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3 Bills That Aim To Protect Disabled Students From Harm In Schools

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 30, 2021

Students should be safe in school, not just from their fellow students, but from school authorities themselves. And school should be an open door to success and happiness, not a greased slide into permanent crisis and incarceration. This is especially important for students with disabilities.

Disabled students and their parents have many things to worry about in schools. The first that come to mind are probably physical access to school buildings, classrooms, and facilities for students using wheelchairs or crutches; information access for students who are blind or deaf; and effective design and faithful implementation of IEPs and accommodation plans, to make academic goals reachable for students with intellectual, learning, or mental health disabilities.

But there are two other enormously high-stakes but widely misunderstood worries for disabled students and their families. One is the immediate physical and mental harm inflicted through institutionally-supported disciplinary practices. The other is the long-term criminalization of students with disabilities, which often starts in schools and can permanently affect their later lives.

There are three bills in Congress that together could, among other benefits, help protect disabled students from harm, and help ensure that school remains an opportunity for them, not a sentence.

1. Keeping All Students Safe Act

  • An autistic student who is having a “meltdown” and in response is forcefully restrained by a much stronger, larger adult in ways that cause physical injury. Some methods of restraint can even kill.
  • A student with Down Syndrome has recurring difficulty with disruptive but not harmful behavior and is frequently placed in extended “time out” instead of having their underlying needs addressed. This isolation causes further harm and makes the original behavioral problems worse.

The purpose of the Keeping All Students Safe Act is to prevent physical and mental harm to students with disabilities:

“To prohibit and prevent seclusion, mechanical restraint, chemical restraint, and dangerous restraints that restrict breathing, and to prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools.”

A May 27, 2021 position paper on the bill from cosponsor Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Connecticut) describes the need:

“The most current data reveals that 101,990 students were subjected to seclusion or restraint in the United States during the 2017-18 school year, 78 percent of whom were students with disabilities and disproportionately Black boys.”

This points out one of the key elements of all three bills. They all address disproportionate short and long term harm done to students of color and students with disabilities, of course including students of color with disabilities. While these are often viewed as separate populations, these three bills consider them together, as they share many of the same experiences and related stigmas.

In support of the Keeping All Students Safe Act, the National Council for Learning Disabilities states:

“Every child has the right to feel safe at school. And yet, for decades, seclusion and physical restraint have been inappropriately used to punish students with disabilities and students of color at alarming rates.”

The National Disability Rights Network adds:

“No child in America should have to attend a school where being locked in a room alone or suffocated while being restrained is part of a school’s standard operating procedure.”

And TASH, a longtime authority on best practices in Special Education points out that effective alternatives to physical punishments and restraints are available:

“… we know that positive behavioral interventions and supports are effective alternatives that produce much better results for students and schools.”

The Keeping All Students Safe Act would::

  • Prohibit seclusion and dangerous restraint in schools with federal funding.
  • Prohibit all schools from using physical restraint, except when necessary to protect staff and other students,
  • Provide training for staff in more effective alternative strategies.
  • Require states to monitor implementation and increase oversight.

The bill has 14 cosponsors in the Senate, and is now being considered in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

2. Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act

  • A Black girl living in an environment of poverty and domestic violence, and who has ADHD, is frequently punished and stigmatized for non-dangerous code violations like dress and hair codes, “disrespectful” language and tone, and emotional outbursts, risking suspensions or expulsion.
  • A disruption in home support services for a disabled student intensifies emotional and behavioral problems at school, resulting in punishment without much effort to address underlying problems, and leading to placement in more segregated classes.

The purpose of the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act, (Ending PUSHOUT Act), is to reduce the use of suspension and expulsion in school discipline.

The March 26, 2021 announcement of the bill’s re-introduction by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, (D-Massachusetts) discusses the problem in detail, again highlighting the heaviest impacts on particular groups of students:

“Black girls, girls of color, and students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to exclusionary school discipline policies such as suspension and expulsion, which can have long-term effects on the safety, wellbeing, and academic success of all students.“

Rep. Pressley’s release also introduces the effects of trauma as a relevant factor that current practices don’t take into full account. Students are:

“… disciplined for expressing trauma at a time when so many black and brown children have lost loved ones to a pandemic that has devastated their communities. They’re being disciplined for acting out unaddressed mental illness.”

Again, current punitive practices fail to address underlying problems. Problems are misdiagnosed and at the same time made worse. It also begins the process of narrowing students’ future opportunities:

“That discipline is not only wholly inappropriate, it takes these girls out of the classroom, pushing them toward the criminal justice system, and diminishing their access to a complete education.”

The Ending PUSHOUT Act would:

  • Provide grants to states that commit to changing discriminatory suspension and expulsion policies and practices.
  • Require more robust data collection on suspension and expulsion trends.
  • Appoint a task force to address these issues.

The bill has nine cosponsors, and is in the House Committee on Education and Labor.

3. Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act

  • In the course of a mental health crisis in the school, a student becomes violent and a school police officer intevenes. The student then becomes involved with juvenile justice. This further stigmatizes the student and creates more barriers on top of the circumstances that have already worsened their mental health condition.

This student would be better served by a trained counselor to more therapeutically address the mental health crisis, and a social worker to help deal with the life circumstances that intensified the student’s impairments and contributed to their situation.

The purpose of the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act is to replace law enforcement officers in schools with more appropriate trained counselors and support staff.

“This bill prohibits the use of federal funds for law enforcement officers in schools. It also establishes a grant program to replace law enforcement officers in schools with personnel and services that support mental health and trauma-informed services.”

A position paper on this bill from cosponsor Sen. Chris Murphy notes that the relatively recent trend of placing police officers in schools doesn’t accomplish the intended results:

“Data shows that the presence of police officers in schools does not measurably increase school safety or improve academic outcomes.”

House cosponsor Rep. Ayanna Pressley also cites the imbalance between the over $1 billion spent on police officers in schools since 1999, and the fact that 90% of schools don’t have the recommended staffing levels of counselors, nurses, and social workers. She also highlights a 2020 ACLU study that finds significant imbalances in how police in schools affect students:

“Black students were arrested at 3 times the rate of white students and Black girls are arrested at 4 times the rate of white girls … Students with disabilities were nearly 3 times more likely to be arrested at school than students without disabilities.”

What the Counseling Not Criminalization Act in Schools Act would:

  • Ban federal funds from being used to fund police in schools.
  • Through federal grants, help schools hire more counselors, social workers, and other support staff to provide “behavioral interventions and supports” and “trauma-informed” services.

The bill has 13 cosponsors and has been referred to the Committee on Education and Labor the Committee on the Judiciary.

A lot of the discussion around these bills focuses on students of color, along with students with disabilities. That is because unfair, unduly severe, and harmful disciplinary practices disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Many of the students most frequently and harmfully affected are disabled students of color. This issue also notably affects LGBTQ+ students, and students who are socially stigmatized and discriminated against in other ways, including socioeconomic status.

Physical restraint, isolation, and criminalization of students in schools is a clear illustration of negative intersectionality. Multiple layers of stigma and marginalization –– such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability –– amplify inappropriate and damaging treatment. Efforts to solve these problems likewise need to be conscious of the specific ways that racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism must be explicitly dealt with.

At the same time, the problem of how discipline is used in schools is even more fundamental. Problems that stem from social conditions and physical and mental disabilities should be addressed therapeutically, especially in schools –– not through punishment.

School is the last place that students who already live more complicated and burdened lives should be subjected to physical violence and retribution when layers of prejudice, hardship, and trauma become too much for them.

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