July 25, 2019

For Students of Color with Special Needs, Action on School Discipline is Urgent

By Krista Kaput

This week, the United States Commission Civil Rights published a new report which confirms what we have known anecdotally for years: students of color with special needs are disproportionately suspended and expelled relative to their white peers with special needs. While there are decades of research that illustrate persistent discipline disparities for students of color and students with special needs, this report is unique in that it examines students who live at the intersection of these two identities. 

The report highlights several key findings:  

  • Students of color—both as a whole and when broken down by individual racial group—do not commit more disciplinable offenses than their white peers, but black, Latinx, and Native American students receive substantially more discipline. 
  • Black, Latinx, and Native American students receive harsher and longer punishments than their white peers for similar offenses.  
  • Black students with special needs lost approximately 77 more days of instruction compared to white students with special needs. 
  • Students of color with special needs, with the exception of Latinx and Asian, were more likely than white students with special needs to be expelled without educational services. 
  • Latinx, Asian, and black students were all more likely than white students to attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but not a counselor. 
SCHOOL DISCIPLINE IN MINNESOTA 

Even though Minnesota doesn’t have data for students of color with special needs, the state’s history of disproportionately suspending and expelling students of color and students with special needs has been extensively documented. In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) notified 43 districts and charter schools that they were being investigated for violating the state’s Human Rights Act due to significant disparities in their student discipline data. Since then, MDHR has come to agreements with 41 of the districts and charter schools to address the disparities. 

The investigations and subsequent agreements were spurred by an MDHR analysis which found that

  • Students of color received 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, even though they were only 31 percent of the student population. 
  • Native American students were 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. 
  • Black students received 41 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, but only represent only 10 percent of the student population—making them eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. 
  • Students with special needs received 43 percent of all suspensions and expulsions, but only represent 14 percent of the student population.

While these disparities are seen across the nation, they are often more acute in Minnesota. For comparison, nationally black students and students with special needs are suspended two times as often as their white peers. 

WHY IS SCHOOL DISCIPLINE AN IMPORTANT ISSUE? 

There is a large body of research illustrating the correlation between exclusionary discipline practices and an increased likelihood of not graduating from high school and involvement with the criminal justice system, as well as lower academic performance

Given that students of color and students with special needswhich are already traditionally underserved student populationsare more likely to be suspended or expelled, it is critically important that we address this disproportionality in order to ensure they are receiving a rigorous and relevant education. 

POLICY CONTEXT IN MINNESOTA

Local advocates have been calling for action on this issue for years; working to ensure all students, and particularly students of color and students with special needs, are not needlessly pushed out of the classroom—and policymakers are starting to listen. Since 2015, the Solutions Not Suspensions Coalition has worked to advance the Student Inclusion and Engagement Act, and this year, legislators considered (but failed to pass) a bill to prohibit pre-k suspension and expulsion. Both efforts focus on advancing non-exclusionary discipline alternatives and restorative practices. 

State and local efforts to increase teacher diversity are also an important piece of the puzzle. Research has found that students of color are less likely to receive disciplinary referrals when they have a teacher who shares their racial and ethnic identity. 

Alongside these efforts, it is critical that the Minnesota Department of Education implement clearer reporting on exclusionary discipline practices, so that parents, advocates, policymakers, and educators can continue to track progress. Under the 2015 federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Minnesota Report Card is required to have information on exclusionary discipline practices, which includes suspensions and expulsions. However, as of this blog, the Minnesota report card only reports on chronic absenteeism; in fact, Minnesota is one of 26 states that still do not include discipline data