Children make mistakes. It is normal, developmentally appropriate behavior. We learn from our mistakes; failure makes us more compassionate and wiser. It is the mark of a good school that they know how to teach children about those mistakes without shaming them or harming them educationally and emotionally.
There are many types of discipline in elementary through secondary schools: in-school-suspension, detention, out-of-school suspensions, expulsion, and permanent removal or expulsion. Suspension in Ohio means that a student is prohibited from coming to their regular school for a period of no more than consecutive 10 days. Expulsion in Ohio means that a student is prohibited from coming to school for a period of no more than 80 consecutive days. Finally, permanent removal means that a student may not return at all.
Usually the child may return to his or her school, but there are exceptions behavior involving weapons, drugs and serious bodily injury.
Many schools tout their zero tolerance for misbehavior and have put into place policies that allow administrators to suspend or expel students for that behavior. Those in favor of such policies argue that zero tolerance is necessary to maintain a safe educational environment. However, research has shown that zero tolerance has resulted in the following problems:
It reinforces bad behavior by removing students from a learning environment, putting them at home without proper supervision;
It is ineffective at stopping the problem behavior, resulting in higher rates of suspensions;
It can be a denial of a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) if the student should be receiving special education services at school;
It is disproportionate, as it impacts students with disabilities at a much greater rate than those students without disabilities;
It is disproportionate, as it impacts students of color at a much greater rate than Caucasian students, both in the number of suspensions and expulsions and the severity of the suspensions and expulsions;
It is inconsistently applied as schools across Ohio give widely different punishments for similar behaviors and, most importantly;
It leads to disturbingly higher drop-out rates.
There is a reason for misbehavior and there should be appropriate consequences. Although discipline can be necessary, it is vital to make sure the school addresses the reasons behind the behavior. This is true whether a student has a disability or not. If we can’t understand why a student did something, how can we help that student learn how to act appropriately?
Zero tolerance still has a firm grip in Ohio. However, alternative methods other than suspension and expulsion are gaining a foothold. For example, Ohio schools are legally required to put into practice what is called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and improve student behaviors. In addition, some schools tailor the consequences of misbehavior to learning opportunities such as teaching appropriate online behavior, teaching social skills, and giving students community service opportunities to reflect on their behavior. Parents can show schools that they are committed to helping decrease misbehavior by having consequences at home, committing their child to community service, having their child write an apology letter, and arranging for counseling if appropriate.
What if your child has a disability? As parents of children with disabilities, we know that children with disabilities face numerous obstacles at school. While younger children tend to like going to school, older children may be frustrated at spending hours every day trying and failing to read, write, do math, etc. It is common for children with disabilities to act out at school.
Roughly 70% of children who are suspended or expelled are children with disabilities of some kind.
The law provides for specific procedural protections the school must follow when disciplining children with an IEP. The laws kick in after 10 days of suspension. After the 10th day the IEP team must meet for a Manifestation Determination Review, or MDR. The MDR is your chance to argue that the behavior in question was directly related to the child’s disability. If the IEP team agrees, then the school must do an assessment to find out why the child is misbehaving and then put into place a behavioral intervention plan. For many students, their misbehavior is a sign that the educational services sin the IEP are not adequate. The IEP team may need to reassess services and accommodations in light of the misbehavior.
MDRs are very difficult, and many schools fail to see the connection between disability and behavior. Additionally, if the student is facing an expulsion hearing, that hearing is normally scheduled directly after the MDR, which can be grueling for both parents and student.
The consequences of suspension and expulsion are serious and can be long lasting. I encourage parents to consider legal advice or representation if your child is facing serious disciplinary consequences for his or her behavior.