In the 181,500-student Fairfax County school district, students with disabilities represent about 14 percent of the enrollment but are involved in about 40 percent of all discipline cases, according to school officials.
At a county School Board work session Thursday night, members focused on the disparity as they reviewed proposed changes to the district’s discipline policies aimed at making school administrators more sensitive to the needs of students with disabilities.
“There are a disproportionate number of students with disabilities who tend to be suspended more often than others,” said board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville).
The board compared policy changes recommended by schools staff and those presented by a committee of parents, teachers, principals and others who reviewed the discipline process in the past year.
Sheree Brown-Kaplan, who sat on the ad hoc committee as the parent of two students with special needs, said more discipline cases could be avoided by making use of each student’s individualized education program (IEP) team. Brown-Kaplan said each program is catered to a student’s needs through a collaboration among parents, teachers and special education professionals.
Brown-Kaplan said that the decision on whether a student is suspended in the future could come down to a single word in one policy.
The committee had recommended in a report that before deciding to suspend a student with disabilities, “the school principal shall consult with the student’s” IEP team.
But the staff recommended that “the school principal may consult with the student’s” IEP team.
Brown-Kaplan said that using the word “shall” and requiring principals to reach out to a student’s IEP team could prevent more serious infractions for students with disabilities.
“The student’s IEP team may be targeting the behaviors” that led the student to act out, Brown-Kaplan said. Contacting the IEP team “would require those discussions and in doing so prevent a suspension and ensure the behaviors are being addressed” by professionals.
Kim Dockery, the assistant superintendent for special services, said that the IEP team is often consulted but not for every discipline case.
“It’s not necessary,” Dockery said. “You have to consider the context: What happened? Who is the child involved?”
Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), a former county teacher, pointed to creating discipline policies that balance the needs of special education students and the general population.
“School-based administrators should be running schools, not a miniature juvenile justice system,” Hynes said. “The more requirements in place, the more difficult it is for them to do their jobs.”
Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said that aspects of the staff’s proposed changes to the discipline process do not reflect the values of the ad hoc committee.
“What I see here is the intent of the [committee] is not being honored,” McLaughlin said. “They worked for the best interests of the students.”
Brown-Kaplan said that the staff recommendations do not go far enough to change the discipline process for students with disabilities.
“We can do better, let’s be aggressive,” Brown-Kaplan said. “There’s more work to be done. This is just the first step.”
The board will vote on the final changes to discipline policies on June 6.