By Shelby Webb
December 26, 2018
Students who receive special education services are more likely to be given some of the harshest punishments in schools, according to an analysis of Texas Education Agency data.
Since the 2013-2014 school year, special education students statewide were sent to alternative education programs run by local juvenile justice systems at the highest rates of any student sub-group, and the second most likely to be sent to disciplinary alternative education programs, which are not directly affiliated with juvenile courts.
Across three other types of discipline tracked by the TEA — including expulsions, out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions — special education students across Texas were punished at the second highest rates of any student subgroup, behind only African-American students.
About 9.8 percent of Texas students were listed as special education in 2016-2017, but 18.4 percent of students sent to alternative schools run by local juvenile justice departments that school year were in special education. They accounted for about 17.7 percent of students placed on out-of-school suspension and 16.3 percent of students sent to district-run disciplinary schools.
In TEA’s Region 4, which encompasses most of greater Houston, 9,904, or about 8.9 percent of all special education students were placed on out-of-school suspension in the 2016-2017 school year, according to agency data. More than 13.4 percent, or 14,970 special education students, were placed on in-school suspensions, and nearly 2 percent were sent to disciplinary alternative schools for misbehavior.
By contrast, across all student groups, about 7.8 percent of students in Region 4 and 8.7 percent of students statewide were placed on in-school suspensions; fewer than 1 percent in the region and statewide were placed in disciplinary alternative education programs.
Sarah Beebe, a supervising attorney with Disability Rights with the Disability Rights Texas advocacy group, said she is not surprised by the disproportionate rates at which disabled students are punished, but is disheartened by the statistics.
“I don’t want to see that number, but I think speaks to the misunderstanding of disabilities in general and how behavior manifests itself,” she said.
TEA Spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the agency is aware of disproportionate rates of punishment for special education students and is working to address the issue.
“The TEA has a number of ongoing initiatives that are focused on ensuring students are not subject to practices that lead to disproportionate representation in special education and/or disciplinary placements,” she said in a statement.
One of those initiatives is a monitoring system that will show how disproportionately each district disciplines students of different racial and educational backgrounds, although that system is still being developed. The agency also hopes to unveil a self-assessment tool for districts to identify and monitor how they dole out discipline in real time, a tool that will be tied to TEA support systems and guidance.
Still, Henry Gonzales, who serves as the new executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, said his staff regularly encounters students with diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities. He said when he was a probation officer, he would ask students to read to him in an effort to gauge their abilities. Many could not.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising to find a lot of these kids weren’t at the level they should be and that some of these kids, perhaps, weren’t identified as special education,” Gonzales said. “There are a lot of times we find these kids can’t read.”
Texas is far from the only state that disproportionately sends its students with disabilities into the juvenile justice system, but the numbers are hard to measure, according to Meghan Burke, an associate professor of special education at the University of Illinois who has studied education advocacy in the juvenile justice system.
Estimates for the percentage of disabled youth in juvenile justice systems nationally ranges from 9 percent to 77 percent, with most studies putting the number closer to about 33 percent, Burke said.
“The estimates can vary widely — the only agreement is that they’re disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system,” Burke said. “For why that’s happening, it could be several things, but we don’t really know why.”
There are some theories. For example, students born into poverty are more likely to be disabled developmentally and physically and more likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system. Students with some mental disorders struggle with appropriate decision making and may be taken advantage of by trouble-makers.
Additionally, disabled students often struggle to get services that best suit their needs, or to receive special education services at all, said Olivia McGill, assistant deputy director of health services for the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. That can lead to outbursts in class.
Imagine asking a ninth grader, McGill said, who reads at a second-grade level, to read paragraphs from a novel aloud in front of a class of peers. Instead of floundering at the task, they may instead flip a desk in order to be sent home and avoid the potential embarrassment all together.
The Juvenile Probation Department often finds students who fell through the cracks by testing their reading skills, IQs and giving them clinical reviews, according to McGill. Students flagged as having potential issues may undergo psychiatric, substance abuse and other screenings and, for the first time in some cases, receive a diagnosis.
“We’re able to take that information to the school district and say ‘Hey, we know you didn’t ID this kid as special education, but we found some issues that perhaps you should be aware of,’” McGill said. “It’s in the hopes that identifying those needs will help divert the kid from going deeper into our system.”
Researchers and those who work within the juvenile justice system agree that one of the best ways to prevent students of all abilities from getting into more trouble is by helping them to succeed in school. That can be difficult for students with disabilities and their parents, who must navigate an alphabet-soup of terminology and services.
The Harris County Juvenile Probation Department is trying to make the process easier for families through a new partnership with Disability Rights Texas. The department pays the nonprofit advocacy organization to provide advocates and an attorney to students returning to their local schools.