“Among incarcerated youth, 85 percent have learning and/or emotional disabilities, yet only 37 percent receive special education in school. Most were either undiagnosed or not properly served in school.”National Council on Disability, 2015 report
Sensitivity note: This post focuses on trends of overrepresentation of races, ethnicities, and special education eligibilities in school discipline and prison populations along with possible policy solutions to address the root causes of these issues to better support our students. Our students are by no means a monolithic population, since our students encompass so many varied needs while spanning all ethnicities and economic backgrounds. When looking at these daunting statistics, please also think of the individual students we work with every day and each of their unique stories and boundless potential. This post is intended to be a catalyst for policy makers to do more for our students and to imagine a school system that values “equity” over “efficiency” by investing in more robust services and keeping students connected to the school community.
A key tenant of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark civil rights legislation to protect the rights of students with disabilities, is for students with special needs to “be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible” (IDEA, 1.) This sentence suggests when a student ages out of IDEA typically at age 18 or at age 21 for more significant needs, he or she should be prepared for most facets of independent adulthood including finding a job, being part of the community, or pursuing further education. “To the maximum extent possible” suggests there is a spectrum for the notion of “independent adult lives” within the context of special education.
However, IDEA is falling short of its intended purpose in a critical post-graduation data point. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, IDEA represents 13% of school-aged children from 6-21. Yet, the National Council on Disability shares that “among incarcerated youth, 85 percent have learning and/or emotional disabilities, yet only 37 percent receive special education in school. Most were either undiagnosed or not properly served in school (National Council on Disability, 2015, p. 5).” Therefore, there is huge disproportionate leap from students served in school compared to representation in prison – almost 3 fold for those who received special education services in school and almost 7 fold for those who did not receive special education services in school. This startling statistic raises concerns on two fronts. First, why did the students who received special education services in school not have better life outcomes after this investment of time and money? Secondly, why did so many other students with emotional or learning disabilities slip through the cracks and not receive critical supports to improve their lives’ trajectories? Of course, I don’t have these answers – but what we collectively do know is that our current school system is in need of a transformation to obliterate the role of prison as a de-facto rehabilitation center.
Overlap of special education eligibility and youth in the foster care system
It should be noted that special education cannot be viewed in a vacuum when evaluating the root cause of high incarceration rates– special education is at the critical intersection of all socioeconomic, racial, and linguistic categorizations. For example, “maltreated children, and particularly children in foster care, are more likely to be diagnosed with a special education disability during earlier school years: between 30 and 50 percent in some populations” (Mallet, 2013, p. 22). Factors that could stem from foster care — such as an unstable home setting that creates and exacerbates high levels of anxiety or missed academic instruction associated with the transience of foster care — can contribute to a student qualifying for special education. The overlap of overrepresentation of foster children in special education is important to consider when considering the overrepresentation of foster youth in the juvenile justice system and “is an under-investigated phenomenon, but one that may greatly affect serious and chronic offenders” (Mallet, 2013, p. 21).
Overrepresentation in discipline of minorities and students in special education with discipline
Many studies have also documented the correlation with race and/or special education eligibility with disproportionality in suspensions and explosions. For example, according to a report from the Civil Rights Data Collection about 2.7 million suspensions were given to students in the 2015-2016 school year; however, there was an increase in law enforcement to handle disciplinary matters such as arresting students on school groups (Balingit, 2018). According to the report, “Black students accounted for 15 percent of the student body in the 2015-2016 school year but 31 percent of arrests (Balingit, 2018).” The data also showed student with special needs “are far more likely to face suspension or arrests at school” and accounted for “12 percent of enrollment but 28 percent of all arrests and referrals to law enforcement (Balingit, 2018.)” Therefore, these demographics are disproportionately represented, and children who are suspended or expelled are more likely to be incarcerated as adults (Poucher, 2015, p. 486). These daunting statistics illuminate the need for schools to adopt culturally and racially responsive and inclusive practices, abandon zero disciplinary policies, and examine what school practices could be exacerbating overrepresentation of minorities and students in special education for suspensions and explosions.
Lastly, the fact that “one in fifteen teenagers is a dropout with 2,227 teens leaving school for good each day (Dowd, 2011, p. 10)” calls into question what happens to these students and what employment opportunities are available to them without a high school diploma. According to a Northeastern study, there is a 10% chance a for a young male dropout of any ethnicity to be absorbed into jail or juvenile detention and a 25% chance rate an African-American young male drop out will be institutionalized (Dillon, 2009). One of the supporters of the Northeastern report and former Mayor of New Orleans, Marc H. Morial, said: “This report makes it clear that every American pays a cost when a young person leaves school without a diploma (Dillon, 2009).” Therefore, state and federal funding priorities should focus on investing to keep youth connected to school rather than perpetuating the incarceration system.
Representation of special education eligibilities in prison:
There are also discrepancies when evaluating the breakdown of academic eligibilities represented within the population of prisoners, who received an Individual Education Plan (IEP) mandating special education services while attending school. The longitudinal data for students, who qualify for special education under the eligibility emotional disturbance, show that we are not doing enough to support this population:
“Twenty percent of youth with ED are arrested, detained, or on probation prior to exiting school”(Gagnon, 2015, p. 83)
“Approximately 2/3 of youth with ED exit school without a high school diploma”(Gagnon, 2015, p. 83)
“45% of students classified with ED receive services for problems with drug abuse”Gagnon, 84
It comes as no surprise that entry into the juvenile probation system, dropping out, and drug use are all indicators of future incarceration. Students, who qualify for special education under the eligibility of Emotional Disturbance, are 13 times more likely for involvement with the juvenile justice system (Dowd, 2011, p. 10). This could be attributed to how many “youth with ED commonly have co-occurring mental disorders and problems with drug abuse, lack of social skills, and a history of abuse and neglect…Moreover, mental health services for youth in public schools are often ad hoc, fragmented and poorly funded. The result is that the juvenile justice system is utilized as a de facto approach to treatment of youth behavioral and mental disorders (Dowd, 2011, p. 10).” Therefore, this population, which accounts for 6% of students with special needs (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2018, p. 53), is especially vulnerable to incarceration due to insufficient mental health services while in school and loss of wraparound services after graduation, which passes the responsibility to prison to treat the underlying mental health and behavioral needs.
To further complicate matters, emotional factors, combined with ADHD, have a stronger correlation with behavioral disturbance than antisocial personality disorder (ASP) (Young, 2018, p. 1). We are all aware of the archetype media paints the image of a violent criminal as a withdrawn, psychopath embodying the traits of anti-social personality disorder. However, statistics show that “ADHD symptoms were significantly associated with history of violent offending, whereas ASP and age mostly explained nonviolent offenses (Young, 2018, p. 1).” This article shatters expectations of what people associate as a violent criminal and shows that there needs to be more awareness – especially in the education field – with the link of emotional/behavioral concerns mediated by ADHD and reactive violence. Therefore, impulsivity could be one of the major drivers of underlying social emotional or behavioral concerns, which result in prison. ADHD has also been associated with a higher probability of giving false confessions, aggression while in prison, and recidivism (Young, 2018, p. 2). Understanding what types of behaviors correlate with an increased likelihood of prison should help schools prioritize the need to help students with self regulation and impulse control, which may require consulting and working with mental and behavioral experts to provide intensive supports.
Public policy solutions:
Lack of identification and subsequent interventions along with insufficient supports for students who do qualify for special education along with inqequitable disciplinary policies are creating a prison-pipeline of students with learning, behavioral, and social emotional disabilities. IDEA’s mandate to create the “highest maximum” level of independence is falling short of its call to action for our most vulnerable populations. Therefore, I wanted to propose a few solutions as a starting point for a longer conversation and call to action.
- Zero tolerance policies have been associated with higher suspension rates, which disproportionately affect African American males and students with disabilities. Mitigating these policies and providing more proactive resources such as mental health services would be a step in the direction of equity. Suspending and expelling are more expedient “solutions” to schools and passes the problem to other institutional structures such as prison. Therefore, the federal government should create fiscal incentives for schools to identify and provide supports for at risk students, who engage in impulsive or reactive violent behaviors, by adopting evidence-based practices around teaching self-regulation.
- In the article, The Road to Prison is Paved with Bad Evaluations: The Case for Functional Behavior Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans, Poucher focuses on how lack of clarity around the requirements for schools to create and implement Functional Behavior Assessments and Behavior Intervention Plans could be denying students and FAPE and resulting in negative life outcomes such as prison. She states, “The IDEA’s lack of guidance has resulted in inconsistent and often contradictory court rulings, and the lack of specific definitions and procedures has allowed schools to develop purportedly legal but substantively deficient behavior evaluations and intervention plans for special needs students (Poucher, 2015, p. 470).” Poucher argues that even though Congress revised IDEA in 1997 to have better supports for students with behavioral needs, Congress did not go far enough. By not including “adjudicative” language around FBAs and BIPs, schools would not have the tools, support, or mandate to “temper the surge of disabled students into the juvenile justice system (Poucher, 2015, p. 471).” More accountability in IDEA is only one piece of the puzzle – this must also be accompanied with better training, pay, and smaller caseloads for special educators.
- Since the numbers are so staggering for students with the specific eligibility of ED, there needs to be more resources in place to support this demographic. Resources for research-based methods such as parent behavioral training and youth social skills instruction would be a step in the right direction (Gagnon, 2015, p. 83). There also needs to be more accessibility to mental health programming and funding, which is currently mostly restricted to discretionary grant programs (Gagnon, 2015, p. 83). More collaboration with school and community mental health resources and providing more intensive intervention for students with significant needs would be areas to expand federal and state mental health funding.
- Instead of aging students with the eligibility of ED out of the system at 18, students should be able to remain until progress is being made towards their behavior goals. According to a study commissioned by Johns Hopkins University, youth with significant behavioral and emotional needs mature at a slower rate than their peers (Carran, Kerins, Murray, 2005, p. 119).” Therefore, why are we expecting students who qualify under Emotional Disturbance to graduate and be out of the system at the same age as their neurotypical peers? Students with ED should also have access to Regional Center types of wraparound services.
- The government should also provide more funding and access to nonpublic schools to students with significant behavioral concerns, who are not showing progress in a general education environment with significant and individualized supports. It is always preferable to have a student in an inclusive environment but these intensive supports exist for students who need a different LRE. Costs for non public schools can range from $30,000 to $200,000. The Johns Hopkins study illuminates the positive impacts of students who thrived at non-publics and were able to gain employment or join a job-training program after their first year out of school. However, schools may not be incentivized to provide this option to students who truly need it if they are not reimbursed for the staggering costs. Fully funding IDEA would help schools make decisions in the best interest for their students instead of what is economically expedient.
- Lastly, understanding the importance of keeping students connected to schools should drive state and federal budgetary decisions and allocate more funding towards wraparound services for schools instead of the criminal justice system.
1400-short title; finding; purposes. (n.d). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.https://sites.ed.gov/idea/statute-chapter-33/subchapter-I/1400. Retrieved on May 5, 2019.
Breaking the school to prison pipeline for students with disabilities. (2015). National Council on Disability. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from: https://ncd.gov/publications/2015/06182015/
Balingit, M. (2018, April 24). Racial disparities in school discipline are growing, federal data show. Washington Post. Retrieved on June 8th, 2020 from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/racial-disparities-in-school-discipline-are-growing-federal-data-shows/2018/04/24/67b5d2b8-47e4-11e8-827e-190efaf1f1ee_story.html
Children and Youth with Disabilities. National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved on May 5th, 2019 from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.
Carran, D; Kerins; M. Murray; S. (2005). Three-year outcomes for positively and negatively discharged EBD students From nonpublic special education facilities. Behavioral Disorders, 30 (2), 119–134.
Dillon, S. (2009, October 8). Study find high rate of imprisonment amount dropouts. New York Times. Retrieved on June 8, 2020 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/09/education/09dropout.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/09/education/09dropout.html
Dowd, N. (2011). Keeping Kids Out of the Juvenile Justice System. New York: New York University Press.
Gagnon, Joseph & Barber, Brian. (2015.) Preventing incarceration through special education and mental health collaboration for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Justice for Kids New York: New York University Press. 82-98.
Greene, R. (2014). Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Crack and How We Can Help Them. New York: Scribner, 2014.
Mallet, C. (2013). Linking Disorder to Delinquency: Treating High-Risk Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Mastropieri, M., Scruggs, T. (2018). The Inclusive Classroom – Sixth Edition. New York: Pearson Education.
Poucher, S. (2015). The road to prison is paved with bad evaluations: The case for functional behavior assessments and behavior intervention plans. American University Law Review, 65 (2), 471- 521.
Young, S., Gonzalez, R. Mullens, H., Mutch, L. Malet-Lambert, I., & Gudjonsson, G. (2018). Neurodevelopmental disorders in prison inmates: comorbidity and combined associations with psychiatric symptoms and behavioral disturbance. Psychiatry Research, 261, 109-115.