Let’s Talk About Special Education Kids and Suspensions

Why are so many special education kids being suspended?

And what can we do about it?

Writing for you on this drizzly day here in Eugene. It’s been such a busy time for me, probably you, too. But here and there things have managed to creep in, catch my eyes and tell me I need to reflect and write. A couple weeks ago I started to write about special education kiddos and the high number of suspensions.

As I am definitely ADD, ADHD and highly distractible, instead I read an article in US magazine about the college admission mom cheaters and ended up reading more stuff about the scandal and writing my last blog about that.

However, I have been haunted by recent personal events and national news items urging me to write to you today.

I believe in full inclusion. I believe every child deserves to be in the least restrictive environment possible to learn from others, and share their unique capabilties. All kids learn best, differently and at different rates. While I recognize why kids have labels, which in many cases, serve them well, often I would prefer not.

Although I am not a special education expert or credentialed so, as a reading researcher and teacher there was generally a connection between reading overlapping with speech and language and more unique needs. A number of the kids I worked with along the way were designated Title I, my specialty, with other stuff in the mix. My forte was kiddos in the bottom test-labeled tenth percentile, the only way is up. I was fortunate to ‘train’ and practice transformative reading strategies with Program Specialists and California Selpa (special education groups) and classrooms.

When I was Principal awhile ago now, I arrived at school to find double retainees with hair growth, the district LH (learning handicapped class) out in the boonies, in a trailer, no yard, no water, no bathroom, no hope.

Immediately we moved the class into the main part of the campus, did a bit of community shuffling. I am ever grateful to the teachers for accommodating this mega move, in the name of equity.

What proved interesting was referrals to me pretty much stopped. Most other Principal referrals were for resource labeled kids and Title I, and mainly boys. There were some really violent, acting out students and way behind kids, some living in infested homes and cars. Previously the Principal paddled, as did teachers in their classrooms, boxing gloves in the Principal’s office, no kidding.

At that time, our extraordinary LH teacher focused on student success, but with some hard core behavior, could restrain in the dire times it was needed. I never did it, but I was there and it wasn’t pretty. I suspended a few kids, but other things were better. We didn’t know about the word mindfulness yet, but we lived it, I guess. Here are some of the things Bell Ave School did which curbed a myriad of inappropriate behaviors for special education, all campus kids, really.

Alternatives to suspension: what worked for us

  • Home visits by Principal and staff
  • Social work interns from University
  • Shifted funds for full-time Counselor
  • Foster grandparents one-to-one
  • Conflict Manager kids
  • Particpated in choir, table tennis
  • Community business mentors one-to-one
  • LH Class charge of school wildlife compound and pond
  • Grant funded breakfast, afterschool and Saturday school programs, snacks
  • POPS (Power of Positive Students) behavior program

So, experience tells me alternatives to suspension may consist of people and programs uniting in one seamless effort to help children feel successful. I agree kids are resilient, not so sure about grit for students living in cars with lack of food (except school), clothes (school), internet access (in trouble here).

I tell you when I am hungry and tired I am really cranky and I don’t know how some of our children cope and manage to be in school, let alone sit there and be compliant. So, suspension may not be surprising. Frustrated kids, hungry kids, non-compliant kids, are they the ones who are being suspended? I think yes.

Full inclusion is the right thing to do, in my opinion, as the greatness shines grace on all, however sometimes these kids also test our patience to the limits. With the high surge in ADD and ADHD labeled kids, consistenly I read thirty percent uptick in last years, wonder why, screen time too much, maybe, and other factors? Anyway, these kids are bouncing all over, distracting themselves, other kids and their patient teachers.

Do whatever works for you, but start now

So put a couple way behind skills aquisition kids in any classroom, any level, adding to the mix distractibility, can’t sit still or ‘participate’ children and it does test a teacher’s soul. “It’s not like they are being intentionally mean or cruel. It’s just we ask our teachers to do a lot.” (Brent McKintosh, U of O, College of Education).

The botom line is kids who qualify for special education “can have a variety of learning barriers from speech impairment to developmental delays. The chidren who are suspended the most are children with special education (SPED) classifications of Emotional Disturbances, and other health impaired….”

This may mean PTSD, phobias, depression. Attention deficits to diabetes and health concerns to monitor. Likely no school nurse, either. And sensory needs. This is a lot for a teacher in the ‘regular’ education class as well as a self-contained class to handle. Our teachers wear capes with halos above.

I’m sure you agree with me that classrooms are increasingly disrupted by inappropriate student behaviors. Is the problem simply a lack of funding? Is there a simple fix? In a recent Eugene Weekly newpaper article about local district suspensions, it states that suspensions rose greatly in the last couple years, from two to nearly three times as many special education participants, but I can’t support that with actual data. Not available. In fact, several districts say they are “working on it”, the discipline “problem”.

In some parts of the United States paddling is still the preferred choice of discipline. Imagine a traumatized child being paddled or locked in a classroom box for extended periods. How barbaric.

I feel we must definitely explore any and all alternatives to suspension for all children, notably special education. There is obviously such a discrepancy in suspension rates, our local districts won’t even disclose numbers.

About those suspensions, what kinds now?

Kids may be given in-house or out of school suspensions. That certaily doesn’t help a kid. But it does give a teacher breathing room, I admit, and the class too, from that kid poking others with a pencil. Running down the hall, or even running away from school. Climbing over or under bathroom stalls with kids in them, how gross, but who supervises bathrooms?

And what about the number of kids acting out so intensely in front of other students, maybe kicking the teacher, knocking over furniture, pretty obnoxious stuff. Oh boy, I could go on and on, maybe you, too. Thus, suspensions and expulsions? Is this consistent across our country? What are the criteria for suspending and expelling regular and special education students? Why the discrepancy? Are rates for minority children being suspended, higher?

What’s the Federal Law Say?

Did you know under federal law a special education designated child may not be suspended or expelled for more than ten days, if the behavior was because of disabilty?

And what about the ‘un-suspensions’? How many hours of lost instructional time for kids repeatedly just sent home from school for behavior problems? This is not on any suspension tally and I’m sure it happens all over the place. But is there a way we can get an accurate tally? Special education kids need to be at achool. “You Miss School, You Miss Out.”

What about those children sent home on any given day, with no accounting. That gives even more of the scope. Kids just sent home routinely, off the record. “Come get….” This frustrates parents and guardians, and really isn’t fair in regard to us having access to consistently reliable and valid data. How can we understand reasons for suspensions and needed alternatives if we don’t have a grasp of the entire situation? Are there patterns teachers and schools can learn from which assist in alternative program development?

No wonder tired teachers and staff!

With so many kids coming to school with unique needs, knowing each one is a scholar in waiting, our teachers manage and excel in tough circumstances every day. No wonder burn-out is prevalent. A couple things need to happen right away. Besides the obvious small class sizes and full funding, we need to provide one on one teacher’s aides for highly demanding students, so the teacher can teach and kids can learn without interference or loss of instructional time due to behaviors.

Moeover, there has to be more supervision on campuses, in particular playgrounds, hallways, bathrooms. Some children need constant supervison and chaperones. Getting on and off a school bus may also be problematic and lines, forget it, a recipe for poking, pushing and obnoxious behaviors.

What’s next. You tell me. Surely we can do better.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

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