The Scourge of Suspending Kids with Disabilities


I read an article in the NY Times this past week that made me really angry.  I don’t tend to get angry much….irritated, frustrated, outraged, yes, but not often angry.  Some of you may have seen the article, Suspensions Are Higher for Disabled Students, Federal Data Indicate.  I spent a lot of years in special ed, and these kids are close to my heart.

The fact that suspensions are higher for kids with disabilities isn’t really a big surprise.  But the fact that kids with disabilities are TWICE as likely to be suspended as their typically-developing peers and that black kids with disabilities are the most-frequently suspended (one out of every four black children with a disability is suspended at least once during the school year) was extremely disturbing to me.  One example given in the article is of the Chicago Public Schools where 63% of their black students with disabilities were suspended at least once in 2009-2010.

I want to set aside the issue raised in the article about suspension as a predictor of drop-out and later incarceration.  I’ll even leave aside the fact cited that kids with disabilities make up a large proportion of kids in the juvenile justice system.  Because, as alarming as those pieces are, they’re not the part that I’m angry about.

I’m angry about two things.

First, what in God’s name are we doing trying to punish kids for behavior problems by making them leave school?  Especially kids with disabilities?  We, as a society, have agreed that kids with diagnosed disabilities need more support, because otherwise we wouldn’t have laws, like the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, that mandate the services these kids get.  We have all this tax money going into giving these kids what they need and then, when a kid has a behavior problem, we send him home and don’t let him come to school??  I’m sorry.  Isn’t that why we have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place for the kid in the first place?  Because I’ve written plenty of IEPs and they include behavior plans.  And never once have I seen an IEP that has “suspension” on it as the consequence for misbehavior.  Of course there need to be consequences for behavior problems.  But to send a kid home and not allow her to come to school should not be an option.

The second thing that makes me angry…maybe even more angry than the first, if that’s possible, is that using suspension as a consequence for misbehaving reveals a dangerous lack of understanding of how behavior works and what behavior problems communicate. Behavior problems do not occur because a student is “angry” or “bored” or “just a bad kids.”  Behavior problems communicate something to the adults, if they’re listening for what that might be.  Especially with kids who have severe and profound disabilities and can’t talk or have limited language.  Behavior is communication and when kids can’t talk, or don’t know how to express what they’re feeling, OR they have expressed it but have been ignored, behavior escalates.  And escalates.  And escalates.  Until teachers have no choice but to acknowledge and deal with the behavior.  At which point the kids have now learned that they need to take it pretty far to be effective in getting attention.  And as kids get bigger, they get stronger.  They are more capable of hurting someone else.  So we need to start treating behavior problems as communication early.

What kinds of problems might a behavior problem communicate?  “I can’t read, so if I tantrum at the beginning of reading class, I’ll get sent to the time-out room and I won’t be embarrassed when I’m asked to read aloud.”  Or how about, “I’ve been working on this math sheet for 15 minutes and I don’t know how to do it!  I’m frustrated and I’m throwing this chair.”  Or even something simple like, “I don’t want to sit next to Johnny because he smells.  If I punch him, they’ll move me away from him.”

I could go on with plenty of other examples that I’ve seen in real classrooms.  But I know you get my point.

Suspending kids is a band-aid.  It’s the easy way out.  It does nothing to address why an incident occurred in the first place; does nothing to examine skill deficits or communication problems that probably contributed; does nothing to help figure out what to change in the environment to avoid such a problem in the future.  Suspending kids gives relief to teachers and school administrators, but does nothing productive for the kids who we are actually supposed to be serving.  We can be more sophisticated than this in our problem solving.  We already have IEPs and behavior plans and functional communication plans for kids.  But teachers need more support in learning to implement those plans effectively.  They may need more help in the classroom.  Implementing a complicated behavior or communication plan for one (or more) students while keeping the rest of the class going isn’t easy.  We can’t just throw these teachers to the wolves.

But let’s step up to the plate here, folks.  We can do a lot better and these kids need us to do better.  We need to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (sometimes quite literally).  Parents, if this is your child, make sure you have an advocate and use your IEP.

In closing, I do want to tip my hat to the school officials interviewed in the article who are as outraged as I am.  They are part of the solution and have the opportunity to lead on this issue:  Jean-Claude Brizard, chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools; Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of the Escambia (FL) schools;  Patricia Toarmina, Memphis (TN) schools, director of special education.

The photo that appears here was originally posted at http://nj.gov/governor/news/news/552012/approved/20120531g.html

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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5 Responses to The Scourge of Suspending Kids with Disabilities

  1. Kathie says:

    After the last time I’ve learned I should reply via the blog. 🙂

    (1) I have an autistic nephew who I am exceptionally proud. ANY time he had issue in school (blah blah blah disruptive blah) there was a conversation. If it was a TRUE disruption, he was disciplined. If not, then he received an apology.

    (2) Another lesson I saw as I grew up in the dark ages was in school detention… I will confess that I was never given an in school suspension, rather I elected to be a TA for an hour for this. The purpose was to have a 6 (sans lunch) hour span for kids who wouldn’t feel a remorse for being suspended and yet allowed the school to punish.. for the day these students were required to show up for school and go to this room. Once there they were essentially held to a study hall type period, but if they really were interested in learning, the voluntary TAs could teach.

    (3) I was put in a special needs class when I was very young… it was GREAT. When my mom found out, however, she not only explained that I needed to be challenged more (to the teachers), but also informed me that I was NOT to let the teachers coddle me.

    (4) There’s no right way to teach kids; I get that. But I know a woman who was very much worried about how she would deal with children — to her point she was worried she would treat children as “small adults.” I’m not sure she was that far off from appropriate social behavior.

  2. karen mahon says:

    Thanks, Kathie, for all of that good stuff. All good examples, I think, of the need to take things on a case-by-case basis and have a good dose of sanity. I especially love #4. I always talk to kids like they’re just normal people…after all, they are…and I find that they behave as such. Expectations count!

  3. Grace says:

    Very timely that I came across this article. My son with ADD just got in trouble again at school and it’s not even the first day of 9th grade classes yet. Last year he was suspended several times for getting into verbal and physical arguments. He has a very thin skin so when someone starts to bother him he has a very difficult time just ignoring it and letting it go. The kids definitely know this and he’s a great target for them. I’m getting very tired of every time something happens it’s his fault. They have already pegged him as a bully and a trouble maker. It has effected his self esteem and makes him feel why bother I’m only going to fail. Trying to educate myself more on the process of using his IEP to our benefit and put a call into and advocate, and so it begins……

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Grace – Glad you came across me! You can definitely use your IEP to designate a “program” for how your son’s arguments should be handled, what the consequences should be and so forth. I’m sure everyone would agree that there needs to be a plan for diminishing his reactions to the other kids, but it’s unlikely that suspension will be effective. It’s going to be important that the plan include teaching him alternative, appropriate responses to those kids when he finds himself in those situations. So glad you are reaching out to an advocate. What state do you live in? I might be able to introduce you to some helpful folks. Please don’t be shy about emailing me privately if I can help at karen@disruptlearning.com. Good luck and you can do it!

  4. Pingback: R.E., M.E., et al v. NYC Dep’t of Education « lennyesq

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