Disabled African-American students face frequent suspensions

Michelle Harvey’s son has severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. By middle school, when he was diagnosed, he could not read at grade level, and he struggled in math. Harvey, who is an elementary school teacher, worked closely with school administrators on her son’s needs, and was a frequent volunteer at his middle school. Then he went to high school, and things fell apart.

ADHD is the most common childhood behavior disorder, with symptoms including inattentiveness, over-activity and impulsivity, which are usually treated with stimulants. Harvey’s son struggled with the anxiety caused by his ADHD medication, a drug that usually wore off before the end of the school day. He self-medicated with marijuana, Harvey said, and that contributed to the problems he had at school.

But teachers at his Sacramento-area high school too often did not follow his individual education plan (IEP), a document that spelled out the necessary accommodations for his disability, she added. And his time at the school, Harvey said, coincided with the introduction of stiffer penalties for misbehavior and an increasing number of children of color in the school district. Ultimately, her son, who is African American, was suspended 10 times.

“He felt like he was not a part of the school,” Harvey said. “He was spiraling out of control. He was starting to act out. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

His problems at school are all too common, according to data recently released by the U.S. Office of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. African American students with disabilities run the highest risk of school suspension in California, according to an analysis of that data by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA in the report Suspended Education in California. Overall in the state, African Americans with disabilities have a 28 percent risk of suspension, compared to an 11 percent risk for white students.

Break that down by gender and region and the suspension risk gets higher for boys of color, especially young black men, according to the Civil Rights Project’s report. The suspension risk for African American males with a disability is highest in San Bernardino County, where suspension rates are as high as 59 percent.

These numbers are consistent with a broader racial disparity in suspensions in California. The risk of suspension for African American males in Los Angeles Unified, for instance, is 23 percent, compared to five percent for white males. On average, black students were suspended at rates 20 percent higher than white students in the state. A similar disparity is also reflected in national data. Black students make up 18 percent of the students in the study, but 35 percent of the students suspended once.

Higher rates of misbehavior are not the cause of the racial disparity, analyses of school suspensions suggest. One study analyzing 11,000 school records in a Midwestern city showed that teachers referred African American students to the office more frequently, but for more subjective infractions like disrespect, excessive noise and loitering. They were also punished more frequently for “threats.” White students were sent to the office most often for clearer infractions: smoking, leaving without permission, obscene language and vandalism.

Students with disabilities like ADHD and other behavioral or emotional diagnoses can find it hard to meet basic classroom expectations, and may behave in ways that teachers consider unduly noisy and disrespectful, said Heather Jones, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose research focuses on ADHD and minorities.

Sitting still, paying attention, speaking in turn and following multi-step directions are all big challenges for any student with ADHD. “School is really the worst place possible you could match a child with these difficulties,” Jones said. “They require that you do all of the things that are difficult for children with ADHD.”

There is little research on ADHD and ethnicity, Jones said, but studies suggest that teachers generally perceive African American students as the most hyperactive in the classroom regardless of their disability status.

Students with disabilities, like Michelle Harvey’s son, are entitled to accommodations under federal law. “There are additional protections for students with disabilities, and they are in place because we know that kids with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by out of school suspension and removals,” noted Laura Faer, Director of Education Rights at Public Council Law Center, which is sponsoring several bills before the Legislature to change approaches to school discipline in California.

“Frankly, from the data, it seems like they [the protections] are not strong enough,” Faer said.

According to Harvey, her son’s high school did not comply with his IEP as he struggled with his classes. He could read stories and novels, but had a hard time with academic writing. He rarely got the audio books he was entitled to because of his disabilities. He was also subject to increasing surveillance by school security, according to Harvey. Meetings with administrators to develop a plan for her son didn’t help, she said.

“His behavioral plan was to check his pockets at school,” Harvey said.

Anita Contreras, whose eight-year-old son is a student in the Los Angeles Unified School district, tells a similar story. Her son, who is African American, has ADHD and bi-polar disorder. He was “informally” suspended from school 15 times this year – days when teachers called Contreras to tell her to pick up her son because his behavior was unmanageable. They were supposed to put him in a special classroom to help him calm down, Contreras said, but they did not.

“Everything is just piling up on our family,” Contreras said. Her son has been out of school since the end of March, she said.

Removal from school can significantly affect young people. A recent and extensive study of school suspension in Texas indicated a connection between school suspensions and dropping out and school suspensions and involvement with the juvenile justice system. About 10 percent of students suspended between seventh and twelfth grade dropped out during the study period, while more than one in ten students who were suspended in those grades had contact with the juvenile justice system.

Several bills to create a different approach to discipline in California schools are currently under consideration in the Legislature, including one that limits suspensions for “willful defiance” and another to create an accurate database to track school suspensions. A third, AB 1235, would require schools with suspension rates that exceed 25 percent of student enrollment to adopt an evidence-based system of positive behavioral intervention (PBiS).

Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, where almost 80 percent of students are Latino and most of the rest are African American or Asian Pacific Islander, adopted PBIS in 2003. The district developed simple and clear expectations for student conduct and encouraged students to meet them, with rewards for good behavior and consistent consequences for bad choices. Schools in the district focused on three or four core principles – such as safety, responsibility and respectfulness – and defined what that would look like in different environments in the school, like the classroom, the bathroom, or the cafeteria.

The schools first adopted PBIS as part of a plan to integrate special needs students into mainstream classrooms. Sheldon Loman, then a special education teacher in the district and later a coordinator of the PBIS program, helped to lead that integration. Before the switch, discipline was based on a student conduct handbook with many rules that required subjective interpretations. Where PBIS tries to prevent misbehavior, the conduct book approach punished misbehavior after it happened. That wasn’t creating the safest environment for kids, including special needs kids, said Loman, now an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at Portland State University.

School suspensions in the district dropped by 686 after two years of PBIS, Loman said. The simpler, clearer standards paved the way for teachers to teach students about good behavior, rather than the reactive approach that was standard before PBIS, he said.

Harvey decided to pull her son out of his Sacramento-area public school after his suspensions. He’s now in his senior year at a charter school, and Harvey describes his experience there as “night and day” compared to his first few years of high school. He still misbehaves and is punished, but his punishments are no longer designed to isolate him from school, she said.

There is no reason why any teacher cannot be trained to properly accommodate disabled students, no matter their ethnicity, said psychology professor Heather Jones. Teachers sometimes don’t understand that ADHD children need to be rewarded for meeting basic expectations like sitting still. But like other students, ADHD students respond very well rewards, she said.

Harvey said that she understands, as a teacher herself, why it may be challenging to give additional assistance to students with special needs. Her experience with her own son means that she is especially careful when student with disabilities show up in her classroom. But, she said, she always understood that such accommodations are part of her job.

Perhaps racial bias was at work in the treatment of her son, Harvey said.

“If you have a child of color who acts up and a white child who acts up, the child of color is going to get more consequences,” Harvey said. ”If the child looks like you, you are more likely to say, boys would be boys.”

Harvey noted, though, that the staff at her son’s new school, where he is doing well, is mostly white. “So I don’t think it’s a race thing,” Harvey said. “I don’t care who teaches my son. As long as they treat my son with dignity and respect.”

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