The first time Spencer Klintworth was suspended from school, his mother was astonished: The kindergartner has brain damage and is in special education. Then it happened again. And again. By the end of the 2009-2010 school year, he’d been sent home by the Cypress-Fairbanks school district five times, Debbie Klintworth says.
Spencer’s experience isn’t unique. Special education students in Texas public schools are nearly twice as likely to be suspended as students in the general education population, according to a recent Texas Education Agency report to the Senate Committee on Education. The expulsion rate is also disproportionate: Though special education students make up just 10 percent of the enrollment in Texas public schools, they account for 21 percent of expulsions, according to the School-to-Prison Pipeline report published by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest law center.
“What you find in districts with high disproportionate rates are real problems with programs not meeting students’ needs, which often causes them to become frustrated and act out,” said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s legal director.
According to the TEA report, for every 100 special education students in Texas, there were 55.8 in-school suspensions and 25.1 out-of-school suspensions in the 2007-2008 school year, compared to 33.2 in-school suspensions and 12.1 out-of-school suspensions for non-special-ed students.
TEA officials confirm that the rates of disciplinary actions taken against special education students are higher than state education officials believe is appropriate. But the gap in treatment between special- and and non-special-ed students has been narrowing in recent years, the agency notes. And while the state mandates suspension or expulsion for some serious behaviors, districts generally exercise wide latitude in meting out such penalties and can consider mitigating factors even in serious incidents, TEA says.
Some legislators view the disproportionate discipline meted out to special education students as prove of mistreatment by educators.
“I’m not angry at the messenger — I’m angry at what we’ve done to these kids,” state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, told TEA officials at a hearing last month. She called the discipline statistics “appalling.”
But disciplining special education students presents a severe challenge, because students' behavioral problems are often associated with their disabilities. Education experts say a suspensions or expulsion can be particularly detrimental to special ed students because it disrupts their learning environment, potentially setting them back weeks of progress.
“Teachers don’t know how to deal with special education kids, so it gets to a level where they will explode,” says Klintworth, who speculates that her son was suspended, in part, because his teachers were “tired of dealing with this kid” and needed a break.
"By addressing the behavior, you are not necessarily addressing the problem," says Erika Goyer, a member of the family support team at the special needs advocacy group Texas Parent to Parent.
Many Texas school districts have started using one leading practice — so-called “positive behavior supports” — to work with students with disabilities. Educators use positive affirmation and clarify their expectations of students’ behavior up front, taking a more positive approach to school discipline.
In 2009, Grady Rasco Middle School in Brazosport ISD received a grant to implement positive behavior supports and has seen encouraging results. After just a year, the number of disciplinary referrals for special education students had dropped by 59 percent, says principal Robin Pelton.
Pelton says she believes “without a doubt” that the method could help decrease disciplinary referrals from special ed students across the state. But for the program to work effectively, she says, teachers and administrators must commit to going through the training and putting in the extra work required to change the culture of discipline on their campuses.
“When we saw the changes it made, we realized it’s been worth the time and energy, and we’re prepared to continue on this path,” Pelton says.