There’s a danger looming in schools today that’s putting our nation’s most vulnerable children at risk. Around the country, teachers and administrators are struggling to meet the needs of a growing population of disabled students, and they are entering school environments ill-prepared to educate these children responsibly, thanks to a lack of both adequate training and resources. This lack of preparation for handling students’ special needs is, in turn, sparking a disturbing and dangerous trend: the use of harmful “zero tolerance” policies that end in seclusion, restraint, expulsion and – too often – law enforcement intervention for the disabled children involved.
From coast to coast, the incidents are as heartbreaking as they are shocking:
- In Brooklyn, NY, G.R., a 5-year-old autistic student, was traumatized when police were called to his school because he was having a temper tantrum. He was physically removed from the school by police and strapped to a stretcher, and when his family members tried to advocate for him, they were allegedly handcuffed. His grandmother's ribs were broken in the altercation.
- In Albuquerque, a 7-year-old with autism was handcuffed by police officers called to restrain him. His “offenses” included calling other children names, knocking over chairs, spitting, and shooting rubber bands at a police officer.
- Tony Smith, a disabled student suing the Atlanta Police Department and his former school district, claims he was handcuffed to a filing cabinet for seven hours when the school investigated a crime that had taken place on campus. The officers involved, his suit argues, violated department policy and his civil rights.
- In 2010, autistic student Evelyn Towry made national headlines when she was arrested after becoming agitated because her teacher wouldn’t let her wear her favorite cow hoodie. Her Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which detailed her needs and how they should be met specifically, included a clause allowing the school to contact law enforcement in the event of disruptive behavior, though her parents report they neither saw nor approved the document.
Cases like these, of students trapped by school policies rarely designed to deal with the nuances of their diagnoses, are growing – and the situation is further clouded by race, class and social factors. These factors can determine what kinds of evaluations, interventions and treatments are provided to students with disabilities or suspected disabilities, and they ultimately decide whether children are able to successfully complete their educations or fall by the wayside.
Race, Disability, and Discipline in Public Schools
The increased use of law enforcement to deal with behavioral issues in schools gained heightened attention this year when Salecia Johnson, age 6, had a temper tantrum in her principal’s office and was handcuffed and detained by local police as a result. She was so traumatized by the experience that she has trouble sleeping at night – and she’s not the only one.
Such situations are growing extremely common across the United States, with school districts calling on police to handle routine disciplinary infractions rather than dealing with them on their own. Many have adopted harsh zero-tolerance policies, where infractions are handled with a one-size-fits-all model, regardless of age, ability or the larger context in which the infractions took place. These policies can effectively set some students on the path of what the Florida ACLU calls a school to prison pipeline -- and, notably, many of the victims of this system, such as Salecia, are minorities.
Racial disparities when it comes to school discipline are well-established in the United States; students of color are twice as likely as their white peers to be subject to out-of-school suspensions, according to the Department of Education’s 2012 Civil Rights Data Collection. Yet often, there’s more to these cases than meets the eye, because many of the minority students who find themselves harshly penalized also happen to be students with disabilities, many of them undiagnosed.
Annie Linden is a former teacher who taught in districts primarily composed of low-income students of color, and she still participates in the preparation of Individualized Education Programs. In an interview with AlterNet, she noted that many of her former students showed signs of cognitive disabilities that went undiagnosed, sometimes due to parental fears about deportation or concerns that their children might be removed from school. The data suggest that these parents were right to be afraid: Students of color are already at a higher risk of expulsion, and disability can compound that risk.
Studies in individual states lend support to the critical importance of discussing race and disability together in the context of school discipline; this is particularly important given the considerable funding disparities between white and nonwhite children when it comes to disabilities like autism. Students of color are generally less likely to be diagnosed with disorders of these kinds, making it still harder to provide them with the support they need in educational settings.
When Disability Meets District Policy
Even without counting the many children with undiagnosed disabilities in schools today, we know that the overall number of disabled students in our public school system is on the rise. Increasingly, school districts are tasked with educating students with a wide range of intellectual, cognitive and emotional disabilities, rather than physical disabilities, as in prior decades. In theory, our ability to identify these disorders earlier than we could in the past should ensure that students get the support and access they need to succeed in school, including individualized education when it is appropriate. But in practice, the rise in disabled students is crunching school districts terribly, as funding for these students has not at all kept pace with the rise in diagnoses. As a result, many schools are now hard pressed to serve their students’ educational needs and deal with disciplinary issues.
As funding for special education drops and available staff members dwindle – and as disabled students with behavioral problems are increasingly mainstreamed in response to changing thinking on disability education – discipline is becoming a large problem in a growing number of mainstream classrooms. In response, some districts have decided to bring out the heavy guns for handling disruptions associated with disabled students; from outbursts in class to tantrums in the hall, the new go-to solution in many districts is to call the police.
In addition to calling on law enforcement, Disability Rights Oregon notes that there has been an uptick in the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, as well. The organization points out that these practices appear to disproportionately target disabled students and can be fatal in some cases.
Last month, 16-year-old Corey Foster died after police were called to restrain him. Though Foster’s disability status is unclear, he was attending a school for at-risk youth that included a number of students with disabilities, and his fellow students say restraint is a common disciplinary tactic.
In Jackson, Mississippi, students at an alternative school are routinely handcuffed for discipline infractions, and many of them have emotional or intellectual disabilities. Such treatment of disabled students is not uncommon; the Judge Rotenberg Center, for example, has been under media scrutiny for years due to practices like shocking autistic students. And a study on the use of restraint in Texas schools has indicated a looming “crisis in special education” as growing numbers of disabled students are restrained by their teachers, sometimes unsafely because these teachers had never been trained to perform such techniques appropriately. These cases involved school staff, not law enforcement, but they are part of a larger pattern of criminalizing disabled students that has been criticized by disability rights organizations.
In response to these reports, the National Disability Rights Network has called for an end to restraint and seclusion in US schools, and along with that comes a radical need to rethink the use of law enforcement in the management of disabled students. Police officers are typically not provided with specific training in working with disabled children, let alone handling the de-escalation of a situation where a disabled child is frightened and potentially reactive. As public safety officers, their primary professional goal is not to provide disciplinary support in schools except in special circumstances – and routine discipline is not a special circumstance.
Clearly, the use of police officers to assist with school discipline is out of proportion to the need, and yet it persists. Some school districts, such as Evelyn Towry’s, mandate a law enforcement provision in IEPs, which allows the school to call police officers to assist with discipline problems, often under a vague mandate that could involve anything from an episode of extreme violence to stubbornness in the classroom. Others districts may strongly advocate for it, or push for frequent review of disabled students to determine if such a clause should be added. Rather than focusing on handling behavior before it gets out of control, districts are handing their students over to third parties when the going gets rough – and disabled students are the ones paying the price for those decisions, often finding themselves suspended for extended periods of time over behavior they cannot be expected to control.
Teachers Struggling in Understaffed Environments
So why the push to outsource discipline? Blame austerity measures again, which, on top of poor disability funding, have hit a number of districts hard. That’s a recipe for frustration, and sometimes danger, when it comes to providing a safe and educational environment for disabled students. Teacher Alicia Maude Wein from Guildeland High School in New York explained to AlterNet via email how her classroom support had radically decreased:
[Before], it was me, a co-teacher with a literacy/special ed degree, and three additional adults providing support -- 5 adults every day to the 18 kids. This year, after 2 rounds of deep budget cuts (in a relatively affluent suburban district), it's just me.
Overwhelmed by conditions like this, teachers struggle to keep order, and Wein says she understands why districts might be tempted to turn to outside options:
I think similar circumstances (or worse) could be lending to the desperation that would sway some districts to call in outside supports like law enforcement (as grim, disrespectful and embarrassing as that notion is) when things get out of control in the classroom.
She noted that her district is generally supportive, promotes mainstreaming of disabled students, and works with students, staff and parents to create a productive environment, even under the stress of budget cuts. The same can’t be said of all districts, though, and in some cases the various pressures can create an explosive mixture: When staff without training for handling disabled students encounter autistic students mid-meltdown, for example, they may not know how to respond, and they could end up traumatizing students in an attempt to impose order.
This lack of teacher and staff training is a serious matter for both teachers and students; Wein herself pointed out that she’d taken just three credits in Special Education 15 years ago – and yet today she is faced with teaching and managing a classroom of disabled students. As the Michigan Education Association warns :
Because school personnel are not trained to work with children whose violent behavior stems from a disability and where the possibility of injury is discounted by the District, they daily face a situation they are ill-suited to handle without suffering injury, both physical and psychological.
Without the support they need to deal with disabled students and the training they need to effectively and humanely handle their behavior, there should be little surprise that so many teachers and administrators are allowing law enforcement to deal with these issues instead. But as Vicki Soloniuk, a pediatrician who works with disabled children and helps their parents to advocate on their behalf, pointed out in a conversation with AlterNet, the turn to these punitive measures can actually enflame a disabled student’s behavior rather than defuse it.
She explained that children with cognitive disabilities often have difficulty adjusting to new situations and strangers, so when an outside party like a police officer is called in, these children may experience extreme emotional distress. This can manifest in kicking, hitting and screaming – a fairly typical response among cognitively impaired children, but certainly unnerving if you have no training in dealing with such behavior.
“We tell our children to stay away from strangers,” Soloniuk said, “and then we don’t understand why they react poorly when the school calls in an outsider, someone a student has never met.” Like many school districts in the United States, the district Soloniuk works in responds to incidents like these by isolating the child involved, a mistake which can create even more behavioral problems. Soloniuk notes: "The school hides a 7-year-old with autism alone in a classroom all day, and when they bring him out once a day, he starts flapping and stimming, because he sees all these kids around. So the school responds by saying, ‘He can’t handle it’ and locks him up again."
She views such isolation as tantamount to torture and points out that it’s also ideally suited for creating further difficulties in the future because the student never has an opportunity to socialize. One way to address the issue, she says, is to get teachers and support staff fully trained; two working sessions a year, for instance, would allow everyone in a school to learn how to interact with disabled students so they can mainstream more successfully and be supported outside the special education classroom.
More Training, More Support Needed
After years of experience in the school system, Alicia Wein says she has come to feel comfortable with her disabled students, and she invests energy in interacting with them and their parents to learn more about their personalities and learning styles before entering the classroom. But not all teachers have this level of experience or the time required to give high-level individual focus to disabled students.
To begin to address these discrepancies, districts such as Wein’s are demanding that their teachers pursue more professional development, particularly when it comes to dealing with students with autism. Congress is also tackling the issue; lawmakers are currently pushing for better teacher training to help educators handle students with autism more effectively. Such training undoubtedly will be beneficial for both teachers and their students, but it certainly won’t solve the problem we’re facing entirely; even an experienced teacher with additional professional development can’t be expected to keep order all alone in a classroom of 12 students with severe disabilities.
Simply put, districts also need more trained staff on hand. Teachers handling mainstreamed classes require support to balance the needs of their disabled and nondisabled students and to make sure that every student is provided with the educational material and assistance he or she needs. Without staff support, students inevitably begin to fall through the cracks, and one consequence of that can be an increase in disruptive behavior. Overburdened instructors may fail to identify the warning signs of a tantrum or meltdown, for instance, making it difficult for them to intervene early on – before things have escalated beyond their capacity to deal with them. And even if they do spot a troubled student who needs more personalized attention, that level of engagement can often be impossible to provide in a classroom with 25 or more additional students vying for their attention. Trained staff can help mediate situations like these.
Another issue that came up again and again with educators who spoke to AlterNet was the impact of our increasing reliance on standardized testing to measure performance in the classroom. High-stakes testing creates a highly pressured environment for teachers, who are forced to focus on the tests rather than on their students’ learning needs – especially if the teachers don’t have tenure or secure positions in their districts. All students, regardless of disability status, suffer in this environment, where teachers are asked to view students not as individuals, but as aggregate test scores.
Bottom-up educational reform often focuses on teachers and blames them for the failures of the educational system. But this approach largely ignores the structural issues plaguing many districts as they fight for funding, cut student and staff services, and live in fear of the latest test results and what they mean for the school’s future. For students with disabilities, these issues are further complicated by the need to access a functional educational environment where they will be safe from harm and not at risk of run-ins with the police. In this educational landscape, it’s hard for disabled students to learn, let alone realize their full potential.
Poor training, funding cuts and increased pressure to teach to the test don’t add up to much for the most vulnerable students in our schools – or many of the other students, for that matter. “Sadly,” Vicki Soloniuk points out, “we don’t seem to care very much about our kids in this country.”
s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.