Children with Disabilities Face Informal School Suspensions

The phone call from her son’s school was alarming. The vice principal told her to come to school immediately.

But when Lisa Manwell arrived at Pioneer Middle School in Plymouth, Michigan, her son was neither ill nor injured. He was sitting quietly in the principal’s office.

John, who has ADHD and finds it soothing to fidget in class, was removed from class after he refused to stop using a pair of safety scissors to cut his cuticles.

When she asked why he couldn’t stay for the rest of the day, Manwell said the school told her they would call child protective services if they didn’t bring him home.

The call was just one of a dozen calls Manwell received last fall telling her John couldn’t stay in school because of behaviors she said stemmed from his disability, his attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Many schools have promised to reduce suspensions because children cannot learn as well when they are not in class. But none of these pickups have ever been registered as suspension, despite missing class time.

The practice is known as informal withdrawal, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as an action taken by school personnel in response to a child’s behavior that excludes the child for some or all of the school day – or even indefinitely.

Excessive use of informal dismissals amounts to a form of informal discipline – a de facto denial of education that escapes accountability, say lawyers and legal experts. This has particular implications for children with disabilities: Informally withdrawing these students circumvents federal law that protects them from discipline or exclusion from class for behaviors related to their disability.

Since the start of the pandemic, parents of children with disabilities say the practice is on the rise, depriving their children of their legal right to education.

“This is a recurring problem that we see in enforcement across the country, over the years,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary of the department’s Office of Civil Rights. “And that means the practice has taken hold in a way that is dangerous for students and needs to be addressed.”

In July, the department issued guidelines on discriminatory disciplinary practices for students with disabilities. Lhamon said the boards include the informal dismissals because of how often they appear in the bureau’s investigations of complaints against school districts.

Informal moves can occur through frequent pick-ups from parents, shortened school days, or hours spent in “time out” rooms.

The Associated Press and the Hechinger Report interviewed 20 families in 10 states who described being called repeatedly and at all hours of the school day to pick up their children. In some cases, parents were called within an hour of the start of the school day. Others said they had to quit their job to pick up their child so often that they lost their job. Many felt they had no choice but to change schools, or even districts.

Since deletions are not logged, there is no way to quantify how often they occur. But the National Disability Rights Network says it has seen an increase during the pandemic.

Teacher shortages This means there are fewer staff available to perform assessments and provide services for students with disabilities, which creates “more of an incentive or more of an incentive to get kids with behavioral needs out,” Dan said. Stewart, general counsel for the organization for education and employment.

Students of color with disabilities appear to be disproportionately impacted based on anecdotal reports passed to the network by disability rights advocates across the country.

“It’s pervasive,” said Ginny Fogg, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, “and the reason for that is that most parents don’t know their rights and the consequence to the school system isn’t enough to stop them. to do. “

“The cure is not, ‘You just can’t go to school,'” she added. “The law was enacted 50 years ago to prevent this outcome – that students with disabilities are not allowed to attend school and participate in an education.”

Manwell said the calls from her son’s school were incessant.

“They would call my home phone, my work phone. They were calling my husband, who works nights,” said Manwell, resource planner at Ford Motor Co. “It was impossible. I couldn’t function. I never knew when they were going to call or what was going to happen.

An official with the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools District in Michigan, where John attends school, said he could not comment on specific student issues, citing federal student privacy law.

Federal law protects students with disabilities from repeated discipline or removal from school for behaviors related to their disability. If they are suspended for more than 10 days, families are entitled to a meeting with the school to determine if the behaviors are due to the child’s disability. If so, the school should offer adjustments instead of suspension. For example, if a child’s disability prevents them from concentrating in a noisy class with dozens of other children, the parent has the right to request a quieter class or one with fewer children.

Department for Education guidelines from July made it clear that children who are informally withdrawn have the same rights, such as examinations to determine if the student’s behavior was the result of their disability, as those who had been officially suspended.

Tricia Ellinger says she would have requested a hearing to ensure her 10-year-old daughter received the proper services and support, had she known that her frequent expulsions from class amounted to suspensions.

One day last spring, she received three phone calls in quick succession, telling her to immediately pick up Cassie from Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School in Emmett, Idaho. When she arrived, her daughter was sitting quietly in the school resource room eating a snack. She says a school staff member told her that Cassie was refusing to do her job and had to go home.

“When I got her in the car, I was like, ‘Cass, what happened? Did you tear up your notebook? Did you throw away your pencil?'” Ellinger recalled. “She said: ‘No, it was just hard. The math is hard.’

The call was one of about 20 Ellinger says he received last year from the school, which is specifically designed to educate students with disabilities. She says her daughter has also been taken out of class on several occasions and kept in a room alone. None of the dismissals were recorded as suspensions.

Emmett School District Superintendent Craig Woods said he could not comment, citing federal student privacy law.

Families often don’t know what grounds they can file complaints on, Lhamon said. Sometimes they don’t know their child shouldn’t have been suspended in the first place.

“It’s so concerning when schools exclude students for illegal reasons,” she said. “We want our children to be in the classroom, to learn with other students, to be fully involved and respected as learners. We do not want our school communities to send the message that there is a category of children who cannot be there.

Manwell said most of the calls she received last year from her son’s school were the result of bullying. On the fourth day of school, John was pushed into the locker room and she received a call to pick him up. Another time he went to the bathroom and another student threatened to beat him.

Due to his disability, John was supposed to have access to a quiet room so he could recover from difficult incidents. But often, she said, either there was no room or when he didn’t want to return to class, she would get a call to pick him up.

“It was just the stress of never knowing what I was sending my kid into each day. I was worried the whole time he was gone,” Manwell said. “I could see the damage.

“He was withdrawing. He started talking about hurting himself,” she said, her voice cracking.

In January, she made the difficult decision to transition John to home schooling, sending him to a tutoring center every day for a few hours and rearranging his work schedule. It made her life more predictable, she said, and John started acting like his old self.

She said she would like to send him back to school but does not trust what will happen.

“You want to protect your children, don’t you?” she says. “I just can’t send him to a school where he won’t be safe.”


This story was produced by The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.


The Associated Press’ reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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