A new report evaluates whether and to what extent U.S. schools use discriminatory practices when suspending students with disabilities (SWD), including children of color. Particularly, it examines whether the well-documented greater risk of suspension for SWDs is attributable to disability status and/or racial bias or to alternative explanatory factors such as differences in student behavior.
The researchers synthesize the best-available empirical evidence on suspension risk for SWDs. Their search produced eighteen studies, only four of which controlled for student behavior (i.e., the infraction that led to the suspension) and just two of which controlled for students’ prior behavior, assessed by teacher ratings and parent- and self-reports. For each study, they calculate the ratio of significant estimates—that is, those indicating that SWDs are more or less likely to be suspended than students without disabilities—to the total number of estimates, and then calculate the percentage of significant estimates across studies by individual- and aggregate-level characteristics.
In general, they find little evidence that SWDs are more likely to be suspended than similarly behaving students without disabilities. Within the four studies that control for individual-level infractions (e.g., disobedience, fighting), over half of the estimates (58 percent) fail to indicate that SWDs are more likely to be suspended. Likewise, only two studies control for individual-level reported behavior (although they do analyze nationally representative, longitudinal data sets), and of those seven available risk estimates, five of them (or 71 percent) fail to indicate SWDs are more likely to be suspended.
Furthermore, the authors couldn’t find any rigorous studies that compared suspension rates for white and minority students with disabilities. In other words, there is no existing evidence that SWDs who are of color are more likely to be suspended than similarly behaving SWDs who are white because such contrasts have yet to be conducted.
Although students with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than students without disabilities, there is little evidence that this difference is attributable to teacher bias. The disability conditions for which most SWDs in the U.S. are identified (e.g., learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders) are associated with impulse control, self-regulation, and attentional difficulties—that is to say, behaviors that might make suspension more likely. In theory, federal law prohibits educators from suspending students for behaviors that are related to their disability. But in practice, this directive is as clear as mud. And the fact that students who are classified as disabled are generally more likely to misbehave has predictable consequences for the rates at which they are suspended.
SOURCE: Paul L. Morgan et al. “Are U.S. Schools Discriminating When Suspending Students With Disabilities? A Best-Evidence Synthesis,” Exceptional Children (September 2019).