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