African-American special education students nationwide lose substantially more instruction time due to discipline than their white counterparts, according to a report by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University.
The report, “Disabling Punishment: The Need for Remedies to the Disparate Loss of Instruction Experienced by Black Students with Disabilities,” extrapolated its findings from federal data from 2014-15 and 2015-16, the last year for which it is available. Released last month, it examined only white and black students, in part because research has found that black students overall are suspended at the highest rates of all student groups.
The report found that nationwide, for every 100 students with special needs in 2015-16, white students lost 43 days to suspension, while black students lost 121 days. The findings showed a slight increase in disparity between the two groups over the previous year.
Nevada, Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri and Tennessee posted the highest black-white gaps. California fell below the national average: For every 100 students with special needs, white students lost 31 days to suspension, while black students lost 82 days. Still, the disproportionality remained stark.
“There is a huge amount of lost instruction for black kids due to their suspension that is very different from what white kids are experiencing and it needs to be addressed,” said Daniel J. Losen, the report’s author. “I was shocked and I’ve been working in this area for some time.”
The data covers both out-of-school and in-school suspensions, where students sent out of class remain in the building under supervision. But Losen said his analysis assumed that all suspensions led to lost instructional time.
The report notes that special needs students who are suspended are also likely to lose access to other services that they normally receive on campus, such as counseling, physical and occupational therapy, and tutoring.
“That is why the huge racial difference in the amount of instruction time lost suggests that black students with disabilities face an especially grave problem,” the report notes.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education, states are required to track and report racial disparities, including in discipline. However, over the past two years, federal monitoring reports indicate fewer than half the states identified any school districts with such disparities. Yet Losen’s analysis found that some of the states that reported no such disparities in fact have the highest racial disproportionality in suspensions.
The impetus for the analysis, Losen said, was the U.S. Department of Education’s proposal to delay by two years implementation of Obama-era regulations crafted to tighten federal oversight and consistency of state reporting. The regulations, slated to go into effect in July, would also ensure that districts with identified racial disproportionality in suspensions receive funding to correct the problem. The Department of Education is accepting comments until May 14th on the proposed delay.
The regulations “were a response to this awareness that most states were not fulfilling their obligation,” Losen said. “I don’t think the new regulations are perfect but the old ones have a serious problem.”
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education also opposes a delay. In a Feb. 6 letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, association leaders wrote that postponing implementation of the regulations “not only stops work already in motion, but it suggests that the identification and redress of significant disproportionality can be put on hold… Postponing implementation of the regulation sends the wrong message at the wrong time.”
The report comes as DeVos mulls whether to roll back broader Obama-era policies aimed at curbing racial disparities in discipline that pertain to all students. A GAO report released last month showed that racial disparities are widespread and persist regardless of the type of discipline or poverty level. African-American students, for example, accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.
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