Civil Rights Data Should Catalyze Conversation about School Disciplinary Practices

Don’t give 95% of schools a pass

Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director

In response to UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies’ report “Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline,” Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools issued the following statement:

“The Center for Civil Rights Remedies’ report puts an important spotlight on an issue that requires attention: the disproportionate suspension of minority students and students with disabilities in public schools. The study confirms what many working in the sector already know to be true. Unfair discipline practice is a public school problem and charter schools are simply no exception.

As we found in our November report: “Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools” (2015) which also examined the Civil Rights Data Collection (2011-2012), disproportionate discipline is inarguably a national crisis. Students with disabilities are expelled and suspended from both traditional and charter schools at exceedingly high rates. We can and we must do more to accelerate adoption of positive behavioral supports, positive discipline, and more broadly, efforts to improve the quality of education to pre-empt behavioral problems stemming from student frustration in all schools. These efforts align with the broader ideals of the charter sector and the autonomy extended to them creates opportunities to find meaningful solutions. However, charter schools must be intentional about their efforts and simultaneously commit to police themselves or run the risk of rightfully earning greater regulatory oversight to address bad actors.

Despite the universal nature of the challenge, the fact that 484 charter schools suspended 20% more students with disabilities than their non-disabled peers in 2001-12—including 6 schools that reported suspending roughly 50% or more of their students with disabilities—is alarming. Students need to be in school in order to learn and this is even more crucial for students with disabilities who must work every day to overcome learning challenges with the support of essential support and accommodations. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that suspensions can have an exponentially negative impact on students -- they miss out on learning opportunities and they are bombarded with negative messages about their behavior that can undermine their ability to persevere and succeed.

The UCLA report finds that a segment of the charter sector is particularly egregious in its disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities. Without question, this is an important finding. However, we are concerned that the authors’ narrow focus on charter schools may undermine the far more important finding in the CRDC data. The data should inform a call to action on behalf of students with disabilities in public schools across the country--both charter and traditional. By focusing solely on charter schools as bad actors, the Center has essentially given traditional public schools, where 95% of all students attend, a pass.

Both traditional and charter schools need to change discipline policies to ensure practices do not lead to discrimination of students with disabilities. It is important to emphasize that the fact that both charters and traditional public schools need to change how they operate is not an excuse for either side to avoid the necessary self-reflection and change.

The timing for this discussion is perfect. Because of a new requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – that every state, in consultation with school leaders, including charters must add an ‘additional indicator(s) of school quality or student success’ to the state accountability system – adding a discipline-related indicator in determining school and district performance makes great sense.

We support UCLA’s recommendations but would add that as the entities empowered to initially grant and potentially revoke charter contracts, charter school authorizers must also be part of the solution. This should involve a combination of education about appropriate and positive discipline and simultaneously, accountability for failure to provide appropriate supports that would decrease suspensions. On this front, state specific reports and analysis of recent data from Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, DC indicate that progress is being made to decrease disproportionate discipline rates.

The charter sector emerged twenty years ago from a desire to create new and better public school options for all students. Mission-driven charter schools can and must be flexible enough to welcome and support students who have learning differences. While disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities remains a pervasive problem in all public schools, the charter sector in particular should hold itself to a higher standard and not recreate the problems that have disillusioned so many parents of students with disabilities about public schools’ commitment to their student’s success.”

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