School Suspensions Take a Toll on Kids With IEPs and 504 Plans

Why are students with more than twice as likely as their peers to be suspended? Why do so many of these disciplinary removals involve kids with learning and thinking differences? And what can parents and educators do to help?

These are some of the questions raised in a new report by Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). The report is called The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. The subtitle refers to the 1 in 5 children who have learning and thinking differences.

One chapter is devoted to social, emotional and behavioral challenges. That’s where the report looks at suspension data. It focuses on two of the 13 disability categories covered under special education law. One is “specific learning disabilities” (LD). The other is called “other health impairments” (often referred to as “OHI”), which covers many kids with .

These two categories account for two-thirds of suspensions of students with IEPs.

And all that missed academic time takes a toll on kids. According to The State of LD, suspending students from school increases their risk of dropping out. It also makes it more likely they’ll get tangled up in the juvenile justice system.

“We have an epidemic of school suspensions, and it’s hurting kids,” says attorney Robert Tudisco. “I see it in my legal practice every day.” Tudisco is a former prosecutor who now represents students facing school discipline actions.

“As bad as the suspension numbers look, they still seem to understate the problem,” adds Tudisco. “Because the data only includes students with IEPs.”

“Lots of kids with learning and thinking differences don’t have IEPs,” says Tudisco. “They may not have been evaluated, they may be undiagnosed, or they may have .”

Another fact that may surprise parents: Many suspensions are for nonviolent acts.

The State of LD highlights a landmark study in Texas that followed more than 900,000 students over six years. The study found that 97 percent of students were disciplined for “discretionary” offenses. That can mean fighting. But it often means being disruptive or disrespectful. (See a PDF of the study.)

This is important to note because students with ADHD struggle with impulse control. They have trouble regulating their behavior. That’s why Tudisco says they’re at a much higher risk of getting suspended.

With “discretionary” offenses, schools don’t have to suspend students. The school can opt for less harsh discipline methods. But often the school chooses suspension.

The Texas study also looked at how often kids got suspended. Of the students who got suspended just one time, less than 1 in 12 had LD. But of the students who got suspended 11 or more times, 1 out of 6 had LD.

As noted in The State of LD, the high rates of suspension indicate that schools may not be aware of which behaviors are related to disabilities. (The technical term for this is “manifestation.”)

Under federal law, kids with IEPs and 504 plans have added protections. For instance, schools generally aren’t allowed to suspend kids for nonviolent conduct if it can be established that their conduct was related to their disability. The process involves a hearing called a “manifestation determination.”

The State of LD highlights ways to help. One tool is a guidance letter the U.S. Department of Education wrote last year. It reminded schools that they must give behavior support to kids in . If a child is repeatedly disciplined or suspended, the letter warned, it could mean the right services aren’t in place.

“Unfortunately, parents aren’t always aware of their legal rights,” Tudisco says. “And some may not want their kids to be evaluated for an IEP or 504 plan because of the stigma,” he adds. Without an evaluation, though, there isn’t the added protection that comes with certain laws.

“I always tell my clients, if you suspect your child has behavioral issues, ask for an evaluation,” says Tudisco. “Put the school on notice of the issue. Try to do this as soon as possible—before your child gets in hot water.”

“If you haven’t asked for an evaluation, you can still ask for one after your child gets in trouble,” he says. “But as a practical matter, seeking disability protection is much harder to do afterwards.”

Read more about school discipline rights for kids with IEPs and 504 plans, and the rights of kids who don’t have an IEP or a 504 plan. You may also want to learn about how schools can encourage good behavior through positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS).

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