Children with disabilities face unofficial school suspensions

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The phone call from her son's school was alarming. The assistant principal told him to come to the school immediately.

But when Lisa Manwell arrived at Pioneer Middle School in Plymouth, Michigan, her son was neither sick nor injured. He was sitting quietly in the principal's office.

John, who has ADHD and finds fidgeting during class relaxing, had been removed from the classroom after he refused to stop using a pair of safety scissors to cut his cuticles.

When he asked why he couldn't stay the rest of the day, Manwell said the school told him they would call child protective services if he didn't take him home.

The call was just one of a dozen Manwell received last fall telling her John couldn't stay in school because of behaviors she said stemmed from his disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many schools have promised to reduce suspensions, since kids can't learn as well when they're not in class. But none of these pick-ups were recorded as suspensions, despite missed class time.

The practice is known as informal removal, defined by the US Department of Education as an action taken by school personnel in response to a child's behavior that excludes the child for part or all of the school day, or even indefinitely.

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The overuse of informal removals amounts to an off-the-books form of discipline, a de facto denial of education that evades accountability, advocates and legal experts say. It has special implications for children with disabilities: Informal removal of these students circumvents federal law that protects them from being disciplined or excluded from class for behaviors related to their disability.

Since the pandemic began, parents of children with disabilities say the practice is on the rise, denying their children their legal right to an education.

“This is a recurring problem that we've seen in law enforcement across the country for years,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, deputy secretary for the department's Office for Civil Rights. "And that means the practice has taken hold in a way that is dangerous to students and needs to be addressed."

In July, the department issued guidance on discriminatory discipline practices for students with disabilities. Lhamon said the guidance included informal removals because of how often they turned up in bureau investigations of complaints against school districts.

Informal removals can occur through frequent parent pick-ups, shorter school days, or hours spent in "time out" rooms.

The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report interviewed 20 families in 10 states who described being called repeatedly and at all hours of the school day to pick up their children. In some cases, parents were called less than an hour after the school day. Others said they had to quit work to have their child so often that they lost their jobs. Many felt they had no choice but to change schools, or even districts.

Because deletions are not recorded, there is no way to quantify how often they occur. But the National Disability Rights Network says it has seen an increase during the pandemic.

The teacher shortage means fewer staff are available to assess and provide services to students with disabilities, creating "a greater incentive or push to get kids with behavioral needs out," said Dan Stewart, managing attorney for education and job.

Students of color with a disability appear to be disproportionately affected based on anecdotal reports to the network of disability rights advocates across the country.

“It's pervasive,” said Ginny Fogg, an attorney with Disability Rights North Carolina, “and the reason is that most parents don't know their rights and the consequence to the school system isn't enough for them not to do it. ”

"The remedy is not, 'You just can't go to school,'" he added. "The law was enacted 50 years ago to prevent this very outcome: students with disabilities not being allowed to go to school and participate in education."

Manwell said the calls from her son's school were relentless.

“They would be calling my personal phone, my work phone. They were calling my husband, who works nights,” said Manwell, a resource planner for Ford Motor Co. “It was impossible. I couldn't work. I never knew when they were going to call or what was going to happen."

An official with the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district in Michigan, where John attends school, said he couldn't comment on specific student issues, citing federal student privacy law.

Federal law protects students with disabilities from being repeatedly disciplined or expelled from school for behaviors related to their disability. If suspended for more than 10 days, families have the right to a meeting with the school to determine if the behaviors are a result of the child's disability. If they are, then the school must offer accommodations in lieu of suspension. For example, if a child's disability makes it difficult for him or her to concentrate in a noisy classroom with dozens of other children, the parent has the right to request a quieter classroom or one with fewer children.

The Department of Education's July guidance made it clear that children who are informally removed have the same rights, such as reviews of whether the student's behavior was the result of their disability, as those who had been officially suspended.

Tricia Ellinger says she would have requested a hearing to make sure her 10-year-old daughter was receiving the right services and supports, had she known her frequent removals from the classroom amounted to suspensions.

One day last spring, she received three phone calls in quick succession, telling her to immediately pick up Cassie from Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School in Emmett, Idaho. When she arrived, her daughter was sitting quietly in the school resource room eating a sandwich. She says she was told by a school staff member that Cassie was refusing to do her work and needed to go home.

“When I got her in the car, I asked her, 'Cass, what happened? Did you break your notebook? Did you drop your pencil?'” Ellinger recalled. “She said, 'No, it was just difficult. Mathematics are difficult'".

The call was one of 20 Ellinger says he received last year from the school, which is designed specifically to educate students with disabilities. She says her daughter was also repeatedly pulled out of class and kept alone in a room. None of the eliminations were recorded as suspensions.

Emmett School District Superintendent Craig Woods said he could not comment, citing the federal student privacy law.

Families often don't know what grounds they have for filing a complaint, Lhamon said. Sometimes they don't know that their child shouldn't have been suspended in the first place.

“That is so concerning when schools exclude students for reasons that are illegal,” he said. “We want our children to be in class, learning with other students, fully engaged and respected as learners. We don't want our school communities to send a message that there is a category of kids that can't be there."

Manwell said most of the calls he received last year from his son's school were the result of bullying. On the fourth day of school, John was pushed into the locker room and she received a call to pick him up. On another occasion, he went to the bathroom and another student threatened to hit him.

Due to his disability, John was supposed to have access to a quiet room so he could recover from difficult incidents. But often, she said, either there wasn't a room or when he didn't want to come back to class, she would get a call to pick him up.

“It was just the stress of never knowing what I was sending my son to each day. I was worried the whole time he was out,” Manwell said. "I could see the damage."

“He was retiring. He started talking about hurting himself,” he said, his voice cracking.

In January, he made the difficult decision to move John to home school, sending him to a tutoring center every day for a couple of hours and rearranging his work schedule. He made his life more predictable, he said, and John began to act like he used to.

She said that she would like to send him back to school, but she doesn't trust what will happen.

"You want to protect your children, right?" she said. "I just can't send him to a school where he won't be safe."

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