Black student troubled.
Published on: Jul 23, 2019

Lauren Camera, Education Reporter, U.S. News & World Report

Black students with disabilities are disciplined more often than their white peers, pushing them into the school-to-prison pipeline at higher rates, a new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows – just the latest finding to stoke an ongoing debate over the role race plays in school discipline.

"Ignoring the reality that kids can be harmed and that it is our educators' obligation to ensure that they are not harmed has an obvious impact on students of color in particular and students with disabilities in particular," Catherine Lhamon, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says. "When we know that turning away from specific harms to specific identity groups will hurt their educational opportunity and their rights in schools, we are taking steps we ought not to take."

The 224-page report draws on data from the Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights to argue that students of color don't commit more offenses than their white peers but receive "substantially more" discipline than them, as well as harder and longer punishments for similar offenses. At the same time, the report underscores, data shows that students with disabilities are about twice as likely to be suspended compared to those without disabilities.

The report concedes that while research has long recognized disparate discipline rates for students of color and students with disabilities, few studies have focused on the intersection of race and disability. But it also draws on federal data to show that a "consistent pattern" exists in which schools suspend or expel black students with disabilities at higher rates than the proportion of the population of students with disabilities.

More than 2.7 million K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 academic year. Of those students, 32 percent of black students with disabilities were suspended once and almost 40 percent were suspended repeatedly, meaning, the report underscores, that black students with disabilities were almost three times more likely to be suspended compared to white students with disabilities.

Taken together, the report concludes, the data showing disparate use of discipline for students of color and for students with disabilities suggests that some schools and districts may be applying disciplinary policies in "unfair and possibly discriminatory ways" in violation of federal civil rights protections.

"I feel pretty strongly that the many decades of attention to the question of discipline in schools merits immediate action now," Lhamon says. "The time is long past for us to be thinking about it. It is urgent that we protect our students' ability to learn in schools."

Six of the eight members of the commission agreed with the findings, which bolster the concerns of civil rights advocates who argue the Trump administration, under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is dismantling important regulations meant to act as a safeguard to prevent discrimination, particularly against students of color.

DeVos rescinded the Obama-era regulation meant to address the disproportionately high rate at which back students are disciplined, and she sought to delay another meant to address the disproportionately high rate at which black students are identified as having a disability. The latter was ultimately rejected this spring by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, though DeVos has dug in her heels over the fact that some research shows black students are sometimes overidentified as having disabilities.

In the absence of appetite among lawmakers for her school choice agenda, the two regulatory moves have come to define DeVos' tenure, which has alarmed many, including congressional Democrats who have gone so far as to call the research she cited as a reason for eliminating the discipline guidance "racist" and demanded her resignation.

But a handful of academic researchers have pushed back on those assertions in support of DeVos, and as the issue of school discipline research has garnered more attention in the wake of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, they're trying to reframe the debate by arguing it's a more complicated landscape than numbers alone can present.

"This is hardly the first time I've dissented from a Commission report," Gail Heriot, one of the two members of the commission who dissented, wrote in the report. "But to my knowledge, never before has the Commission so seriously misunderstood the empirical research that purportedly forms the basis for its conclusions."

Heriot said she takes particular exception to the conclusion that students of color do not commit more disciplinable offenses than their white peers.

"The report provides no evidence to support this sweeping assertion and there is abundant evidence to the contrary," she says, adding that some of the best evidence comes from teachers themselves.

"When one looks at aggregate statistics concerning which students are sent to the principal's office by their teachers, there are strong differences," Heriot writes. "Denying those differences amounts to an accusation that teachers are getting it not just wrong, but very wrong. It is a slap in the face to teachers."

Others have sought to underscore the importance of making apples to apples comparisons instead of relying on federal databases that lack nuance.

"It's insufficient to use evidence of disparities as evidence of discrimination," says Paul Morgan professor of education at Penn State who testified before the civil rights commission and whose work is cited in the report. "When people report that students with disabilities are suspended more often from schools and then conclude that schools are discriminating against students with disabilities, my response as social scientist is, ''Well, are the rates of behaviors similar across the two populations?' And I think there are lots of reasons to think that may not be the case."

Morgan says that the issue of discipline, especially as it relates to students with disabilities, is "emotionally fraught," and that there isn't strong enough research to prove the conclusion of the report.

"I find it a complex issue, and the reason is because you have a situation where students with disabilities often struggle both academically and behaviorally," he says. In fact, some histology of disabilities involve difficulties regulating behavior and outbursts that can occur as a result of frustrations. Suspension, I don't think, is the go-to tool, but I recognize at the same time that schools have a duty to maintain a safe, effective learning environment."