Suspension, Discrimination, and Students with Disabilities

Are U.S. schools discriminating when suspending students with disabilities?

Posted Oct 08, 2019

Nicole Honeywill/Unsplash
Source: Nicole Honeywill/Unsplash

Students with disabilities (SWD) are disproportionately suspended from U.S. schools. This has led to suggestions that the disparities result from the use of discriminatory disciplinary practices by schools. Ensuring that SWD are not being unfairly suspended is important. For example, suspension increases the risk of school dropout and arrest.

U.S. schools may legally suspend SWD. However, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides SWD with additional legal protections. U.S. schools can suspend SWD as they would students without disabilities for 10 or fewer school days per year. For suspensions more than 10 total school days, SWD are legally entitled to receive continued access to special education services, manifestation determination reviews, as well as functional behavior assessments and behavior implementation plans.

Because U.S. schools can legally suspend SWD, disparities in suspension between students with and without disabilities are insufficient to show that the disparities result from the use of discriminatory disciplinary practices. Instead, it may be that the disparities result from differences in the extent to which students with and without disabilities engage in disruptive or other types of behaviors that might reasonably result in suspension from school.

Contrasts between students who are similarly situated including in regard to factors materially relevant to being suspended would help show whether U.S. schools suspend students in ways that may discriminate based on disability status. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has stated that “students are similarly situated when they are comparable (even if not identical) in all material respects.” The Office of Civil Rights uses the differential treatment standard when considering whether to investigate schools for use of discriminatory disciplinary practices. When evaluating for differential treatment in the use of disciplinary practices, the most materially relevant factor for whether students are similarly situated is their behavior in school. Additional relevant factors might include age, grade, and school performance.

We conducted a best-evidence synthesis of the available empirical studies to evaluate whether and to what extent U.S. schools may be discriminating when suspending SWD. We were particularly interested in evaluating whether the greater risk of suspension of SWD was attributable to disability status and so possibly due to the use of discriminatory disciplinary practices or instead to alternative explanatory factors including differential involvement in behaviors likely to result in suspension.

Our search initially identified 112 studies for possible coding. We then evaluated these studies using six-part criteria including whether the study’s analyses adjusted for at least one covariate when estimating the risk attributable to disability status. Doing so resulted in only 18 studies that we were able to code and synthesize. Of these, 14 reported risk estimates for suspension separately from other types of exclusionary discipline.

What did we find? Overall, we found very little empirical evidence that U.S. schools differentially suspend SWD among similarly behaving students. For example, of the four available studies using student-level controls including for infraction type (e.g., disobedience, fighting), most (i.e., 14 of 24 or 58%) of the available estimates failed to indicate that SWD were more likely to be suspended. Of the two best-available studies using student-level controls for behavior as well as additional factors, most (i.e., 5 of 7 or 71%) of the estimates again failed to indicate that SWD were more likely to be suspended.

For the two best-available studies, the two statistically significant estimates were from one study using student-reported misbehavior and delinquency attitudes as statistical controls in analyses of a sample attending U.S. high schools in 1990. The five non-significant estimates were from another study using teacher-rated behavior and parent-reported delinquency as statistical controls in analyses of a more recently collected sample of U.S. elementary and middle school students. These inconsistent findings along with methodological and sampling differences between the two studies suggest that the evidence base is inconclusive regarding whether, among similarly behaving students, U.S. schools differentially suspend SWD.

The available evidence base is also inconclusive regarding whether SWD who are of color are more likely to be suspended than SWD who are White. We were unable to identify any studies reporting risk estimates for suspension for SWD who are of color relative to SWD who are White while controlling for at least one other covariate. This is despite such disparities being the focus of both IDEA’s and the Equity in IDEA Rule’s significant disproportionality monitoring mandates. Our own independent investigation failed to find that SWD of color are suspended more frequently than SWD who are White, conditional on other measured risk factors. 

A contribution of our synthesis is to show that the empirical evidence base regarding whether U.S. schools discriminate when suspending SWD is currently inconclusive due to inconsistent findings from the few best-available studies, which themselves used inconsistent methods and samples. Another important contribution is to show that whether SWD who are of color are more likely to be suspended than similarly behaving SWD who are White is largely unknown.

Suspension increases the risk for school dropout and arrest and so should be used cautiously, if at all. Other work reports on alternatives to suspension that U.S. schools might use to manage problem behaviors including by students with or at risk for disabilities. Currently, however, the scientific evidence regarding whether U.S. schools differentially suspend SWD among similarly behaving students is inconclusive. Further empirical study is needed to establish whether this is occurring.