Pushed out; kicked out: Stories from families with special education students in Washington

Photo of Steven, a student with special education needs who has been suspended multiple times
It’s hard to succeed in school when you miss a lot of classroom time. Students who are suspended out of school or expelled are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school. Students who are excluded from school are also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. This effect is so pronounced and widespread that it has a name: the school to prison pipeline.

In Washington, special education students are among the most at risk of being funneled into the school to prison pipeline because schools in our state suspend or expel them at a rate more than double the rate of discipline for their non-special education peers. Often, these students are punished for behaviors that are manifestations of their disabilities— conditions they cannot control.

It’s not just formal discipline; students are pushed out of school in insidious ways. Schools may persuade parents of special education students to agree to shortened school days for their children, depriving them of vital classroom instruction. Students with disabilities may spend a portion of a school day outside of class, in a hallway or another classroom, where they don’t participate in lessons. And parents of students with disabilities may get frequent calls to pick up their child from school as early as the first hour of the school day.

Over the past year, the ACLU of Washington has collected stories from dozens of parents who say their children were punished, excluded from the classroom, and pushed out of public schools in Washington for behaviors stemming from the child’s disability. Here are some of the stories they shared with us.

Steven: Punished by teachers—and bullied by his classmates— for his disability

Bonnie Young has a son named Steven who is 15 and going into 9th grade. Steven was in the Spokane School District until 7th grade, when his family bought a house in the neighboring Mead School District with the express purpose of getting Steven out of the Spokane School District, where students bullied Steven and teachers ignored his needs, punishing him for behaviors that are a manifestation of his disability. Steven is Alaskan native.

Steven has a heart defect, ADHD, anxiety, autism, and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD). ODD is characterized by irritable mood, argumentative and defiant behavior, and aggression. These conditions have given rise to many issues at school, including altercations with other students and Steven’s inattention in class. As a result of these behaviors, he has been suspended and sent home early, causing him to fail classes.

The school put the onus on Steven to deal with the effects of his disability, such as trouble paying attention in his special education classes.  In 2015, Steven was given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and currently attends all special education classes, but it has made little difference.

“The school kept saying that he would get all the help he needs if he gets an IEP,” Bonnie said, “but now he has all the stigma of mental illness and none of the help.”

Steven has endured years of intense bullying by classmates singling him out for his perceived difference, Bonnie said. His classmates call him racial slurs and names, like “retard.” On one occasion, a student kept pouring syrup on Steven at lunch. Steven told the lunch monitor, but they did not do anything about it. The student was allowed to follow Steven outside, where he ran after him calling him slurs and hitting and kicking him. 

When Steven defended himself and hit back, the school suspended him. In the last year, Steven was suspended 5 times and spent a total of 24 days suspended out of school. Also in the last year, the school asked his mother to come pick him up early from school on 45 different occasions.

One of the suspensions occurred after two boys slapped Steven in the back of the head. He told them to stop multiple times, and eventually shoved one of them. Steven’s mother said her son felt so bad about pushing the boy that he went to the principal and told him what he had done. Steven was suspended for the incident.

The last time Steven was suspended for “fighting,” the principal said she would have him hauled down to juvenile hall. Steven is an extremely nervous child, and this threat gave him severe anxiety.

Steven will begin high school this fall, and Bonnie is extremely nervous about it. “When he starts at a new school this year, they are going to take one look at his record and make up their mind about what type of student he is,” she said.
Court Case: 
A.D. v. OSPI