Missed opportunities to address disparities in student discipline

Students with disabilities in Oklahoma public schools have experienced disproportionately high rates of exclusionary discipline, such as corporal punishment and suspension, compared to students without disabilities. These disparities are troubling not only because they reveal pervasive inequalities, but also because punitive discipline practices do not effectively address behavioral problems, and they can be harmful to students with identified academic or developmental needs. Rather than rely on exclusionary discipline, we should turn to relational and restorative practices that more adequately and appropriately address students’ behaviors, and encourage positive environments where all students can learn and succeed.

Students with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to receive corporal punishment

Until recently, students with disabilities received corporal punishment at disproportionately higher rates than students without disabilities. This was extremely troubling, as a wealth of data shows that corporal punishment in the form of physical punishment such as paddling and spanking, is associated with many adverse consequences. Rather than promoting improved behavior, corporal punishment has been linked to negative mental and physical health issues, increased antisocial behavior, and increased aggression — areas in which many children with disabilities tend to already face challenges.

Fortunately, in 2017, Legislature banned the use of corporal punishment for students with disabilities. This was a necessary and positive change, and our state government should be praised for it. While this certainly is an important step in promoting equal educational opportunities, we still have a long way to go. In addition to corporal punishment, students with disabilities are suspended at rates disproportionate to students without disabilities, and this is equally problematic.   

Students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended compared to their peers

Though students with disabilities account for 15 percent of Oklahoma’s students, they accounted for nearly 25 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Students with disabilities have some legal protections from suspension, but these disparities highlight that they do not adequately protect them from ineffective exclusionary practices.

Students are protected from being removed from school when their behaviors are symptoms of their disabilities. While parents may appeal the suspension, they must wait until their child has served ten days of the suspension period. Therefore, even if a review determines that a removal was unlawful, the student will have missed crucial class time for learning and development. Parents of students with disabilities should have the right to appeal suspensions immediately to determine whether a suspension is legally justified and appropriate.

Suspension is not an effective discipline practice

Disproportionality in school discipline is problematic for students with disabilities not only because they are receiving unequal treatment, but also because exclusionary practices do not effectively address problem behaviors. Suspensions contribute to chronic absences from school, which are strongly associated with other challenges many individuals with disabilities already face, such as impeded intellectual and social development, dropping out, unemployment, and economic dependency. Rather than encouraging positive behaviors, suspensions actually have the opposite effect, as students’ behaviors and achievement tend to worsen as a result. Therefore, the use of such exclusionary practices should be limited to the most extreme instances such as when a student is a risk to herself or others.  

Relational and restorative practices are more effective and beneficial for students than punitive forms of discipline

Discipline practices should promote positive student behaviors. Unfortunately, punitive forms of discipline including corporal punishment and school suspension do not correct the behaviors they intend to address. Instead, research shows that relational and restorative practices which foster a positive learning environment are most effective when it comes to properly handling challenging behaviors from students.

Rather than removing students from learning environments, relational and restorative practices are centered around more constructive interventions like conflict resolution and de-escalation practices that emphasize the development of students’ social-emotional skills, so that they can continue to learn and grow. Such practices have been proven to make schools safer, improve student behavior, and increase academic achievement.

Promising bills can be taken up next year

The over-reliance on punitive forms of discipline for students with disabilities is ineffective and negatively impacts their ability to learn, develop, and succeed. We’ve made progress by abolishing corporal punishment for students with disabilities, but there’s more work to be done for our children.

This legislative session, SB 72 (Sen. Ikley-Freeman) proposed to limit the use of restraint and seclusion, a practice that disproportionately affects students with disabilities. SB 72 would require school personnel to exert every effort to prevent the use of restraint and seclusion, and it would prohibit the use of mechanical restraints. As with corporal punishment and suspension, seclusion and restraint are neither helpful nor effective, and often have harmful consequences. While SB 72 was not heard this session, it can be taken up again next legislative session.  

Schools should also find ways to limit the use of suspension by adopting alternative forms of discipline. Three bills introduced this session would have allowed schools to do just that. While HB 1989, SB 452 and SB 181 are dormant this session, they can also be revived next year.  

Students with disabilities are subjected to ineffective and harmful discipline practices at higher rates than their peers. The bills introduced this session would address these disparities and the legislature would be wise to reconsider them next session. Our students deserve it.


Jared Poulter was a Fall 2018 intern with OKPolicy. He is a senior at the University of Tulsa majoring in sociology with a minor in law, policy and social justice. 

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