Unequal Penalties

Local schools suspend and expel special education students at twice the rate of their peers. One district is trying to change that.

By Brandon Taylor and Asia Zeller

In 2014, Frieda Bikele could count on getting a routine phone call from the Eugene School District 4J’s Camas Ridge Elementary, telling her that her daughter, Anne, was done for the day.

“When [Anne] was at Camas Ridge she would be sent to the principal’s office three or four times a week,” Bikele says. “She was in kindergarten.”

Anne has learning issues that qualify her for special education services. So, when Bikele received those repeated phone calls, she believed they were code for the school’s inability — or unwillingness — to deal with Anne’s needs.

“They would say, ‘She’s not cooperating,’” Bikele says. “‘She’s misbehaving. She’s not listening.’ There was always something going on with her.”

Anne was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord does not form as it should. Anne was able to have an early operation that would allow her to walk, but before she was a year old, she contracted meningitis. That caused brain damage and led to issues with “learning and functioning and interacting with others,” Bikele says.

“They were like, ‘We can’t kick her out because she is special needs.’  I knew my child would not survive in the 4J school system,” Bikele says.

Sending students home in this way isn’t documented, and so missed class time can’t be quantified. Special education students are being sent to the office without a referral and sent home early. They’re also being suspended and expelled at a higher rate than their general education peers.

Data from the Oregon Department of Education reveals that special education students are disciplined at twice the rate of their classmates, and the ODE allows it. The incidents of discipline — that is, suspension and expulsion — that do show up in the stats reveal that 4J has a serious problem in how it handles special education students. While 4J struggles with high discipline rates, the Springfield School District has found a way to keep the rates down.

Unequal Discipline

Eugene 4J officials are twice as likely to formally suspend and expel special education students compared to other students, state records show. This means some of the most vulnerable students in the district — the ones who arguably need the most time and attention in the classroom — are suspended or expelled twice as often.

Eugene 4J’s rate of discipline for special educations students was 2.26 for the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

In Lane County, Junction City and Bethel districts are also among those that have had a high rate of discipline for special education students

And it’s not just happening in Lane County, but across Oregon. Students who qualify for special education services in public schools throughout the state are also more than two times as likely to be disciplined as other students, state records show.

Although special education students comprise only 13 percent of all students in Oregon, they’ve made up 27 percent of total students suspended or expelled. This is according to five years of state data analyzed by Eugene Weekly and the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

Oregon doesn’t bear this burden alone; the disproportionate rate of discipline is a national issue. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, Oregon’s rate of suspending and expelling special education students is on par with the national average.

Still Too Low a Bar

Students who qualify for special education services present challenges to teachers and disruptions to classroom learning. They regularly need more attention and require more patience. Often the one-on-one guidance they need is hard to provide in a large classroom setting. They may have outbursts during class, causing distraction and, in some cases, harm to themselves or other students.

Kent McIntosh, a professor in the University of Oregon College of Education, says teachers often carry the burden of making the decisions to take steps that lead to student discipline.

“It’s not like they are being intentionally mean or cruel,” he says. “It’s just we ask our teachers to do a lot.”

Federal law seeks to guarantee special education students equal access to education through the educational rights laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Doing so means preventing bias in the way they are disciplined.

Oregon has built-in assumptions that this problem will continue: The Oregon Department of Education assumes special education students will be suspended or expelled twice as often than their peers. Federal law allows states to set their own standards for what officials call a “significant discrepancy.” The ODE’s standard is set at 2.0, allowing special education students to be disciplined twice as often.

Still, this threshold is more rigorous than other states, which assume that the disparities regarding special education students will run even higher, according to a 2013 federal Government Accountability Office report.

Oregon officials have raised warnings, however, when districts push the inequity to what they would consider to be too far. This state’s education department keeps an eye on larger districts and flags those where the disparity for special education students is more than twice that of other students.

Of the 27 districts the state tracks, 17 districts in 2016-2017 school year exceeded the state’s threshold, according to ODE’s Annual Performance Report.

The problem has been persistent in Eugene 4J, which was flagged in 2015 and 2017 for a “significant discrepancy in rate of suspension/expulsion for more than 10 days” in its disciplining of special education students.

What Districts Have To Say

Several districts spoke with EW but declined to answer why their discipline rates for special education students are higher than those of other students.

“Nobody denies behavior is becoming more complex,” Cheryl Linder, special services director at Eugene 4J, which has been issued warnings twice by state officials about its treatment of special education students. Linder acknowledges 4J has “a need for some disciplinary refinement.”

District officials and teacher union leaders claim the classroom is becoming increasingly disrupted by student behavior, leading to a November 2018 board meeting focused on discipline issues overall.

District and union officials say the problem is a lack of funding.

But Linder repeatedly declined to answer EW’s questions about why Eugene 4J maintains a high rate of discipline among special education students, or how the district hopes to address it.

Smaller districts also struggle. The Junction City and Bethel districts have seen their rate of discipline for special education students average two times as high as that for other students. Those rates spiked in 2016-17, the last year for which data are available. In that year, the rate rose to 2.8 times in Junction City and 2.3 times in Bethel.

Officials from Junction City also repeatedly declined to discuss how they are addressing the disparities.

Amy Tidwell, Bethel’s special services director, declined to discuss in detail and answer questions about how Bethel is addressing the disciplinary disparities for special education students.

Tidwell did say more students than ever are coming to school facing barriers and challenges to learning, and that she believes Bethel has been “doing a better job of including all of our students in accessing general education.”

Springfield: A District Set Apart

One Lane County school district, Springfield, has overcome these challenges and kept its rate of discipline for special education students below the statewide average. In the 2016-2017 school year, the rate of discipline disparity in Springfield was 1.74 times, which is the lowest in Lane County.

In the Springfield School District, officials have embraced an alternative to automatic suspensions and expulsions when there’s subjectivity or where the possibility of bias could affect the outcome for the student.

That alternative is called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. At its core, PBIS works to get to the root of a child’s behavioral problem instead of masking the problem with a referral and lack of class time.

The goal of PBIS is for everyone — students, teachers and administration — to be aware of the expectations in any environment in the school, be that the classroom, cafeteria or hallways.

While some districts in Lane County have tried using PBIS in select schools, Springfield has fully embraced the approach in every school in the district.

Springfield has a long history of using PBIS, a strategy initially developed in the early 1990s by researchers at the University of Oregon in partnership with local school districts. Today, the UO College of Education remains partnered with PBIS.

Twenty other universities and organizations also partner with PBIS.

In schools that don’t use the program, students who disobey the rules or show other behavioral problems may get referred to school administrators — that might mean they’re separated from their classmates or, if the referrals pile up, they could be suspended.

Suspensions can be in-school, meaning a student may continue to have access to his federally mandated curriculum, or it can be out-of-school, meaning the student is barred from returning to school for a number of days.

However, under federal law, a special education student cannot be suspended or expelled for more than 10 days if the disciplinary action is determined to be a result of the student’s disability.

Under the PBIS approach, referrals are not an automatic step. Instead, teachers perform a broader assessment of what might be driving the behavior problems. Teachers and school officials spend more time engaging with the student about what might be the underlying problems. If the child came to school hungry and that was affecting their participation in the classroom, for example, the school would make sure the student gets something to eat.

Teachers also perform a check-in at the start of each day with the student to help reinforce standards of behavior, and a check-out at the end to talk over how things went.

If those steps aren’t enough, the program calls for developing a plan that addresses the student’s challenges and needs. Special education students already have individual education plans, but PBIS takes things further and focuses on behavior.

Defiance is the most cited reason special education students are suspended or expelled, and implicit biases are at least partly responsible for that. This type of suspension is classified as “subjective” by the ODE.

“What one person might call defiance another person might call ‘Here’s a student who’s really engaged in the lesson,’” McIntosh says. “Ambiguity is disproportionality’s best friend.”

McIntosh says the program keeps an eye out for implicit bias — a baked-in and often unrecognized tendency of teachers and administrators to punish certain kinds of students.

“Our research says the vast majority of disproportionality comes from implicit bias,” McIntosh says.

That’s especially true when the need for discipline is a judgment call. Often, it’s not that the student outright refuses to follow the rules, but rather that the student struggles with understanding the expectations.

Terry Scott, director of the Center for Instructional and Behavioral Research in Schools at the University of Louisville, says PBIS is designed to help all kids succeed in all areas of school, whether that be the classroom, the playground or the cafeteria.

And when all students are succeeding, special education students are succeeding.

When schools implement PBIS across the board it “greatly reduces the probability of [special education students] having those problems more so than other kids who weren’t as likely to have them in the first place,” Scott says.

According to Scott, the PBIS approach explicitly addresses social expectations to all students, which he notes is especially important for special education students.

“Kids with disabilities, especially, have real challenges in figuring out all these environmental cues that a lot of other kids pick up on rather quickly,” he says.

PBIS helps bridge that gap.

Scott taught at the UO before McIntosh began working at the university. The two are currently working on research together, though it is yet to be published.

State officials don’t offer specific recommendations on how to address the problem, but many Lane County school districts use PBIS to varying extents. Springfield’s district-wide implementation of PBIS could explain why their rate of disproportionality among special education students is lower than that of other districts.

Studies from the UO show that schools that implementing 70 percent of each of the three tiers of PBIS can see meaningful reductions is suspensions and expulsions.

Limitations of PBIS

Springfield officials caution that PBIS — or any program — alone cannot account for meaningful differences in discipline rates between school districts. But they say Springfield’s long-term commitment to alternatives to suspension and expulsions has meant real differences for their students.

PBIS researchers say commitment is key. “PBIS is only as good as how well you implement it,” Scott says.

McIntosh says that he thinks there can be valid reasons to suspend a student, but more often a suspension should only occur “because an unsafe thing happened, and we need to get our team together to figure out how everybody can be safe.”

The program has its drawbacks. It is time-intensive and, as a result, expensive. Springfield, for example, had to drop PBIS for a few years in the late 2000s when budget cuts made it too expensive to continue. The district rebooted it district-wide in 2012.

The program also needs broad support. If one school in the district uses PBIS, for example, that might end if the principal leaves. In Springfield, district officials make sure the program continues.

“The team has a level of responsibility to train that person about what they have done in the past and what they expect to be doing moving into the future,” says Brian Megert, director of special programs at Springfield School District.

While other Lane County school districts use some aspects of PBIS, it’s not clear why most have not matched Springfield’s commitment.

Looking Ahead

On Jan. 22, Disability Rights Oregon filed a class action lawsuit against the ODE, arguing that special education students are unable to attend a full day of school.

“Many public schools throughout Oregon have unnecessarily and unlawfully shortened the school day for children who engage in challenging classroom behaviors related to their disabilities,” the lawsuit says.

In addition, state education officials say they are looking to the 2019 Legislature to address the school discipline problems. A state advisory committee has proposed nine recommendations for further eliminating discipline disparities in schools.

The recommendations include providing trauma-informed practices, assessing current data collection, giving resources and supports to school districts to develop policies, and establishing procedures to support transitions.

Frieda Bikele eventually took Anne out of Camas Ridge and enrolled in her a private school. She knew that if Camas Ridge — a comprehensive elementary school with specialists on site — could not meet Anne’s educational needs, no school in the district could.

Before her daughter left Camas Ridge, Bikele was told Anne was below her grade level in reading. Within three months of starting first grade at Life! Lutheran, Bikele was asked if Anne could be moved to the second-grade reading level.

Bikele says, “The very first day [Anne] walked in the classroom, she didn’t look back.”

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit journalism.uoregon.edu/catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst. 

The Most Expelled and Suspended

Children who qualify for special education services can have a variety of learning barriers from speech impairments to developmental delays. The children who are expelled and suspended the most are children with special education, also known as SPED, classifications of “Emotional Disturbances” and “Other Health Impaired” — two very broad categories. Emotional disturbances include students with anything from PTSD to phobias to depression. Children who are in the other health-impaired category may have anything from attention deficit disorders to diabetes.

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