A new lawsuit rightly shines a spotlight on the problem of high suspension and expulsion rates for special-education students in Washington state.
EVERY child in Washington is entitled to a public-school education, no matter his or her abilities.
Special-education students are no exception, even if they are disruptive, thanks to Washington’s education and anti-discrimination laws.
However, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washingtonin Thurston County Superior Court rightly challenges the way these laws are being enforced in Yakima and Pasco and, more worrisome, implies the issues could be widespread.
The lawsuit filed against the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction tells disturbing stories about five children who were disciplined so much they missed a significant amount of class time.
A 13-year-old with multiple health issues was excluded from his Yakima school for 52 days because of agitation and outbursts but was offered just 16 days of compensory education. A mother pulled her 8-year-old out of school in Yakima with medical problems related to his gastrointestinal tract after he was punished for taking too long in the bathroom and suspended after he attempted to defend himself physically against bullying. A 10-year-old in Pasco was repeatedly sent home early, excluded from the classroom and informally disciplined for minor infractions such as running around the flagpole.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of special-education students in both Eastern Washington school districts.
The courts will determine if these children, and others like them, were illegally denied a public-school education. But the fact that parents and the ACLU had to file a lawsuit to fight for the children’s rights suggests something is wrong.
Districts across Washington suspend and expel special-education students at more than twice the rate of their peers — about 8 percent of special-education students versus about 3 percent non-special education.
Students suspended or expelled are much more likely to drop out of high school than those who are not, in part, because they are simply missing too much school.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, about one-third of Washington’s 147,000 special-education students drop out of high school. The five-year graduation rate for special-education students is about 65 percent compared to 81 percent of all students.
No matter the outcome of this lawsuit, discipline rates for special education students should be more closely examined in Washington state, with an eye toward improving educational achievement for all.