Effective Discipline Policies Require Careful Consideration of Implications for Students with Disabilities.

by Paul O'Neill

Student discipline issues in charter schools have received a burst of attention recently.  The December issue of the Atlantic features an article called “How Strict is Too Strict” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/how-strict-is-too-strict/382228/) that looks at the lessons to be learned from New Orleans charter high schools and the strict disciplinary practices they follow. Both Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers(http://educationpost.org/nuanced-view-excuses-new-orleans/#.VG-uyfnF_wr) and Sarah Yatsko of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (http://www.crpe.org/thelens) followed up on the article with their own pieces emphasizing the importance of the issue and the risks of taking measures like suspension and expulsion too far or not far enough.

As Richmond and Yatzko point out, there are dangers lurking in every direction – a lax, permissive approach to discipline can lead to chaos and can undermine learning, while an overly aggressive, zero-tolerance policy that results in frequent expulsions can have devastating and lasting effects for students, their families and the public school system itself. This is not a simple problem with comforting, ready-made solutions.  It is a balancing act and a challenge that requires innovative thinking and an appreciation for the many consequences of how and when to hold students strictly accountable for behavior that not only undercuts learning but can constitute a serious threat to the physical safety of everyone in the school building.

From a special education perspective, the notion of excluding students from the classroom has a particular resonance.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establishes mechanisms for assessing whether extreme behavior by a particular student with an IEP should be grounds for discipline or whether that behavior is so linked to a student’s disabilities that punishment would be inappropriate.  In a school that uses a strict, zero-tolerance approach to student discipline, the IDEA mechanisms may stand in sharp contrast, leading to very disparate results for students who have an IEP and those who do not. One boy who acts out aggressively may be expelled; while another who commits the same act is sent back to class (with some modifications to his IEP and the addition of a Behavioral Intervention Plan).  An awareness of special education law protections for students who act out can create incentives for not identifying students at risk for disabilities (thereby rendering them more readily expelled), and for ignoring proper process and simply ignoring the rules that require a much more tempered response.

As researchers study and reconsider the impact of strict disciplinary measures in charter schools and in public schools more generally, it seems essential that special education considerations be included in the analysis.  It has been too long since the IDEA has been retooled and reauthorized.  Lessons learned about what works, what is made worse, and what innovative approaches are possible in addressing extreme student behavior should be incorporated into the reauthorization.  School leaders should also be attentive to how assertive practices impact students with disabilities and any stigma, academic performance problems and inequities that may result.

November 21, 2014