Keeping disabled students off the fast track to prison

Leroy Franklin Moore, Jr. has cerebral palsy. He’s also an author, rapper and music & documentary film producer, co-founder of the National Black Disability Coalition and an outspoken activist for students and musicicians with disabilities.

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In interviews with the Huffington Post, the Krip-Hop Nation founder recently outlined a serious problem which minority students with disabilities face in public schools: staying out of the school-to-prisons pipeline - and suggested ways to address it.

Statistics linking school discipline to the criminal justice system are striking, how much more likely minority students are to face school discipline, and how closely problems at school correlate with becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

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Start by realizing over two-thirds (68%) of male inmates in federal and state prisons haven’t completed high school. Then note black and Latino students are twice as likely not to finish high school, three and a half times more likely to be suspended from school, and comprise 70% of students arrested at school. Black students by themselves account for 40% of students expelled from school.

A major part of the school-to-prisons pipeline problem, according scholars in that area, is that teachers and school administrators resort too quickly to law enforcement to enforce school discipline policies. This may be because school personnel lack training in alternative ways to maintain control of their classes, or due to an unduly strict zero-tolerance policies that may treat even minor infractions of school rules as requiring a law enforcement response.

Moore maintains that for students with disabilities, the problem is aggravated by unfamiliarity with the behaviors often linked with particular disabilities, and that an angry outburst by a minority student with a disability is often treated much more stringently than if it came from a non-minority or non-disabled student.

Even though a basic law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, forbids penalizing a student with a disability for behavior characteristic of their disability, the law is both often ignored by school officials and special education programs chronically underfunded.

Improved teacher training could make educators better versed in ways to de-escalate classroom problems. But, Moore says, rather than provide needed counselors and teacher training, too many school districts pour resources into bringing police into the schools, often with little or no training in disability-related issues.

But there are better ideas being implemented by some schools. With encouragement from community groups, some schools are rejecting calls for zero-tolerance policies, and working to ensure school officials have adequate training and sufficient resources to deal with special-education challenges. This results in thinking through and outlining responses to student behavior, and identifying specific steps to be followed before bringing police into school problems. Another suggestion Moore makes is to encourage the hiring of more black male teachers, noting some schools have worked to attract more young black graduate into public school teaching careers.

He adds parents of students with disabilities can help protect their children from running afoul of overzealous or inappropriate disciplinary steps. Since schools and parents are supposed to work together to develop an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each special education student, he advises parents to insist their child’s IEP specify that police, whether external or the school’s own police liaison officer, not interview the child without a parent being present.

Parents and community groups can also work to see that summoning the police to school is officials’ last resort, not their first.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.comand PrisonLawBlog.com