Is Your Special Education Child on the School to Prison Pipeline? 5 Things You Can Do About It!

Melissa M. Taylor

I recently was contacted by a parent of a child with Autism from another state for some advocacy advice. The mother is educated, knowledgeable in advocacy skills and a passionate fighter for her child! She is extremely concerned that her school district is setting her child up to fail (due to his behavior), so that he can be removed from the school. I have seen many special educators escalate a child’s behavior, call the police, and have the child arrested. Thus goes the school to prison pipeline—and it can happen to your child.

According to a recent article, the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey state that experts attribute the high percentage of individuals with disabilities in the nation’s bloated prison population – which has grown 700 percent since 1970 – in part to deep problems in the education of children with disabilities. Here is another shocking statistic: Nationwide, at least 73 percent of youth with emotional disabilities who drop out of school are arrested within five years, according to a federal study.
What is a parent to do?

1. Learn about behavior in general and some of the causes: a. A child’s behavior could very well be related to their disability. b. All behavior is a form of communication. c. Children often have behavioral difficulty if they are frustrated. d. Keep in mind that there is a huge connection between academic difficulty and behavioral difficulty. In other words, many children who have behavioral difficulty at school also have difficulty with their academics. e. The reaction to a child’s behavior will either improve the behavior or make the behavior worse. This includes at school and also at home! Untrained special education staff can escalate the behavior (make it worse), rather than deescalate the behavior (make it better). f. The earlier the behavior is addressed, the easier it will be to change the behavior.

2. Ask special educators to look for the ABC’s of behavior and track the behavior for one week (writing down their results). A stands for antecedent (what is occurring in the classroom when the behavior occurs), B stands for behavior (specifically what the behavior is), and C stands for consequences (what happened due to the behavior-for example: your child screams and yells and gets to avoid school work).

3. Advocate for the best practices way to handle negative behavior (an appropriately developed functional behavioral assessment (FPA) which is used to develop a positive behavioral support /plans). Make sure the plan is “positive” because studies have shown that punishment only works in the short term to positively change behavior.

4. Educate yourself on federal and state special education laws related to discipline of children with disabilities. In my 25 years of advocacy I find many school districts overstate the laws to discipline children, with few parents questioning their ability to do so.

5. Ask for a daily behavior sheet (to be filled out and returned home daily) so that you can use positive reinforcement at home for good behavior. When educators fill the sheet out they need to write positive comments only. The daily behavior sheet can be used in a dispute with special educators (for example: they state on _________ day that your child did __________, and the sheet does not reflect that). The sheet can be developed by a teacher or the person conducting the FBA. Make sure all of the sheets are dated for future reference.

If your school district calls the police on your child and has them arrested, it is possible to receive assistance from judges for special education services. I have seen parents able to help their child receive needed services, if the criminal justice system becomes involved. If this happens to your child advocate proactively for needed special education services. In the end your child may end up receiving a free appropriate public education with the school district having to provide the services that a child needs! Good luck!

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