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AUDIO: The Punishment Gap: Schools Discipline Special Ed Students at Higher Rates

Nate Robson-Oklahoma Watch



Hear the audio version of this story:

  In Jenks Public Schools, campus police physically restrained and handcuffed a second-grade special education student.

His crime? He ran to the playground to escape a noisy classroom.

At Tulsa Public Schools, officials called a father and told him to pick up his 6-year-old daughter, who was having an emotional meltdown. He arrived to find four armed campus police officers holding her down, saying she assaulted one of them.

In the Deer Creek School District in Edmond, a member of the school staff slapped an autistic child on two occasions, but a judge tossed out the federal lawsuit, saying the employees acted out of frustration.

Across the state, students with physical and mental disabilities are bearing much of the brunt of classroom discipline, government data show. They’re more likely than their peers to be suspended, expelled, arrested, handcuffed or paddled. In dozens of schools, special education students are anywhere from two to 10 times more likely to be disciplined, the data show. At some schools, every special education student has been physically disciplined, suspended or expelled.

The discipline trend has angered and frustrated some Oklahoma parents and triggered calls for reform from groups that advocate for special-needs children. They say excessive discipline is hurting students academically and psychologically. Teachers and administrators need better training on how to educate students with emotional and learning disabilities, not simply punish them or drive them out of the school, advocates say.

Some school officials acknowledge there is a problem with disproportionate discipline. Others say that while schools must teach and manage children with disabilities skillfully, they cannot let a few students disrupt the classroom and hurt learning for all students.

In an effort to address concerns, the U.S. Department of Education began requiring schools several years ago to track and report information about their disciplinary actions. Last year, the agency released disciplinary data for the 2011-2012 school year. 

An Oklahoma Watch review of that data found that Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in rates of special education students being expelled from schools. It ranked fourth in corporal punishment of such students, 19th in in-school suspensions, 28th in out-of-school suspensions and 20th in arrests. Some of these reflect Oklahoma’s general higher rates of discipline. But in each category, the share of special education students who were disciplined was higher than that of the other students, data show.

The percentages statewide aren’t high, but they represent hundreds or thousands of students. For example, 2.1 percent of special education students in Oklahoma were expelled in 2011-2012, compared with 0.8 percent of other students. The 2.1 percent represents 2,099 children. In dozens of schools, the proportions of disciplined special-needs students run anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent, compared with less than 20 percent for other students.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism service  that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.