• by Morgan Craven, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2019 •
Recently, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Department of Education, led by Secretary Betsy DeVos, illegally delayed Obama-era regulations designed to address racial disparities in special education placements and discipline.
The regulations are designed to tackle these race-based disparities in three important ways. First, they require districts to examine and address disproportionalities in identification of students with disabilities. Second, they require districts to address race-based differences in the placement of students with disabilities so that children of color are not unfairly placed in overly-restrictive settings. And third, the regulations require school districts to address racial disproportionalities in how students with disabilities are disciplined in their schools.
Research shows that Black and American Indian children are misidentified as having disabilities at higher rates than other groups of students, resulting in unnecessary special education services and restrictive placements. Students of color, with and without disabilities, are often over-represented in exclusionary, punitive school discipline systems.
The judge’s ruling is important. Our laws, regulations and policies must protect all students, particularly students who are most vulnerable to the structural, systemic and individual biases that can lead to discrimination in schools. A critical part of protecting students – the part that gives power to policies like the delayed regulations – requires ensuring that accurate, timely data are collected, analyzed and made available to the public. When we examine the data, we can recognize disparities and disproportionalities, identify trends over time, and evaluate the impact of programs and practices.
Since its founding, IDRA has been committed to collecting data and conducting research to design our practical tools and technical assistance and to inform our policy work, including in the area of addressing the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline involves the use of punitive discipline practices (like suspensions and alternative school placements), criminalization of students in schools (through the misuse of police and courts), and the absence of research-based supports and professionals to address the needs in the school community. We published an analysis of disciplinary alternative education programs in Texas in 1999 and an update in 2009 (Cortez & Robledo Montecel, 1999; Cortez, 2009).
We are continuing this work and have prioritized ending the school-to-prison pipeline in our policy efforts. Importantly, many of the policy proposals related to these issues rely on data that show their impact if adopted on individual students and the overall school climate.
In Texas, for example, important work is being done to ensure that measures do not re-introduce zero tolerance policies and that policies protect vulnerable student populations from harmful school exclusions and increase the presence of school-based counseling and mental health professionals.
One of the most exciting proposals of the 2019 Texas legislative session would create ratios between counselors (or other school-based professionals like social workers) and school-based law enforcement so that no student in the state would go to a school where they were more likely to encounter a police officer than a counselor. Data show that, across the country, 1.7 million students attend schools where there is a police officer but no counselor (Whitaker, et al., 2019).
Even though the recommended student-to-counselor ratio is 250:1, only three states are currently meeting that recommendation. Texas’ student-to-counselor ratio is nearly 450:1, even though the benefits of counselors, social workers, school psychologists and other professionals are clear. We support this and other important, data-driven policy changes.
Unfortunately, some policy proposals in many states and at the federal level ignore data and research showing the harms that students can experience in their schools. For example, following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe High School in Texas, significant energy was put toward addressing targeted school violence. We know from research that schools are actually among the safest places in our communities and that the most effective way to reduce the likelihood of targeted violence in schools is to create safe, positive climates where students feel comfortable seeking help from adults.
Still, many “school safety” proposals involve pouring money into unnecessary and harsh school hardening and surveillance tools or would increase the presence of and funding for school-based police officers. These approaches are not consistent with research about what works to create safe campuses and ignore data showing that students of color and students with disabilities suffer most when schools feel like prisons and police officers have a regular presence on campuses.
When we look at school discipline, school climate and school safety policy proposals, we must support those that are consistent with data and research showing effectiveness. Programs and practices should be research-based. When data show that certain student groups benefit or suffer disproportionately from a discipline particular practice, we should act swiftly to change the way those students are treated.
We look toward the future and exploring how changing technology and approaches to school climate affect students. And we will stay vigilant to monitor the impact of policy changes on high-quality education opportunities for all students.
Cortez, A. (2009). Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – A 2009 Update. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.
Cortez, A., & Robledo Montecel, M. (1999). Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs in Texas – What is Known; What is Needed. San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association.
Whitaker, A., Torres-Guillén, S., Morton, M., Jordan, H., Coyle, S., Mann, A., & Sun, W. (2019). Cops and No Counselors – How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students. New York, N.Y.: American Civil Liberties Union.
Morgan Craven, J.D., is the IDRA National Director of Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2019, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2019 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]