Disabling Inequity: A Look at School Discipline Findings for Students with Disabilities

Blog Post
June 2, 2021

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law in 1975, its purpose was to ensure that students with disabilities had equal access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Prior to the passage of IDEA, students with disabilities were educated in segregated institutions or denied the opportunity to learn altogether. Today, some students with disabilities receive services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Both it and IDEA help ensure that students with disabilities have access to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers, and have access to resources to ensure their specific physical, mental, and learning needs are met. Despite these and other education and civil rights protections, these students are still unfairly and disproportionately disciplined in public school settings.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative under The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, released a report in March 2021 called Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resource Remedies. This report found that students with disabilities are being disciplined through out-of-school suspensions, are referred to police, and are chronically absent at much higher rates than their non-disabled counterparts. And the racial disparities among students with disabilities are among the largest. The report, based on pre-pandemic data, suggests that the high rates of discipline likely reflect that students are being punished because of disability-caused behaviors, which contradicts the very purpose of IDEA and suggests that students with disabilities are being unlawfully discriminated against.

The negative impacts of out-of-school suspensions have been well documented, and the U.S. Department of Education has recognized that being suspended is associated with lower academic achievement, lower grade retention, higher likelihood of dropping out, and higher instances of juvenile delinquency and adult incarceration rates. Within this context, nationally, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies found that in the 2017-18 school year, for every 100 students, students without disabilities lost 19 days of instruction, 504-eligible students lost 30 days of instruction, and students with disabilities under IDEA lost 41 days of instruction as a result of out-of-school suspensions. Older students fared worse: for every 100 students, elementary students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) lost 16 days of instruction, whereas secondary students with IEPs lost 65 days of instruction.


The suspension data from the 2017-2018 Civil Rights Data Collection are even more disturbing when disaggregated by race. According to the authors, compared to all students at the elementary level, Black elementary students with disabilities risk for suspension was 10 percentage points higher. At the secondary level the same comparison to all students shows that Black students with disabilities had a risk that was 17 points higher. Moreover, about 1 in every 4 Black students with disabilities at the secondary level was suspended at least once. The report also outlines that these patterns hold true for nearly every district that uses out-of-school suspensions, with some secondary students with disabilities losing up to three times as much instructional time as their peers without disabilities.


The report also found that students with disabilities are referred to police at higher rates than students without disabilities. There is very little accurate data on policing and students, with 61 percent of districts in the 2017-18 school year reporting zero school-based referrals and arrests, which the authors report for some larger districts like New York City, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is inaccurate. Because of the lack of data, there is no way to verify if the federal safeguards outlined in IDEA were followed under any of the referrals that go unreported, or those reported in the district level data below. The report found that students with disabilities are referred to police at higher rates than students without disabilities. (in districts with at least 100 secondary students enrolled, a higher referral rate for students with disabilities (IDEA) compared to for all students, and a non-zero arrest count), for example, the risk was 12.38 percent in Apple Valley Unified, CA; 18 percent in Fenton Community High School District 100, IL; and 16.6 percent in Austin, TX. In many districts, including Los Angeles Unified and in 40 districts across the state of Texas, students with disabilities were also more likely to be referred to law enforcement than to be suspended.

Finally, the authors of the study found that students with disabilities are chronically absent at higher rates than students without disabilities. Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses large amounts of instructional time in a given school year, for any number of reasons. Currently, the US Department of Education defines a student as chronically absent when they miss 15 days or more in a school year. Because the Trump administration discontinued CRDC data collection on chronic absenteeism and students with disabilities, the most recent available data are from the 2015-16 school year. That year, overall, 16 percent of K-12 students were chronically absent, compared to 20.1 percent of high school students without disabilities, and 27.8 percent of high school students with IEPs. The authors of the report explain that students with disabilities are often removed from classrooms without being issued a suspension or expulsion, but are instead placed in out-of-school tutoring, or spend time at home with at-home educational services. These “off books” or “informal” removals, while not captured in discipline data, may surface through data collected on chronic absenteeism.

The authors make several federal recommendations for how to address the disparities raised in their research including fully funding IDEA, targeted 504 funding, and COVID relief dollars for the training of teachers and administrators, hiring counselors, school psychologists, restorative justice coaches, nurses, and other support staff, state and district level research based technical assistance to find alternatives to removing students and to address racial disparities, increased protection and advocacy services, and improving state and district level reporting of disaggregated data. The authors also made recommendations for civil rights and enforcement, and data collection and reporting. The findings in the Center for Civil Rights Remedies’ report underscore that students with disabilities are being failed at multiple levels, but this report comes at an important time when historic investments are being made in education. The findings and recommendations outlined in it need to be uplifted in the conversation about how to best serve this community of students.

Source: The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Losen, D., Martinez, P., & Shin, G. H. R. (2021, March). Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resource Remedies.

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