Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Discipline rules change, but will it matter?

What will move the needle for students with disabilities?

Suspension rates for students special education: 7.9%. Suspension rates for all students: 3.7%
Courtesy of the ACLU of Washington
Students receiving special education services
face the second highest discipline rates in Washington.

For years, advocates have worked to implement social emotional learning, positive behavior interventions and supports, and de-escalation strategies to help schools prevent avoidable disciplinary issues. And while some schools and districts have made headway, prevention strategies as a general practice are still not required by the state and are not uniformly supported through professional development.

In 2013, new legislation and advocacy efforts put a spotlight on discipline. Data showed schools suspended and expelled certain types of students more than others; and students of color faced more severe discipline for the same offenses.
Courtesy of the ACLU of Washington

In the years since, discipline rates have fallen for some subgroups of students:
  • 7.4 to 6.6 percent in 2016 for American Indians over the last 4 years, and
  • 10.3 to 8 percent for African American students in that time
But rates for students in special education have hovered near 8 percent. The needle hasn’t moved nearly enough for students of color, and hasn’t moved much at all for kids with disabilities.

And anecdotally, parents of students in special education continued to share stories of a parallel practice: They get calls to pick up their children after the school day starts. The students aren’t suspended, but they also aren’t in class, learning alongside their peers.

To put this in context, the state discipline average for all students was 3.7 percent last year. African American students and students with disabilities are being disciplined at double that, or more. You can view the state data here.


Courtesy of ACLU of Washington
In 2016, the state legislature took up discipline again, this time via House Bill 1541, a bill that addressed some of the triggers for opportunity gaps in education. Part of this involved changes in when schools could expel students.

Long-term suspension and expulsion are still allowed for several offenses, including bringing a firearm to campus and certain violent offenses, or for behavior that adversely impacts the health or safety of other students or educational staff.

But in most instances, the bill encourages districts to consider “alternative actions” first. The bill also requires more family engagement in addressing student behavior, and requires re-engagement efforts that are culturally responsive and that include families.

Finally, it requires schools to offer educational opportunities to students, even when they have been removed from class.

  • Here is session law (the version of the bill that passed the legislature and was signed into law by the governor).

All this is positive, but how much will it change things for students with disabilities? Will it do enough to help schools and students prevent avoidable disciplinary issues? Will it change the mindset around behavior from response and control, to understanding and communication?


As part of implementing this law, the state needed to review its discipline rules to make sure they align with the new legislation and explain to school districts what they must do to comply with new policies. They also need to be clear to families and students so they know their rights.

You can comment on these proposed rules up to 5 p.m. Nov. 13. You can either share your comments at a public hearing, or send in written comments.

Given the over-representation of students with disabilities in discipline issues, this is an important issue for the disability community to weigh in on - and especially so for individuals and families who face the intersection of race and disability.

Do the rules reflect the intention of legislators to reduce the overuse of exclusionary discipline, and to support learning even when students are removed from class?

One positive: The proposed rules clarify when you can and can't suspend or expel students in grades K-4. Schools could still suspend students this young. Schools could not expel or impose long-term suspension (10 or more days) on them.

Another: Currently informal removals from class are not considered suspension. The proposed rules define suspension as longer than the particular subject or class period. Defining the practice as suspension means students retain their right to have the opportunity to learn while excluded.


One area I am concerned with is how rule writers chose to treat “alternative actions.” That is the phrase used by legislators to encourage schools to consider other actions before suspending or expelling kids.

To many advocates, that meant use of preventative, evidence-based interventions or de-escalation strategies. Something proactive. Something that focused on how schools choose to interact with students who may not act or communicate in ways that educators expect.

In the proposed rules, the phrase “alternative actions” is nowhere to be found. In its place, rule writers opted for “other forms of discipline,” pulling everything back to response and control, and away from strategies that naturally reduce suspension and expulsion.

Without the change in mindset, will exclusion rates change much for students with developmental or behavior disorders that affect communication? Or will they be pulled out and educated in isolation, exacerbating issues of segregation?

After two laws and years of advocacy - will the needle move much for students with disabilities? Please weigh in and share your comments.

- Ramona Hattendorf,
Director of Advocacy, The Arc of King County


You can also find the following on the ACLU of Washington's website. They have a section devoted to student discipline.