Update: I originally posted this in November, 2011. But, the New York Times published some new study results about this issue, so I’m updating it. Here is the link to the November article.
This is a trend that is already on the radar of many advocates and advocacy groups–Kids with special needs are being suspended from school at rates that are highly disproportionate to the population. An article from the NY Post came across my feed this morning (from Nov 2011). That article stated that suspensions in NYC schools were often made up of 30% students with disabilities (as opposed to that group only making up 15% of the population). However, this new study included a dozen more cities and states, and the rates were found to be 50% or higher.
What is very suspicious about this trend–the length of these suspensions. Remember, if a school suspends a child for more than 10 days, that is considered a change in placement. Therefore requiring a NOREP/PWN and all that fun stuff. So, in order to avoid that, or maybe it’s just coincidence (eye roll) anecdotally we are hearing about special needs kids receiving 10-day suspensions, over and over and over. That way, the district doesn’t have to report it. Look, I’m all for personal accountability and certainly understand that some of these are substantiated. But by and large, this is indicative of a much bigger problem–schools are not effectively designing and/or implementing behavior plans. Many disabilities manifest themselves as behavior problems. And it’s our civic and moral duty as parents, teachers and the community at large to help these kids. Repeated suspensions do nothing to solve the problem. It is estimated that for adults in prison, drug/alcohol rehab programs and so on–50-60% of them have some type of learning disability. Aren’t we better than this? Is this how we treat others in society that need special assistance?
A manifestation hearing must be held when school personnel recommend a long-term suspension (10 school days) or when a student is approaching ten cumulative days of suspension. The purpose of the hearing is to determine if the student’s inappropriate behavior is substantially related to the student’s disability. The manifestation hearing team will include the student’s IEP team and other qualified personnel. The director of special education, or designee, will preside at the hearing. The manifestation designee may be any staff member trained by the special education director in conducting manifestation hearings.
Two Options during the Meeting
During a manifestation hearing/meeting, there is no formal process. All parents should treat it with the seriousness of an IEP meeting, and be prepared as such. I have also seen this happen–Child is suspended, and parent is told “Your child cannot come back to school until we have a meeting.” School never uses the words ‘manifestation determination’ so Mom thinks it’s just a casual meeting. Either ask if this is a MH meeting, or come prepared as if it is one.
During the discussion, the team has a few options-determining if the child’s behavior (that resulted in suspension) was a manifestation of the child’s disability, *or* did the school not correctly/adequately implement the child’s IEP, thus resulting in the child’s negative behavior. Schools do not like to say yes to that option because it makes them look bad, right? You don’t have to pick one or the other, you can say yes to both. If you believe that is the case and the rest of the team is saying ‘no,’ make a note on the form. Because what often happens is this–school says it was a manifestation of the child’s behavior (certainly wasn’t their fault!) and then they claim that the child’s needs cannot be met in their school, and recommend alternative placement. Stand your ground, be calm, be prepared for these meetings.
What can you do?
If your child has been suspended, there are things you can do. First, keep track of all suspensions. Ask for written incident reports, suspension reports, teacher accounts and so on. There is a cumulative rule, it’s not just for 10 day suspensions, so keep track of all the small 1 and 3 day suspensions too. Then, contact your local Arc, Easter Seals , NAMI or other organization that advocates for the disabled and see if they have Special Education Advocates on staff. If they don’t, ask them to recommend an agency. Many work on a sliding fee scale. Meet with them and discussion your situation.
Next, if you do suspect your child has some type of learning disability, reading disability, ADHD or something else, yet is not diagnosed as such–ask the school district to test them. Ask in writing and they have 60 days to do the evaluation. Do your research first, and know what tests you are asking for. An advocate can guide you in this area. If your child has a history of behavior problems, talk with the advocate about a Functional Behavior Assessment. An FBA is the first step in getting a Behavior Improvement Plan into place. As part of the Behavior Improvement Plan, there should be a crisis plan. Make sure you are clear on what the steps are, in the event of a crisis. Many schools are including “call local authorities” as part of the crisis plan, especially for older (high school) students. You do not want your child in the juvenile justice system, all because the school failed to deal with a problem appropriately.
Wrightslaw, a well-known special ed legal firm, has some good tips too. As does the Education Law Center. We are dooming our children if we do not fix this. Right now it’s just a cycle–problem behavior, 10 day suspension, return to school, problem behavior, 10 day suspension……and so on. By staying in that 10-day window, schools are effectively avoiding spending any time, money or effort into helping kids with these problems. And assuring that these kids are not successful in life.
I am glad this made a major newspaper–I hope it gets more attention as it is a serious issue. It’s much easier for kids to be the “bad kid” instead of the “dumb kid.” If you think it can’t happen to you or in your district, think again. It’s happening here, in southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s happening everywhere. Time to speak up and demand better. Our kids deserve better.