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Race, Not Disability Status, Linked to Increased Suspension Rates

The research team behind the finding that minority students are less likely than similar white peers to be identified for special education are out with a new study, this time looking at race, disability status, and suspension rates.

The research, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of School Psychology, finds that race—but not whether a student is enrolled in special education—appears to be a driver of disproportionate suspension rates.

An advance copy of the study was provided to Education Week. It showed that black students overall received twice as many suspensions by the end of 8th grade as otherwise similar white peers.

But being in special education was not linked to having a higher rate of suspension after controlling for other factors. Students in certain disability categories, such as emotional and behavior disturbance or speech and language impairment, also were not at increased risk of suspension.

Also, the study found that students with disabilities who are black or Hispanic were not suspended more frequently than students with disabilities who are white. 

The lead authors on the study are Paul L. Morgan, an educator professor at Pennsylvania State University, and George Farkas, an educator professor at the University of California, Irvine. 

As with their previous work, these findings have policy implications: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to evaluate their districts for "significant disproportionality" due to identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities, based on race or ethnicity. The U.S. Department of Education has signaled that it plans to take a look at those rules, after it rolled back an Obama-era policy that would likely have resulted in more states being flagged for significant disproportionality. 

Examining Special Education Discipline Disparities

Morgan and Farkas' work has relied on examining large data sets—in this case, a nationally representative sample of students who were in kindergarten in 1998 to 1999.

As with their work in identification of students for special education, the researchers examined discipline data after controlling for various additional factors; they say that the lack of such controls has been a weakness of previous studies. For example, students with disabilities may appear to be suspended more often than their peers, but the differences even out when they are compared with students without identified disabilities who have similiar backgrounds and exhibit similar behaviors. 

Even after controlling for such factors, the findings still showed disproportionate suspension of black students, Morgan said in an interview. But disability status did not appear to play a role in how frequently a student was suspended by the end of 8th grade, after controlling for socioeconomic status, school characteristics, and student behavior. 

"We're providing stronger evidence of the potential for discriminatory practices," Morgan said. "The factors we've included don't seem to explain away the risk for students who are black."

But those potential discriminatory practices don't appear to extend to students with disabilities, he said.

"It's perfectly appropriate to be looking at potential bias and disparities," Morgan said. "But, if you infer discrimination from unadjusted descriptive evidence, it can lead you astray."


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