What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities are disciplined twice as often as non-disabled peers. Washington is taking actions to remedy the inequities. Read on for examples of the new state rules and where to go for more information.  
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students are receiving the best-practice services they need and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.
  • Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”
  • Concern is nationwide. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2018 issued a state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect.”
  • If the school calls to send a child home, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a formal suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to communicate distress or manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require from typically developing students. Data clearly show that students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently than their non-disabled peers. By learning about state and federal guidelines, parents can advocate to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need to successfully access school and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.

Parents can empower themselves by learning the federal framework for special education protections. Students who receive services or accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are guaranteed access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. Schools follow specific procedures when they discipline students with special needs to avoid violations of FAPE.

For example, a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be excluded from school because of behavior that results from a disability: Read on for further information about Manifestation Determination Hearings. Also, schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments.

Some agencies are researching the impacts of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, on children and their families. Some research shows that trauma and a worsening of mental health are outcomes. Excessive punishments are linked to negative lifelong outcomes, such as reduced graduation rates and more incarcerations. The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (challengingbehavior.org) has a webinar about the impact of suspensions on children in early learning.

Unexpected behavior may indicate that a student has a disability and needs services

Federal laws can protect students who haven’t yet been identified as having disabilities. School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called the Child Find mandate. Suspension, expulsion, isolation or restraint due to unexpected behavior can initiate an evaluation process, and students who qualify for services can retroactively be afforded protections from the IDEA or Section 504.

The Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet on Restraint and Seclusion that succinctly describes some federal guidelines related to disciplinary action and disability:

“A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Washington State has new rules for schools

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all Washington school districts, in July 2018 adopted new state guidelines related to discipline. OSPI provides a Parent Guide to discipline, available in multiple languages, on its website.

Also available is a Menu of Best Practices and Strategies. Restorative justice, behavioral health support and social skills instruction are on the menu for a more proactive, student-centered approach. The state includes requirements for parent notification and family engagement in the new rules, which are being implemented over two years, 2018-2020.

“The state discipline rules were created four decades ago,” says Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our students and schools are vastly different today. The new rules provide more clarity and they allow for student, family, and community input in developing local discipline policies.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different. We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”

Students with disabilities and students of color are disciplined more frequently

OSPI reports that 3.5 percent of all students were suspended or expelled during the 2016–17 school year. Among students receiving special education services, the percentage was 7.1 percent. For African-American students, the percentage was 7.4 percent. For Latino students, the rate was 4.1 percent. Students of color who also have disabilities are impacted at the highest rates. Seattle’s King 5 News on Oct. 25, 2018, broadcast a news report about the disparities in discipline for students with disabilities.

In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1541 to help close opportunity gaps in learning. OSPI spent two years researching the statutes and guidance. In rewriting the rules that were adopted in July 2018, the agency gathered feedback from families, students, educators, and community members through three public comment periods and eight public hearings.

New state policies are designed to discourage disciplinary actions that take a child out of the learning environment and encourage family engagement and positive behavior supports and other evidence-based practices. OSPI’s one-page introductory handout for parents outlines the new guidance.

According to OSPI, the new rules aim to make policies fair statewide. They require districts to include parents and guardians when updating discipline policies. The overarching goal is to keep children in school and learning and avoid severe or exclusionary disciplinary measures. 

In general, Washington’s new state rules:

Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies

Prohibit schools from excluding students from school for absences or tardiness

Further limit use of exclusionary discipline (suspension, expulsion) for behaviors that do not present a safety threat

Prohibit the use of expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range already cannot be excluded from their classroom placements for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)

Clarify expectations for how school districts must provide students access to educational services during a suspension or expulsion

When are students entitled to a Manifestation Determination Hearing?

In Washington, a student with an identified disability may be suspended for a short period of time if there are safety concerns or if other interventions are failing to control behaviors that cause a significant disruption. However, if a suspension or an accumulation of in- or out-of-school suspensions within a semester or trimester totals 10 days, the school holds a Manifestation Determination Hearing to determine whether the behavior resulted—or “manifested”—from the disability. This hearing is a distinct process for students with IEPS or Section 504 accommodation plans and is separate from any other general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Removal for more than 10 days is considered a change in placement and could violate the school district’s responsibility to provide the special education student with FAPE.

If a student’s behavior manifested from disability, the school and parents meet to discuss program or placement changes likely to help. A Manifestation Determination hearing can also initiate an evaluation process for students not yet identified as needing special education services or disability-related accommodations. Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, the hearing can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 plans. Keep reading for more detail about the FBA and how it’s used to generate positive behavior interventions and supports.

The IDEA guarantees parent participation in the IEP process, which includes disciplinary hearings and any other formal meetings in which a student’s educational program or placement is reviewed or amended.  

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to a disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. In that case, the school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs during the suspension.

The school district is required to provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). OSPI issued a bulletin September 8, 2016, that states, “When educational services are provided in an alternative setting, the alternative setting should be comparable, equitable and appropriate to the regular education services a student would have received without the exclusionary discipline.” The bulletin mentions alternative schools, 1:1 tutoring and online learning as examples of alternative settings.

Note: If a student’s conduct involves Special Circumstances – weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury—a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination hearing still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services still are provided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?

The ACLU booklet commits a page to addressing the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU points out that without formal paperwork that describes a disciplinary action and its specific start and end times, a school may not be accountable to specific rules that govern special education: “Any time your student misses class time because of a behavior problem, it may be considered a discipline and should be considered as counting towards the 10 days that would be a ‘change of placement’ under the law and trigger additional protections. If your student is having behavioral problems that do not lead to suspension, you may suggest that the IEP team should consider holding an IEP meeting to reevaluate your student’s behavior supports, or that the 504 team meet to consider changes to the accommodation plan.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

Schools teach skills for expected behavior

Specialized instruction designed to meet a student’s unique needs can include education in social communication, self-regulation, choice-making and other areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that may impact behavior. These strategies are well recognized as best-practice for keeping children engaged in school and avoiding problems that might lead to discipline.

In addition, schools can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is developed to proactively help a child learn expected behaviors and shift away from circumstances that might lead to escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that are disrupting education and determines “antecedents,” which means conditions or events that occur before the targeted behavior. A BIP is intended to support “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills that prevent escalations and keep the student in school and learning.  

A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can work with an IEP or a Section 504 accommodations plan. OSPI offers guidance to schools and families about FBA/BIP process. Another place to find valuable information is through the Parent Center Hub, a website operated by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR).

School discipline is a national topic of concern

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter for public-school staff: “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs.” The letter included data that 10 percent of all children with disabilities, ages 3-21, were subject to a disciplinary removal from school. Children of color with disabilities faced an even higher rate.

The letter encourages all schools to develop robust programs for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and provides specific guidance for IEP teams. “In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team must consider – and, when necessary to provide FAPE, include in the IEP – the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”

The federal guidance includes statements about staff development: “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child. Supports for school personnel may be designed, as appropriate, to better implement effective instructional and behavior management strategies and specific behavioral interventions that are included in the child’s IEP.”

In 2014, the federal government issued guidance to discourage disciplinary actions that discriminate against students with disabilities, particularly students of color. A variety of federal sources have highlighted disparities, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in April 2018 issued the first state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities. The data include a finding that children of color who also have disabilities lost 77 more days of instruction because of disciplinary actions than peers who are Caucasian.

“These data on lost instruction are rarely reported,” the report concludes in its executive summary. “Although many could guess that the racially disparate impact is large, these dramatic disparities were derived from reliable publicly reported federal data, and they should be cause for alarm. Students with disabilities receive much more than classroom instruction when they are in school. For example, they often receive related counseling services, occupational and physical therapy as well as additional small group or one-on-one tutoring. Therefore, they lose much more when they are removed from school.”

Inappropriate discipline may be a denial of FAPE

The full report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies includes this statement in its introduction: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect. To suspend a student because of behavior that is a result of their disability is the equivalent of denying that student access to education.”

However, in December 2018, a federal school safety commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education rescind the 2014 guidance intended to prevent discriminatory practices. OSPI responded by stating that Washington State’s policies and updated guidance would be unaffected. “Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline…and will have no effect on OSPI’s enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline,” OSPI stated.

Washington discipline laws include statutes in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) and rules in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC). Washington State student discipline laws apply to all K–12 students. Students with disabilities are subject to both general education and special education rules and statutes. For the most up-to-date information about general education discipline procedures and the rules changes underway, visit OSPI’s Student Discipline page. For more information about special education discipline procedures, visit OSPI’s Special Education Behavior and Discipline page.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

When severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this. The ERP specifically explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff who are authorized to provide isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint. Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian any time formal disciplinary actions are taken and any time that their child experiences isolation or restraint.

Where to find the state laws

For a link to the complete Washington Administrative Codes (WACs) that describe the Final Rules for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, visit OSPI’s website and click on links for the downloadable PDF documents: www.k12.wa.us/studentdiscipline