New federal guidelines aimed at reducing high rates of discipline for students with disabilities affirm that schools are responsible for the discriminatory behavior of police and school resource officers on campus.
That includes incidents when schools refer students to law enforcement, an action that can lead to school-related arrests, criminal charges, fines or citations that require them to appear in court.
The Center for Public Integrity’s 2021 analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that school policing can have severe consequences for students with disabilities. Our investigation, When Schools Call Police on Kids, revealed that schools referred students with disabilities to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the overall population.
The U.S. Department of Education guidance, released in July, comes after the Trump administration rescinded something similar in 2019.
“Too often, students with disabilities face harsh and exclusionary disciplinary action at school,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
The agency warned that many students with disabilities are disciplined “because they are not receiving the support, services, interventions, strategies, and modifications to school or district policies that they need to manage their disability-based behavior.”
The number of students with disabilities referred to law enforcement is likely higher than federal data shows because some schools fail to report referrals as required and undercount the number of children eligible for disability rights protections. Four of the nation’s ten largest school districts, including New York and Chicago, reported that law enforcement officers arrested zero students during the 2017-18 school year despite evidence to the contrary.
Such errors undermine the purpose of federal data collection: to ensure the civil rights of all children in the United States are protected in schools.
“The idea that when you do something so strong as to kick a kid out of school … or to call the police about their conduct, and yet some districts say, ‘Oh, we don’t have the data. The police have the data,’ to me, that’s just not a legitimate excuse because that’s such a huge intervention,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Law enforcement referrals can also have a domino effect, causing students to lose time in school if they’re suspended or expelled because of interactions with officers.
The National Association of School Resource Officers has provided training for more than two decades on supporting students with disabilities, said executive director Mo Canady.
“Most things we deal with in a school environment are not criminal. We have to learn to be better advocates,” Canady said. “When students have special needs and disabilities, that requires a different level of care.”
Despite years of pressure on schools to limit policing of students or halt it altogether, not much has changed.
In the past year, mass shootings at Oxford High School in Michigan and Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, had districts across the country pledging to increase law enforcement presence on school grounds.
A sheriff’s deputy assigned to Oxford High rushed to the school and helped stop the shooter, but not before the 15-year-old killed four students and wounded seven others. In Uvalde, 376 law enforcement officers responded to Robb Elementary but took more than an hour to end a standoff with the gunman, who killed 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 others.
Nevertheless, a gun safety law that President Joe Biden signed into law this summer more than doubles funding for school police and other school security upgrades, adding $300 million to the federal program that fueled the growth of law enforcement on campuses. The legislation also made more than $2 billion in grants available to districts looking to bolster or develop student mental health programs and efforts to improve their experiences in school.
School police are “not adding the safety that people think they are,” Losen said. “It’s just not a solution to legitimate concerns about school shootings. Nobody is saying we shouldn’t be thinking about how kids should be safer. But the research shows that adding police isn’t that solution.”
The federal guidance suggests that schools re-examine their policies and procedures to avoid disability discrimination in interactions between students and law enforcement. Losen said he wished it would have more closely examined the way race and disability together impact discipline.
The Public Integrity analysis of federal data found that Black children in every state, and Latino and Native American children in some states, are disproportionately referred to law enforcement.
“Usually kids of color, especially Black kids with disabilities, have [discipline] rates that are just shocking, shockingly high,” Losen said. “We have a major problem with racial discrimination among police in this country, and those same officers are in our schools in increasing numbers.”
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