eNews: The hard lessons of disproportionality that students of color learn in school
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Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. Doing Disability Justice
November 2014

Dear Friends,

A student of color with a disability is more than twice as likely to be suspended as a student without a disability, and an African American student with a disability is six times more likely to face suspension as a white student without a disability. This disproportionate treatment is a harsh teacher, one that hammers home the lesson to students of color that school is a pipeline to prison. In fact, one recent study found that while up to 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, only 37 percent received services while in school.

"What is a behavior? Merriam Webster says it's managing the actions of oneself in a particular way. Well, there you go. Whose particular way? To act, function, or react in a particular way, to conduct oneself properly. I would say, in light of things like Ferguson, that that question about what 'conducting yourself in a particular way' means is so subjective as to make many of our kids very, very vulnerable."

Cheryl Theis, DREDF Education Advocate

The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities, held its fall quarterly meeting from October 5–7 in Atlanta, Georgia. The convening on October 6 focused on the School–to–Prison Pipeline, with special education attorneys, consultants, and advocates from all across the country providing testimony to assist the NCD members in formulating draft policy recommendations on how to end disparities in discipline and promote positive outcomes for minority students of color with disabilities.

DREDF collaborated with NCD in organizing the school–to–prison pipeline convening and will take the lead in drafting the policy recommendations. The school–to–prison pipeline has been an area of focus for DREDF over the past several years because we see an inherent connection between the quality of special education services (or lack thereof) and outcomes for students of color with disabilities. While special education is often blamed for the current situation, our 35 years of experience serving thousands of students and their families tells us that special education laws can and should benefit students. We've been working collaboratively to bring national racial civil rights and disability rights leaders together to discuss how vigilant special education advocacy for students at risk can help ameliorate these dire circumstances.

Students of color must be given real access to academics and the future that comes with a meaningful education. The good news is that the core concept of special education – individualization – could both keep students of color with disabilities safe at school and open up academic potential.

The meeting included productive and spirited discussions on the confluence of race and disability, as well as recommendations for moving forward as a united coalition. While the meeting was a success, there is still much more work that needs to be done to prevent students our color with disabilities from entering the school–to–prison pipeline. We encourage you to follow DREDF for news and updates on our work to disrupt the school–to–prison pipeline for students of color with disabilities.

Voices From the Convening:

Arlene Mayerson, DREDF Directing Attorney:
"[T]he school–to–prison pipeline cannot be addressed without a disability lens. That's our premise...You can't ignore the fact that many of the incarcerated youth in our country are, in fact, students with disabilities.

"[T]he overall question for the day, and there will be other questions along the way, is: Does the IDEA offer important tools to better educational services for minority students with disabilities who are currently being suspended and expelled?"

Dan Losen, Director, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, at The Civil Rights Project at UCLA:
"If you break this down by disability category, you see a huge, huge span of suspension rates. It's kids with emotional disturbance. Nationally in 2009–2010, 33 percent of kids with emotional disturbance were suspended out of school at least one time. This is not counting incidences of suspension or duration. One in three kids with emotional disturbance suspended out of school at least once. That is just outrageous! On its face that suggests denial of FAPE [Free and Appropriate Public Education], because obviously kids with emotional disturbance are most likely to need behavior assessments, behavioral improvement plans, and are most likely to have behavior that is manifestation of disability."

Talina Jones, Parent:
"I will continue to use those words [racism and ableism], because when we talk about biases and when we talk about stereotyping, it is easy to make one person a bogeyman. It is even easier to make the system the bogeyman, and not talk about the ways in which it is practiced in IEP meetings—those are individuals who were in the room making choices. That is, it is not the system functioning as in some kind of air that we breathe. It is peoples' conscious decisions in those moments, sometimes fostered and funneled by unconscious thoughts, beliefs and ideas. But then that plays out in actual practice.

"So we do well to continue to ground it in the issue of ableism and racism, because it then talks about both the practice, as well as beliefs and attitudes, and then provides different places for us to change things."

Lawrence Carter–Long, NCD Public Affairs Specialist:
"Disability can be visible and invisible. We've got to ask ourselves here, 'Who is included? Who is connected to that community? Who is getting the resources when the resources are doled out?' Let's make sure those who need them get them. That's what we need to do. That's how we stop the stigma."

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Related Links

National Council on Disability

Special Education Resources

Mayerson Testimony on "Ending the School–to–Prison Pipeline Before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights

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