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Originally published Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 4:48 PM

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Guest: Seattle students who receive special education disciplined at higher rates

Students who receive special-education services are far more likely to be disciplined in Seattle Public Schools, writes guest columnist Mary Griffin.

Special to The Times

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WITH the investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the long-smoldering issue of the overrepresentation of African-American students among those subjected to exclusionary discipline in Seattle Public Schools has come to a head. It’s clearly about time.

It’s also clearly about time to examine a similar issue that exists for students with disabilities in Seattle Public Schools. In a recent analysis, the Seattle Special Education Advisory & Advocacy Council found that in Seattle Public Schools, 40 percent of all long-term or short-term suspensions were received by students identified as having a disability.

This is despite the fact that only 14 percent of Seattle students have a disability. For the 2011-2012 school year, a K-12 student who was identified as receiving special-education services was conferred a risk ratio of 5-to-1 for long-term or short-term suspension. Using the same data, it was found that a student identified as African American carried a risk ratio of 4.5-to-1.

These risks become multiplied in some students who, by virtue of race, disability status and exclusionary discipline, flounder in a virtual Bermuda Triangle until they exit the educational system by dropping out all together or becoming incarcerated.

Even though students with disabilities carry a higher risk for exclusionary discipline than African Americans, institutionalized apathy about the disparity is rampant. From the local to the national level, this problem of disproportionate discipline and disabilities is typically entirely omitted in reports.

Indeed, TeamChild and Washington Appleseed recently produced a 69-page report on the issue of exclusionary discipline which left out special education for the unacceptable reason that good data was unobtainable.

The exclusion of special-education students from even the baseline collection of data is emblematic of the difficulties that these students and their families experience. Many families of students in special education note there is underreporting of discipline and an inflammatory “invisible” bias in coding incidents based on a student’s disability status.

Families report that general-education staff and administration too-often default to punitive practices rather than the supports outlined in a child’s Individualized Education Plan.

Resorting to exclusionary discipline instead of creating, implementing or modifying behavior-support plans for students with disabilities is considered a denial of a student’s civil rights under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act. The statistical risk ratios mentioned above point to this being the case on a grand scale in Seattle Public Schools.

What are some recommendations for these issues? The Seattle Special Education Advisory & Advocacy Council recommends that Seattle Public Schools drastically reduce the use of out-of-school discipline.

Additionally, as was made clear in the discussion of statistics, the school district needs to keep accurate statistics regarding exclusionary discipline and make them publicly available.

The council recommends instituting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports or other behavioral-support plan in a robust, districtwide fashion.

Positive behavioral support is a best-practice approach that teaches behavioral expectations. It is proven to reduce problem behaviors in both general-education and special-education students.

Special-education students comprise 14 percent of students in Seattle Public Schools. African-American students comprise 19 percent of students in Seattle Public Schools. This is a significant issue for both populations, which of course, also overlap.

The Seattle Special Education Advisory & Advocacy Council believes it is incumbent upon Seattle Public Schools to address the overrepresentation of all student populations in exclusionary discipline, including special-education students.

Mary Griffin is a mother of a student with disabilities. She has investigated the disparity in discipline with the Seattle Special Education Advisory & Advocacy Council.

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