A report showing students with disabilities and students of color are being suspended and expelled in the state’s public schools at much higher rates than their non-disabled, white peers was released Tuesday by Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont School Discipline Reform Coalition.
More than 8,000 class days were “lost by Vermont students in 2011-2012 due to school discipline practices resulting in exclusion,” according to the report.
The rate at which students with disabilities were suspended, the report showed, is two to nearly three times higher than their non-disabled peers, and “students of color were more likely than white students to be disciplined in Vermont schools.”
The report was released at a press conference in the Cedar Creek Room at the Vermont State House. Robert Appel, the former head of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, was one of those present.
Appel has long been interested in how children are treated, starting early in his career when he worked worked in juvenile law, and later, as a former Defender General of the State of Vermont.
“It became clear to me that we have a school-to-prison pipeline here,” as many states do, said Appel, now an attorney in private practice in Hinesburg, and a member of Diversity Now, a group which works on equity issues in Burlington.
Of who ends up in that pipeline, Appel said he has observed over the course of his career that, “It tends to be by race, by socio-economics and by disabilities of all varieties.”
A few years ago, a complaint came to the Vermont Human Rights Commission, when Appel was still in charge of the Commission, regarding a first-grade African-American boy who had not been able to make it to the bathroom, and ended up urinating on a wall.
It was wintertime, and the janitor who witnessed this happen punished the boy by making him wash the outdoor brick exterior wall where he had relieved himself without his coat on, and with his classmates watching, said Appel, in an interview before the press conference where the new report was released.
“Would that have happened if he was white? I don’t know,” asked Appel.
The Burlington School District today is made up of about one-third students of color, said Appel.
Appel is a member of the Coalition which worked with Vermont Legal Aid on the report made public Tuesday, titled, “Kicked Out! Unfair and Unequal Discipline in Vermont’s Public Schools.”
The report states that students who are expelled from school and have serious school issues at a young age are more likely to drop out, and to end up incarcerated and living in poverty.
“We know early on that young people who have issues can and should be addressed early on in their lives, and if we miss that opportunity, their behaviors continue to be more and more negative,” said Appel.
Interventions later on are much costlier, in the human sense as well as the financial sense. “Our priorities are askew,” he said.
Calling attention to the patterns that show far higher rates of suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities and students of color is a way to make decision-makers aware, and to “keep their biases in check when they act to correct bad behaviors,” said Appel.
Appel, a former school board member, acknowledged the schools have an increasingly difficult job, and many children are being raised in complicated circumstances. “Most kids don’t have parents the way we did,” he said. “Kids are exposed to very negative influences.”
The objective of the report, which looked at both state and federal data, is to ensure school staff pay more attention to treating all students fairly and use positive, not punitive discipline in schools, explained Jay Diaz, staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and the report’s lead author.
“Too many times kids are being kicked out of school when they deserve better, especially students with disabilities and students of color. We don’t think any kid is actually born bad,” Diaz said. “We have a responsibility as adults and as a society,” to do better by those children, he said.
Students who have suffered early abuse, who have bounced between foster homes and who are homeless are more likely to be disciplined by school staff.
In some cases, the report’s researchers were unable to get a hold of socio-economic data which might show, for example, how suspension and expulsion rates fare among students who receive free and reduced lunches. Diaz said data aligning those pupils with discipline was not available.
In Burlington, however, such information is tracked for schools, and Diaz said nine of 10 students suspended there are on free and reduced lunch. Suspension, Diaz said should be used as a last resort.
Diaz, who works with Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project, said he’s been working with students across Vermont the past two years, and has worked with about 100 students, witnessing that often students with disabilities or students of color were being denied their due process rights.
Diaz said the issues raised in the report are not unique to Vermont.
“Across the country, this is a major issue,” he said. “This is something people are talking about across the country, and we are having similar issues here in Vermont.”
To get the picture of where Vermont was, Diaz turned to federal data available to the public and analyzed it, looking at every school in Vermont that had complied with the collection requirements for the Civil Rights Data Collection.
“We’re trying to get some traction on systemic changes,” said Diaz. “I think we need changes in the law to make sure that schools are better equipped to deal with misbehaving kids and that they are able to provide equitable services to all kids, particularly those with disabilities.”
The report contains four specific recommendations for policymakers consider including: a change to state law to limit exclusionary discipline through the use of positive behavioral interventions; to allow students to continue to learn during periods of suspension; to strengthen students’ constitutional and civil rights by providing due process; and to identify examples of programs that are working in Vermont by ensuring accurate and timely statewide data collection and publication.
The report relied on data from the Civil Rights Data Collection of the federal Office for Civil Rights and the Vermont Agency of Education’s database. It also used publicly available information from the Burlington School District’s Equity and Inclusion Report. The report only used information about race in schools where there were more than 20 students of color identified, it was noted.
The authors note that the federal data was incomplete because some schools, districts and supervisory unions were not included “presumably because they failed to report their data.”
Members of the Coalition, which includes leaders from Vermont Legal Aid, the Vermont ACLU, the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs, the Human Rights Commission, Disability Rights Vermont, Vermont Family Network, Vermont Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Office of the Defender General, Hunger-Free Vermont, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Diversity Now, Youth Development Programs, and Voices for Vermont’s Children.