On June 13, 2016, the Equity Coalition issued a joint statement on school discipline, urging all schools, but particularly charter schools, to turn away from disciplinary removals of students with disabilities and to instead leverage their autonomy “to create effective, inclusive learning environments and to be exemplars of educational equity, quality, and innovation.” Four years later, students with disabilities continue to experience the harshest and most exclusionary disciplinary actions in both traditional public schools and public charter schools. Meanwhile, at a time when our country is grappling with the realities of centuries of racial injustice that have impacted the education of Black students, including Black students with disabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the nation’s schools for months and added an extra layer of safety regulations as schools begin to reopen.
Given all of these factors, the members of the Equity Coalition believe that it is now more important than ever for schools to commit to permanently rejecting harsh exclusionary discipline practices for all students and especially for those with disabilities.
The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, in partnership with the National Center for Learning Disabilities, released a white paper on discipline in the wake of COVID-19 in September 2020. That paper, Disproportionate Discipline and COVID-19: A Call for Change, served as a starting point for this current Equity Coalition action.
The Equity Coalition, collectively and with one voice, urges schools to put an end to harmful disciplinary practices by committing to three things:
Communication between families of students with disabilities and their educators has always been important. Now, given the added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, open lines of communication across school and family communities are critical. With the new safety requirements in place as school buildings reopen, families need to know what to expect. At the same time, to understand and meet student needs educators need to know what families have experienced during the pandemic.
These conversations may be difficult with so many families experiencing trauma and loss. Schools must invest in professional development on trauma-informed practices to ensure that school personnel are comfortable with and able to engage in these conversations. To have productive conversations with families, schools should:
- work to reduce barriers to communication
- use family-friendly language
- use translation services
- leverage multiple modes of communication, including calls, texts, video messages, and safe, socially-distanced, in-person meetings
As educators work to build relationships with students through open communication, they should also ensure that communication with students is age-appropriate and tailored to meet the individual needs of each student.
Effective communication sets the stage for families and school personnel to work together to plan for student success in an authentically inclusive environment. Because of the fluid nature of how schools are operating, with some in buildings, some online, and some using a combination or transitioning between the two, the planning needs to address the needs of students across each modality.
Collaborative planning at the school, classroom, and individual student levels is critical and must include input from students, parents, educators, and administrators, while also leveraging the expertise of behavior specialists, school psychologists, and school counselors. Plans should focus on the needs of students rather than on problem behaviors, and schools should focus energy on creating conditions for positive behavior and skill-building rather than spending time responding to behavior.
Through this collaborative planning process, schools can address individual needs thoughtfully to set each student up for success. For students with particular behavior needs, schools should employ quality functional behavior analyses and develop comprehensive behavior intervention plans. Schools should then offer student-specific training sessions with staff and parents to ensure proper implementation.
A Commitment to Holistic, Evidence-Based Practices
To effectively rethink discipline and interrupt the decades-old pattern of harsh discipline of students with disabilities, robust communication and collaborative planning must be paired with a commitment to a holistic approach to behavior.
Every student has been impacted in some way by COVID-19, and schools need to appreciate that students carry with them the trauma they have experienced. It is more important than ever that schools focus on evidence-based, student-centered practices like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), restorative justice, and social-emotional learning that approach behavior as communication and address it holistically and proactively.
Training and professional development will be critical to ensuring effective implementation across shifting school environments—virtual, in-person, and hybrid—to ensure that benefits extend to all settings and all students. Schools will also need to elevate the work of school nurses, social workers, counselors, and behavior specialists and to prioritize having the necessary experts on school teams. Given that COVID-19 has impacted all students, not just those with disabilities, these approaches to behavior must be implemented school-wide.
For decades, students with disabilities have been subjected to harsh exclusionary discipline practices that serve only to increase trauma and reduce educational opportunities.
This moment in history is the perfect time to disrupt that trend. As schools reopen, they can use this moment of change to reject the status quo approach to discipline that has been the default for so long. We, the members of the Equity Coalition, collectively challenge all public schools to pledge to turn away from harsh, exclusionary discipline practices and to instead commit to robust communication, collaborative planning, and a commitment to a holistic approach to behavior.
Equity Coalition Organizations
Advocates for Justice and Education, Inc.
Children’s Law Center
Council for Exceptional Children
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
DC Public Charter School Board
Digital Pioneers Academy
Diverse Charter Schools Coalition
Eye to Eye National
Green Dot Public Schools
Kutz & Bethke, LLC
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
National Association of Charter School Authorizers
National Association of State Directors of Special Education
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Charter Schools Institute
Paramount Schools of Excellence
Special Education Leader Fellowship
The Advocacy Institute
The Arc of the United States
The Collaborative for Inclusive Education
Equity Coalition Individual Members
Azure DS Angelov, Chief Executive Officer, ADS Education
Marcia Mittnacht, NCSECS Board Member
Molly Whalen, State Director: Capital Region: Virginia & DC, Best Buddies International
Robert Garda, NCSECS Board Member and Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
Shannon Hodge, Founding Executive Director, DC Charter School Alliance
Meghan Fitzgerald, Director of Special Education, Uncommon Schools NYC