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College of Education > News and Publications > 2020: 01-03 news > Extent of discipline on students with disabilities remains limited

Extent of discipline on students with disabilities remains limited

The scientific evidence for whether students with disabilities – including those who are of color – are being unfairly disciplined by U.S. schools relative to similarly behaving students without disabilities is currently limited and inconclusive, according to a new research synthesis.

Federal legislation and regulation currently require U.S. schools to monitor for whether students with disabilities who are racial or ethnic minorities are being inappropriately disciplined.

Paul Morgan-Yet a new synthesis of the existing scientific studies led by Paul Morgan, professor of education in the Department of Education Policy Studies in Penn State’s College of Education, finds that whether U.S. schools discriminate based on disability status when disciplining students is currently unknown.

Most of the available studies have not contrasted similarly behaving students. To date, Morgan said, no studies have contrasted the risk of suspension for students with disabilities who are racial or ethnic minorities to that of students with disabilities who are white while also accounting for at least one covariate. Morgan recently provided invited testimony on these findings to the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights.

 “It is a longstanding concern that students with disabilities, including those who are of color, are disproportionately more likely to be suspended or disciplined,” Morgan said, possibly due to the use by schools of discriminatory practices.

Morgan and his team conducted the synthesis over two years to evaluate the extent to which U.S. schools may be disciplining students with disabilities including those of color in ways that are discriminatory.

The research team ultimately coded 147 risk estimates from 18 of the best-available studies. The risk estimates that best accounted for alternative explanatory factors mostly failed to indicate that students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended or disciplined than similarly situated students without disabilities.

There was no rigorous evidence currently available that students with disabilities who are of color were more likely to be disciplined than students with disabilities who are white.

 “What we found was that there is not much scientific evidence to indicate that schools are discriminating on the basis of disability status or, for students with disabilities, on the basis of race or ethnicity in the use of disciplinary practices,” Morgan said. 

Morgan believes that a better understanding of the current scientific evidence will result in a stronger body of work examining whether U.S. schools are using discriminatory disciplinary practices.

The synthesis, which is available here, recently appeared in “Exceptional Children,” the special education field’s highest impact research journal.

Jim Carlson (January 2020)