Getting sent home from school became a constant for Ben Wankel’s second-grade son last fall.
It started simply enough: The cafeteria was too noisy, his pants were scratchy, or he was bored in class. Sometimes, Wankel’s son, who has autism, would flee the room, prompting a teacher or aide to follow. Other times, he’d have a meltdown that devolved into kicking, hitting, or throwing things.
All told, the boy was officially suspended six times last semester from REACH Charter School, a 3-year-old Denver school that aims to educate students with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers.
The second-grader’s experience with discipline is a familiar story for young children with disabilities. A Chalkbeat analysis shows that last year among Colorado students in kindergarten through second grade, nearly one-third of 6,080 out-of-school suspensions were meted out to special education students — even though they make up just 9 percent of K-2 enrollment.
Amid the continuing national debate over the fairness, effectiveness, and risks of suspension, the rate stands out to experts.
“I’m very disturbed by it,” said Phil Strain, a professor of early-childhood special education at the University of Colorado Denver. “I think that any time that there is a disproportionality ratio of [that] size … it’s beyond chance, beyond random, beyond accident.”
The disparities in suspension rates exist nationwide for special education students — and students of color — and helped drive a 2014 Obama-era directive urging states to reduce the use of such discipline tactics. While that guidance is now under review by the Trump administration, many school districts have taken bold steps amidst growing awareness that suspensions increase the likelihood students will repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.
Denver Public Schools, which has spearheaded significant discipline reforms in recent years and has seen its overall K-2 suspension rate drop, gave out one-third of its 445 K-2 suspensions to young students with disabilities last year.
The numbers are even more startling in other districts. Harrison, a 12,000-student Colorado Springs-based district, gave out 56 percent of its 324 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.
Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities in 2016-17
The seven districts below all give out at least 50 percent of kindergarten through second grade suspensions to students with disabilities last year.
Boulder Valley, a 31,000-student district, gave out nearly 70 percent of its 55 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.
Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district with 86,000 students, gave half of its 713 K-2 suspensions to special education students last year.
These findings come from a Chalkbeat analysis of K-2 out-of-school suspension data during the 2016-17 school year. Chalkbeat obtained the district- and state-level data, which was disaggregated by special education status, from the Colorado Department of Education through a public records request.
Many school district leaders say suspending a student is a last resort, considered only in cases of extreme classroom disruption or when the safety of staff or students is at stake.
“It’s not something we want to do,” said Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer in the Jeffco district. When it does happen he said the rationale is, “We need to take a break here for a little bit and regroup.”
Leaders in Harrison, Boulder Valley, Jeffco, and Denver all say they have efforts underway to prevent suspensions of young students, including those with disabilities.
Andre Spencer, superintendent of the Harrison district until he abruptly resigned Monday, called the suspension disparities for special education students there “alarming.”
“It’s not something we’re proud to see,” he said last week. “We don’t want parents, kids, anybody to perceive that we are a district that will send any particular population [home].”
Act of desperation
One of the most fundamental problems with suspensions is that they don’t fix bad behavior. Kids may learn that misbehaving gets them a day off, but there’s no evidence that getting sent home teaches kids how to control their tempers or solve problems productively.
“No one has ever demonstrated that suspension or expulsion treats the problem,” Strain said. “I’ve come to see suspension and expulsion as acts of desperation. It’s adults giving up.”
And when kids with disabilities are sent home, he said there’s a big impact: Students who need instruction the most lose out on learning.
Such discipline takes a social toll, too.
For the second-grader at REACH, who was 7 at the time he attended, the six suspensions were part of a string of other discipline problems resulting in three different school placements this year and two months spent at home. While the boy is now doing well at Denver Green School, Wankel laments his son’s lost social connections, especially because making friends can be hard for children with autism.
“He was very sad about losing the friendships,” after leaving REACH, Wankel said. “I don’t want his friendships to feel temporary or disposable.”
Finally, there’s the problem suspensions create for parents, requiring them to leave jobs early or miss work while they stay home with their children. Wankel said he and his partner, Mark Schaffer, were lucky that one of them was always available to handle school crises and stay home with their son.
Too often, “people can’t afford this,” he said. “We are not just penalizing the kids and their educations by pulling them out of school, we’re penalizing the parents,” he said.
Battling extreme behavior
People on all sides of the discipline debate say schools often lack the resources they need — both specialized training and extra staff — to prevent and handle children’s most extreme behaviors. Suspensions can seem like the only way to restore calm and get the class back on track when a child becomes violent, threatening, or disruptive.
Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, which serves people with disabilities, said the sentiment was common during last year’s unsuccessful push for statewide legislation limiting preschool-through second-grade suspensions.
“We don’t have enough in our toolbox. You need to give us something,” she recalled opponents saying.
Suspension Disparities for Students with Disabilities by District Type in 2016-17
This chart shows that young students with disabilities statewide, and in certain kinds of districts, receive a disproportionate share of out-of-school suspensions. Small rural districts have less than 1,000 students and rural districts have less than 6,500 students.
The early-childhood suspension bill died last year largely because of opposition from rural school district leaders. But Bisceglia hopes the bill will resurface next year, along with a heightened awareness among rural leaders that suspensions disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
“They feel as though the discipline is really an urban issue, but disability touches every community,” she said.
Experts on school discipline say the key to helping kids with extreme behaviors is understanding what triggers the behavior and what it’s meant to communicate. Then the job becomes reducing triggers, de-escalating things when tempers flare, and teaching kids acceptable replacement behaviors.
A trigger for Wankel’s son came during an art class where students were asked to draw objects in both the foreground and background. The boy did a cursory drawing of a mountain and a bunny, then waited with increasing frustration, and eventually walked out of the room, which spurred a chase and an effort to restrain him. What he needed in that moment — and might have prevented the rest of the episode — Wankel said, was someone to cheer his initial effort and nudge him to add even more to the picture.
Moira Coogan, the principal of REACH, said she couldn’t comment on the boy’s case because of federal privacy mandates. However, generally speaking, she noted that being a small 129-student school can make it difficult to have enough staff to handle things when a child’s challenging behavior escalates. The school does have the option to reach out to the school district for additional help, and that has been provided at times, she said.
Strain, of the University of Colorado Denver, said using unproven or inconsistent approaches is one of the biggest problems he sees when school staff struggle to manage challenging behavior.
“Often people have tried things,” he said. “But it’s almost never true that they [used] an evidence-based strategy with fidelity in the first place.”
A related problem, he said, is when not all staff members who interact with a challenging student have appropriate training. So perhaps the lead teacher is well-equipped to head off disruptive outbursts, but the part-time paraprofessional is not.
Some parents say large class sizes, aggressive restraint practices, and calls to district security staff or even 911 also contribute to behavior that spirals out of control.
Even though early childhood suspension legislation failed last year, a number of Colorado districts have recently taken their own steps to address the issue.
In Jeffco, leaders have undertaken several efforts this school year to reduce kindergarten through third grade suspensions. These include training on restorative practices, a checklist to help principals who are considering a suspension to first exhaust other options, and a requirement that principals discuss a possible K-3 suspension with a district administrator before administering it.
Based on K-2 suspension numbers pulled in March, Jeffco is on track to have about 400 suspensions in those grade levels this year, down from 713 last year. District officials said it won’t be clear till the final end-of-year numbers come in, whether or not students with disabilities received a disproportionate number of suspensions.
Spencer, the Harrison superintendent until this week, said a district committee is in the process of creating an action plan to help reduce student discipline incidents. Individual schools will soon draft their own action plans with complementary goals. The district has also hired a full-time behavior analyst to give staff more support in handling challenging behavior next year.
Boulder Valley district leaders said next year they are adding 10 elementary counselors and will use a new classroom management program intended to help students with more extreme behaviors.
Officials there noted that the average number of suspensions given to each special education student who received the punishment has gone down over the last three years. In 2014-15, K-2 special educations students were suspended 2.6 times on average. Last year, it was 2.1.
Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, this year instituted a policy limiting suspensions in kindergarten through third grade. Officials there say they’ve also provided training on de-escalation techniques to early childhood educators and established an advisory committee to support schools around the new discipline policy.
Not all Colorado districts disproportionately suspend students with disabilities, according to state data. Of the 30 largest districts, Falcon, Academy 20, and Pueblo 70 were among those without suspension disparities for that population.
Chalkbeat calculations show that another four districts — Douglas County, Thompson, Fountain, and Mapleton — also fall into that category. All gave four or fewer suspensions to K-2 special education students last year, below the threshold for disproportionality.
Sent home, but not suspended
Although data compiled by the Colorado education department provide a useful snapshot of suspension use in schools, it’s important to remember the data is reported by districts and not independently verified by the state.
Some advocates worry that suspensions are vastly under-reported, especially as the spotlight on harsh school discipline tactics has grown brighter in recent years.
“You can be absolutely sure that the suspensions you’re seeing are definitely underreported,” said Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO of the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence. “We’re not capturing soft suspensions at all.”
Those soft or unofficial suspensions include situations where parents are asked to pick up their child early from school or keep them home for a day because of problem behavior.
Wankel, the father of the second-grader, was often asked to pick up his son early from REACH. The same thing had happened sometimes when the boy previously attended the district-run Bill Roberts K-8 School.
The usual explanation: “He’s having a rough day, you need to come pick him up,” Wankel said.
At REACH, “He was being sent home and nobody wanted to call it a suspension,” said Wankel. “That’s why we started saying, ‘Is this a suspension? We want to know.’”
In part, Wankel wanted an accurate accounting of his son’s suspensions because special protections kick in for special education students once they’ve been removed from school for 10 days or more. But also, as the number ratcheted up, he hoped district officials would take notice and send additional support to the charter school.
Coogan, the REACH principal, said the school uses both suspensions and what she called “removals” only in the most serious incidents when a child jeopardizes the safety of himself or others. She said removals, which are sometimes part of a crisis plan or behavior plan within the student’s federally-mandated special education plan, occur when a child is sent home by the school. Like suspensions, she said removals count toward the 10-day trigger and are documented by the school. She said REACH follows the Denver district’s discipline policies and procedures.
Asked how a suspension is defined, Denver district officials said via email, “When a school removes a student from instruction to home, that is a suspension.”
But not every parent wants an official tally of suspensions on a child’s record.
Khafilah Malik, the mother of a kindergartener with autism, anxiety, and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said she was frequently asked to pick up her son early from school last fall when he attended Odyssey School of Denver. Bisceglia, who served as an advocate for Malik and her son, corroborated this account.
Malik chose Odyssey, an expeditionary learning-themed charter school, because her son loves science and she thought the model would suit him. But sometimes the 5-year-old would have meltdowns — during fire drills, or when a teacher changed routine directions, or when he couldn’t sit with a favored classmate. He’d run, scream, hit, throw papers, or knock over chairs.
“They never really used the ‘s’ word,” said Malik. “They said, ‘We just don’t have the support staff to meet your son’s needs.’”
Malik said she would have resisted if any of those early pick-ups had been counted as suspensions on his permanent record.
“I did not want my son to be labeled,” she said, especially because she already worried that he was being painted “as this angry, aggressive African-American male child.”
Odyssey executive director Marnie Cooke said via email that the account of Malik being asked to repeatedly pick up her son early and the explanation about a lack of support staff is inaccurate, but said she could not provide details because of privacy rules. She said the school is fully staffed to meet students’ needs.
Cooke also noted that the school’s special education population has tripled in five years and parents of students with disabilities are largely satisfied with their children’s experience at the school.
After his time at Odyssey, Malik’s son switched to a district-run school for a month and then to Tennyson Center for Children, which has specialized programming for children with autism. His mother said Denver Public Schools covers tuition at the center and the youngster is doing well there in a class of six children.
Malik said for now, he’s happy and learning to calm down quickly when things don’t go his way.
“They get it,” she said. “When he’s escalated, they have to debrief with him. He has to connect.”
Look up your district’s 2016-17 overall K-2 suspension rate in the chart below.