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Report: Students With Disabilities Suspended More Frequently Than Peers

Vermont students lost over 8,000 days of classes in one school year due to suspension and expulsion. That's according to a new report, and perhaps most telling in that report is the fact that those disciplinary actions were two to three times more likely to be taken on students with disabilities.

The report, called Kicked Out: Unfair and Unequal Discipline in Vermont's Schools also found that some students of color were more likely to be suspended than white students.

The report was complied by Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont School Discipline Reform Coalition.

Jay Diaz, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid's disability law project, said the report looked at students on individualized education plans. That includes students with learning disabilities or some disability that significantly impacts their learning. Those students were nearly three times more likely to be suspended across the state, but Diaz said some of those rates were higher in some counties than others.

The report also dug into the numbers for African American students in Chittenden County and Native American students in Franklin County, and found that those students were also two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students.

"We don't have exact information available publicly or in readily available form to tell us what specifically happened in every case," Diaz explained, "but over 8,000 students were suspended in one year, many times this was just for minor infractions, such as disobedience or non-compliance with teacher directives, or school directives, cutting class. I've had cases of 5-year-olds running out of the classroom and being suspended, it could be more serious behavior, but most of these are for minor infractions."

Diaz said the goal of the report is to provide information for policymakers and educators. "We're not alleging any bias, but we are saying that this is what happening, we don't think it should be, no one should be more likely to be suspended just because they are a student with a disability or a student of color, or a student from a low-income family."

Students who are suspended just once, Diaz said, are more likely to drop out or end up in the juvenile justice system.  When a student is suspended, they miss vital class time, parents may have to leave work to pick them up, which puts their job in jeopardy. Time away from school might be unproductive or unsupervised. For students on free or reduced price lunches, if they are not in school, they may not eat.

The report advocates for a systemic change to keep kids in school, or provide educational services to students who are not able to be in the classroom. "We believe that you need to reduce suspensions, track discipline, improve student rights, in order to improve climate. The good news is that studies show when we do this, all kids do better in school, students and staff feel safer, we narrow the achievement gaps," Diaz said. "We can fix this problem so that all students can have a shot at a productive life."