.C.

Thank you for this opportunity to address the Commission on a matter of great importance to students and families in Pennsylvania, the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in our public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has reviewed discipline and law enforcement data, addressed relevant policy issues, and participated in discussions with school communities and education decision-makers. I’ve had the privilege of serving on a committee of Pennsylvania’s Developmental Disabilities Council, a state agency which has provided grants to programs that address the school-to-prison pipeline’s impact on students with disabilities.

Pennsylvania’s patterns of punishment of students of color with disabilities parallels national trends:

  • Black students with disabilities receive out of school suspensions at the highest rates of any group of students. Some 22 percent of Black students with disabilities were suspended at least once. In fact, the profile of the PA student who is most likely to be suspended is a Black male student with a disability. Black and Latino students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other group.
  • Roughly a dozen districts suspend between 40 percent and 75 percent of Black students with disabilities.
  • Similar patterns of punishment are reflected in contact with law enforcement and arrest.
  • Overidentification, misidentification and under-identification of students of color remains a significant problem.
  • Also problematic is the failure of schools to conduct manifestation reviews and to provide appropriate individualized education supports.

The result is the excessive punishment of students of color, especially those who have disabilities.

Parents and guardians have great difficulty exercising their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act. It is challenging for them to ensure that their children are treated fairly and receive constructive supports and services.

We ask the commission to:

1) Urge the U.S. Department of Education to implement the “Equity in IDEA” rule (significant disproportionality) fully and on schedule.

2) Urge local education agencies to establish protocols that address interactions between law enforcement and students with disabilities. These should:

  • Limit contact between police and students with disabilities. No elementary school student should be handed over to law enforcement.
  • Require any law enforcement working in schools to get extensive training on how to de-escalate conflicts and how to work with youth, and youth with disabilities.
  • Protect the privacy rights of students with disabilities.
  • Require training for school staff on how to better work with students of color with disabilities and de-escalate conflicts, instead of turning to law enforcement to force compliance.

3) Urge state and local education agencies to do more rigorous monitoring of the use restraint and seclusion practices, and to make that information available to the public.