RD326 - Assessment of Virginia’s Disability Services System: The School to Prison Pipeline

Executive Summary:

The “School to Prison Pipeline" describes how students who are punished for behavior by removal from the classroom (exclusionary discipline) are more likely to become involved in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems. Nationally and in Virginia, students with disabilities, and particularly, Black students with disabilities, are over-represented in three key points of the school to prison pipeline: exclusionary discipline, referrals to law enforcement and sentencing to juvenile correctional centers.

Virginia has taken positive steps to reduce the use of suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement for misdemeanor-level, school-based conduct. While progress has been made, the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities conducted a review of national best practices and Virginia’s discipline data, and the Board notes key findings and makes 13 recommendations to eliminate discipline disparities and end the school to prison pipeline.

Key Findings

Students with disabilities are subject to inequitable discipline. Exclusionary discipline harms all students and increases the likelihood that a child or teen will become involved with the criminal justice system. Other negative effects include lower academic achievement, chronic absenteeism, higher dropout rates, increased safety risk from lack of supervision and increased opportunity for delinquency for suspended students. Despite federally mandated protections for students receiving educational services under the (Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and Section 504, students with disabilities are significantly more likely to be suspended, referred to law enforcement, or expelled than students without disabilities.

Black students with disabilities have the highest disproportionality in exclusionary discipline and are more likely to be punished for subjective offenses, like “disorderly conduct." Research shows that this disparity is caused by implicit bias (i.e. unconscious assumptions and stereotypes) toward Black children and children with disabilities. Educating teachers and administrators about the effect of implicit bias in discipline decisions can reduce disproportionality.

The Commonwealth has taken important steps in legislation and model guidance to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in schools. The Virginia Board of Education (VBOE) has adopted Model Guidance and Alternatives to Suspension that use evidence-based approaches to reducing discipline disparity. To effectively implement these alternatives, alternatives to exclusionary discipline need to be required by the Standards of Quality. Additionally, the Virginia General Assembly needs to fully fund the school support staff necessary to implement positive behavioral interventions, like counselors, and school psychologists.

Discipline disparities increase for students with disabilities when School Resource Officers (SROs) and School Safety Officers (SSOs) are present. The presence of SROs and SSOs in schools has been shown to increase the incidence of in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, police referral and arrest for students with disabilities, particularly in middle and high schools. For many of these disciplinary consequences, the increased use of punishment is over two times larger for Black students than White students, and significantly larger for students with disabilities than students without disabilities. SROs also increase the rate of chronic absenteeism, particularly for students with disabilities. Without sufficient training on the nature of students’ disabilities and proper strategies for meeting students’ individual needs, SROs may unconsciously criminalize behavior that is a manifestation of a student’s disability. Depending on the nature of a student’s disability, police questioning or orders may be misunderstood, physical searches or seizures may provoke a violent response, and confrontations with students may become dangerous without the use of proper de-escalation techniques by SROs or school staff members.

SROs and SSOs are specifically exempt from the restraint and seclusion regulations that prohibit restraint in discipline. They may use mechanical restraints, such as handcuffs or prone restraint. Using these kinds of restraints can be dangerous for students with disabilities, who may become frightened, agitated and physically distressed. Allowing SROs and SSOs to use restraints in nonemergency situations erodes protections for students with disabilities that are present in the regulations. While SROs are not covered by VBOE regulations, school divisions may limit their use of restraint and seclusion in required Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with law enforcement agencies.

Virginia currently lacks clear, transparent data that address the root causes of disproportionality in exclusionary discipline. The U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s Model Guidance, the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) and national advocacy groups recommend a regular and consistent evaluation of discipline data to target the root causes of discipline disparities. In addition, PBIS also recommends that school districts “establish and mandate an ongoing process for using data-based decision making for equity. Schools and districts can create teams that meet regularly, have ongoing action plans, and share disaggregated data."