3 bills to protect students with disabilities from harm in schools


Students should be safe at school, not only with their peers, but with the 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.

Students with disabilities and their parents have a lot to fear in schools. The first that come to mind are probably physical access to school buildings, classrooms and facilities for students using wheelchairs or crutches; access to information for blind and deaf students; and effective design and faithful implementation of IEPs and accommodation plans, in order to make academic goals accessible to students with intellectual, learning or mental health disabilities.

But there are two other extremely important but largely misunderstood concerns for students with disabilities and their families. One is the immediate physical and mental harm inflicted by disciplinary practices supported by the institution. The other is the long-term criminalization of students with disabilities, which often begins in school and can permanently affect their future lives.

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

1. Ensure the safety of all students

  • A student with autism who is “falling apart” and who in response is forcibly held back by a much stronger and taller adult in a way that causes physical injury. Some restraint methods can even kill.
  • A student with Down’s Syndrome has recurring difficulty with disruptive but non-harmful behavior and is frequently placed in a prolonged “time out” instead of having their underlying needs addressed. This isolation causes further damage and exacerbates the original behavior problems.

The purpose of the law ensuring the safety of all students is to prevent physical and mental harm to students with disabilities:

“Prohibit and prevent seclusion, mechanical restraint, chemical restraint and hazardous restraints that restrict breathing, and prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint in schools. “

A May 27, 2021 position paper on the Cosponsor Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) bill outlines the need:

“The most recent data reveals that 101,990 students were subjected to seclusion or restraint in the United States during the 2017-18 school year, of which 78% were students with disabilities and black boys in a way. disproportionate. “

This highlights one of the key elements of the three bills. They all deal with the disproportionate short and long term harm to students of color and students with disabilities, including of course 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 associated stigmas.

In support of the Safe All Students 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 used inappropriately 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 tied up is part of a school’s standard operating procedures.”

And TASH, a longtime authority on best practices in special education, points out that effective alternatives to physical punishment and restraint are available:

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

The law ensuring the safety of all students:

  • Prohibit dangerous isolation and coercion in federally funded schools.
  • To prohibit all schools to use physical restraint, except when necessary to protect staff and other students,
  • Provide training to staff on more effective alternative strategies.
  • Require states to monitor implementation and increase oversight.

The bill has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate and is currently being considered by the Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions.

2. End punitive, unjust and school-based harms that are obvious and do not respond to trauma law

  • A black girl living in an environment of poverty and domestic violence, and who suffers from ADHD, is frequently punished and stigmatized for non-dangerous code violations such as dress and hair codes, “disrespectful” language and tone, and outbursts emotional, risking suspension or expulsion.
  • A disruption in home support services for a student with a disability intensifies emotional and behavioral problems at school, resulting in punishment without too much effort to address underlying issues and leading to placement in more segregated classrooms.

The purpose of the Law on the end of punitive, unjust and unjustified prejudices in schools which are manifest and insensitive to trauma (Law on the end of PUSHOUT) is to reduce the use of suspension and expulsion in school discipline .

The March 26, 2021 announcement of the bill’s reintroduction by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) examines the issue in detail, again highlighting the most serious impacts on particular groups of students:

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

Representative Pressley’s statement also presents the effects of trauma as a relevant factor that current practice does not fully take into account. The 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 are sanctioned for acting on an untreated mental illness. “

Again, current punitive practices do not solve the underlying problems. The problems are misdiagnosed and at the same time worsened. It also begins the process of reducing future student opportunities:

“This discipline is not only totally inappropriate, it takes these girls out of the classroom, pushes them into the criminal justice system and decreases their access to a full education.

The PUSHOUT law putting an end to:

  • Provide grants to states that commit to changing discriminatory suspension and expulsion policies and practices.
  • Demand more robust data collection on suspension and deportation trends.
  • Appoint a working group to deal with these issues.

The bill has nine co-sponsors and is on the House Committee on Education and Labor.

3. Counseling Act, not Criminalization in Schools

  • During a mental health crisis at school, a student becomes violent and a school police officer intervenes. The student then becomes involved in juvenile justice. This further stigmatizes the student and creates more barriers on top of the circumstances that have already made their mental health worse.

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

The goal of the School Counseling Act, not criminalization in schools, is to replace school law enforcement officers with better 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 staff and services that support mental health and trauma-informed services. “

A position paper on this bill from Cosponsor Senator Chris Murphy notes that the relatively recent trend of placing police officers in schools is not achieving the desired results:

“The data shows that having police in schools does not measurably increase school safety or improve academic performance.”

House cosponsor Ayanna Pressley also cites the imbalance between the more than $ 1 billion spent on police in schools since 1999 and the fact that 90% of schools do not have recommended staffing levels for counselors. , nurses and social workers. It also highlights an ACLU 2020 study that finds significant imbalances in the way police in schools affect students:

“Black students were arrested 3 times more than white students and black girls were arrested 4 times more than white girls… Students with disabilities were almost 3 times more likely to be arrested in school than non-students. disabled. “

What the Counseling Act, not Criminalization in Schools, could:

  • Prohibit 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 co-sponsors and has been referred to the Education and Labor Commission and the Judicial Commission.

Much of the discussion around these bills centers around students of color, as well as students with disabilities. Indeed, unjust, unduly harsh and harmful disciplinary practices disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Many of the most frequently and hardest hit students are students of color with disabilities. This problem also particularly affects LGBTQ + students and students who are socially stigmatized and discriminated against in other ways, including socio-economic status.

The 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 address these issues must also be aware of the specific ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism need to be explicitly addressed.

At the same time, the problem of the use of discipline in school is even more fundamental. Problems that arise from social conditions and physical and mental disabilities need to be addressed therapeutically, especially in schools – and not through punishment.

School is the last place where students who already live more complicated and busy lives should be subjected to physical violence and retaliation when layers of prejudice, hardship and trauma become too heavy for them.

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