Bad Behaviour: Disabled Students and Discipline Disparities

I wrote recently here about the abuse of autistic students in Pennsylvania, and highlighted the fact that abusive ‘discipline’ is distressingly common for disabled students. In the interests of writing a post that for once does not need a content warning, I’m going to refrain from providing details of the kinds of actions that are considered ‘discipline’ in the schools, but I’m sure many of you have encountered stories in the media and some of you have probably experienced abuse in the classroom yourselves.

This is a reflection of a lot of problems with the way society views and treats people with disabilities, and of serious inadequacies in the education system. Teachers who abuse students clearly should not be in the classroom, yet they are, and they are sometimes allowed to remain even after abuse is reported. Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

But what about the flip side, when students are taken out of the classroom?

A study recently released in Delaware found that disabled students are more likely to be suspended for ‘behaviour problems.’ More specifically, while 20% of the students suspended[1. School suspension, for those not familiar with the concept, is a form of discipline where students are ordered to stay out of school for a set period of time. Students may or may not be allowed to do schoolwork at home.] were disabled, disabled students only make up 14% of the student body. The study questions this disparity, asking why it is that disabled students are at more risk of suspension although there is an established body of law that is designed to specifically provide protections for disabled students, and to limit the circumstances in which they can be suspended.

The article asks, not ‘why are students with disabilities more likely to be suspended,’ but ‘what makes disabled students behave badly?’ I personally think that’s the wrong question. What is ‘bad behaviour’? How is this being defined, and who is defining it? It’s good to see some mandatory accountability in the form of tracking discipline numbers and reporting them, but accountability is only one part of the equation. If districts are not taking action to address the disparities, reporting them doesn’t make that much of a difference.

And are schools adequately identifying disabled students? While there has been more of a push in recent years to identify and intervene when disabilities are observed in the classroom, there tend to be racial and class inequalities when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, there are disparities in identification; a teacher may attribute differences in learning and communication styles to disability in a white child, and ‘bad attitude’ in a nonwhite child, for example.

The approach to this particular educational disparity seems to be focused on what ‘makes’ students ‘behave badly’ instead of asking whether teachers are being adequately trained to work with disabled students and asking what ‘bad behaviour’ is and who is defining it. It assumes that everyone should (and can) engage in specific patterns of behaviour and it suggests that ‘abnormal’ behaviour patterns should be punished.

Are students suspended for not using modes of communication familiar to teachers? For needing to stand or pace while learning? For needing a quiet environment for learning, and for becoming upset when one is not provided? For needing orderly and precise schedules? For not completing assignments they don’t understand or find impossible to finish? For attempting to create and maintain personal space? For expressing any number of needs and needing a space where they are accommodated? For tics in the classroom?

When nondisabled people are the ones defining ‘normal’ behaviour and deciding what is bad and worthy of suspension, inevitably you are going to end up with disparities in student discipline. When teachers are not provided with adequate training, when they are dealing with classrooms that have too many students in them, when they are being burdened with a lot of additional work outside the classroom, a tinderbox of circumstances is created and disabled students tend to lose.

Suspension is a serious punishment. Students missing a month or more of school is a serious problem. Until we reframe the way that we talk about classroom behaviour, we’re going to continue missing the heart of the problem.

4 thoughts on “Bad Behaviour: Disabled Students and Discipline Disparities

  1. Thanks for posting this. There’s a lot to unpack here and I really like the way you caught the way that article misleadingly framed the issue, plus the whole “nondisabled people declaring what’s normal behavior” thing is huge.

    I think too that personal bias comes into stuff like this a lot–that even knowing that a student is disabled and deserves accommodation, teachers who are can’t handle difference, and who aren’t particularly self-aware, may be unconsciously judging those students with even greater harshness on top of the ableism already inherent in the system. So maybe a kind of personal nastiness is compounding all of this and making it even more awful. That’s just a guess based loosely on some of my own experiences, though.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’ve often wondered whether students with disabilities are disciplined for things non-idsabled students ar enot being disciplined for, because they are generally “difficult to handle”. I have no experience with a school setting, but in the psych hospital, I was threatened with harsh punishment for simply having an irritable tone of voice – something a person outside of the hospital would get a snarky comment about or something.

  3. In retrospect, some of the treatment I got from PE teachers especially borders on emotional abuse. Being harassed over my asthma, my foot problems, my string of injuries, so on. I got lesser harassment from teachers over the same sort of things, and my sophomore year of high school, my elite private high school threatened to fail me on account of having too many absences (due to badly-controlled migraines) even though I had excellent grades.

    When I read reports of school abuse, part of me wonders how many smaller stories of abuse like mine don’t even get mentioned. At the time, I didn’t even think of it as abuse – or rather, like most abuse victims, I thought of it as hurtful but deserved.

    I mean, I’m not by any means saying we shouldn’t talk about the bigger cases – damn straight we should! Very messed up things are happening to kids that shouldn’t happen to anyone, and it’s these bigger, more horrific stories that will attract the attention to try to fix things. I just also think that the picture is even more immense and gut-wrenching than we see, because only the worst stories get reported and get action. That’s a problem, too.


  4. Kids with disabilities may be more likly to be suspended becasue as common targets for bullies they are more likly to be invovled in fights.

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