Education Department Issues New Guidance on School Discipline

The new guidance comes at a moment of increasing mental health challenges spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

By Lauren Camera

The Education Department released new guidance on discriminatory discipline practices for students with disabilities Tuesday – the most sweeping set of technical documents published on the issue since the federal disability law was passed in 1975.

The guidance, which covers the responsibilities of state education agencies and school districts to adhere to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including protecting the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate education without discrimination, does not change any regulations or statutes surrounding the law. But it comes at a moment of increasing mental health challenges spurred by the coronavirus pandemic – an alarming uptick, including among students with disabilities, that’s occurring alongside the hiring of a slew of new school and central office employees who didn’t have a full understanding of what the law requires, department officials said.

“The pandemic did not alter the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters Tuesday morning. “Yet after nearly half a century of the implementation of federal disability laws, we know that the delivery of special education services and aid is still insufficient for too many students.”

As it stands, about 8 million children receive special education services under IDEA – about 13% of all K-12 students. But roughly 40% of students are identified as having learning disability, including 16% who have speech or language impairments, 16% who have other health impairments, 11% who have autism and 11% with other various types of disabilities.

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While there has been significant progress made related to academic outcomes of students with disabilities since the law was first passed in 1975, implementation issues persist, department officials said, especially as it relates to disparities in the use of discipline for students of color with disabilities.

Federal data shows, for example, that during the 2019-20 school year, Black children with disabilities accounted for 17.2% of all students with disabilities, but 43% of the students with disabilities who were suspended or expelled from school for more than 10 days.

Among many other things, the guidance clarifies that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on disability, and IDEA, which guarantees that children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education, also require schools to provide reasonable modifications to their disciplinary policies and practices that are necessary to avoid disability discrimination.

A key goal of the guidance, department officials said, is to help schools understand how to comply with Section 504 while at the same time keep school communities safe by ensuring that students with disabilities have the support they need to address disability-related behaviors that could potentially impact school safety.

The guidance, the secretary said, “offers clarity about federal legal requirements to ensure students with disabilities are effectively served and protected from discrimination.”

“We don’t have to choose between protecting students’ rights and giving schools tools to identify and deliver safe and appropriate interventions,” he said.

Notably, the guidance comes as the sentencing trial is underway for Nikolas Cruz, the gunman who killed 17 people four years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida’s Broward County. The trial hinges, at least in part, on whether the track record of misbehavior and mental illness should be a mitigating factor. Cruz, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, had been expelled for disciplinary issues from the high school.

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“This work is especially urgent now as our schools and students and families continue to heal from the pandemic,” Cardona said. “In addition to learning loss and disruptions, the last two years have led to a sharp increase in students experiencing mental health challenges in school and at home.”

“Exclusionary discipline,” he continued, “such as out of school suspensions, can exacerbate these challenges, increasing stress that might lead to a greater sense of social isolation and diminished academic achievement.”

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