PORTLAND — Students with disabilities in Maine’s largest cities are much more likely to be suspended from school than their classmates without disabilities, an education expert said this week.

Daniel Losen, director of University of California-Los Angeles’ Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said that trend follows national statistics and carries troublesome implications in terms of future dropout and incarceration rates.

Losen was one of the keynote speakers at the third annual International Summit on Non-Adversarial, Non-Punitive Interventions for At-Risk Kids, a Nov. 8 conference in Portland.

“People think that suspending kids out of school is necessary, but there are a whole range of alternatives that are much more beneficial,” Losen told the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 6. 

“Few teachers will say that the kids come back three or five days later more ready to learn,” he said. “It doesn’t work. Plus, there’s a cost involved when we suspend kids out of school. Even for taxpayers who don’t care about anything but the bottom line, it’s not an economically efficient way of going about this.”

Friday’s event was organized by child psychologist Ross Greene, founder of the Portland-based nonprofit Lives in the Balance and author of the books, “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School.”

“Schools can be very punitive, very adversarial,” Greene said. “There can be a very ‘us-versus-them’ attitude in schools and that’s unnecessary. What we’re doing now isn’t working very well for the kids who are at the greatest risk.”

Losen said for secondary schools in Maine’s three largest cities, recent statistics show that students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than classmates without disabilities, and male students with disabilities are most likely to be kicked out of school.

According to 2009-10 data from the U.S. Department of Education, 4 percent of secondary students in Portland schools face suspension at one time or another. That figure goes up to 6.5 percent for students with disabilities and 11 percent for male students with disabilities.

In Bangor, the state’s third-largest city, 5.3 percent of secondary students without disabilities are at some point suspended, while 11 percent with disabilities face suspension and 14.3 percent of males with disabilities do.

Of the three largest cities, the disparity was greatest in Lewiston, according to Losen’s data. Of secondary students in Maine’s second-largest city, 12.7 percent were suspended at one time or another, while that number jumps to 22.2 percent for students with disabilities and 31.4 percent for male students with disabilities.

Figures showing that students with disabilities are much more likely to be removed from school can be found all across the country and represent an alarming trend that stacks the deck against teenagers who already face an uphill climb compared to their classmates, Losen said.

“When kids exhibit problem behavior, the solution isn’t to kick them out of school, where they’re more likely to be unsupervised and get into trouble,” he said. “We know that even being suspended once in the ninth grade doubles the chance of that student dropping out. And if you look at who’s in the juvenile justice system, by a conservative estimate at least a third have disabilities, and some studies indicate it could be up as high as 80 or 90 percent. That’s not a cost-effective way of dealing with students with special needs.”

Lewiston changing to in-house suspensions

Nationwide, school districts suspend students for a wide range of behaviors, Losen said.

“It can include anything from getting out of your seat when you’re not supposed to or rolling your eyes at the teacher,” he said. “It can also include more serious offenses, so there’s a wide range of things that can cause you to be suspended.”

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said his department recognized the disparity and has made changes in the years since the data Losen cited was collected. Among the reasons a Lewiston student can be suspended, according to district policy, are severe harassment of classmates or making a bomb threat.

Webster said he didn’t know why the data show Lewiston’s numbers higher than Bangor and Portland. The statistics are from 2009-10, Webster pointed out, adding he became the Lewiston superintendent in 2011.

One reason for Lewiston’s higher numbers could be, Webster said, that Lewiston has a high number of students from immigrant families learning English and customs; some of the immigrant students had little if any schooling before arriving.

It could also be that students had behavior problems before they were diagnosed and were suspended. Often bad behavior leads to later diagnoses. If the data were assembled looking at the number of disabled students and whether they were ever suspended, the numbers might make sense, Webster said.

In the past two years, fewer Lewiston elementary-level students are receiving out-of-school suspensions. Lewiston has set aside rooms for students to serve suspensions in school, where they work with staff and counselors to resolve  problems, as opposed to the previously more common out-of-school suspensions.

“We still have a long way to go, but I can say that the use of in-school suspensions has reduced greatly what would have been out-of-school suspensions,” Webster said.

“Increasingly, schools across the country are realizing suspensions themselves are not the answer,” he said. “Many times, students themselves need other supports, whether it’s counseling or support at the family end. There is that recognition that we can’t wash our hands of these students, and we as a society pay the price for those districts that do.”

While Lewiston has reduced elementary student suspensions, the same efforts must be applied at Lewiston High School, the superintendent said. “We don’t have alternatives there yet. A student can miss a detention and be suspended.”

New Principal Linda MacKenzie will begin her job Nov. 12. Creating in-house suspensions “will be one of the first things we’ll be working on,” Webster said.

Expert: Special ed students need help building coping skills

According to child psychologist Greene, the best way to handle students with behavioral problems is to go even further toward non-adversarial, non-punitive solutions. Students with disabilities are often exhibiting problem behavior as a result of a frustrating skill deficiency that prevents them from coping appropriately with their situations, he said.

Parents and educators should work with troublesome students to determine which skill is lagging, and involve them in coming up with a plan to compensate for it so that their educational environment is less frustrating, Greene said.

That sounds like a lot of work, said Nina D’Aran, principal of Central School in South Berwick, which has adopted Greene’s intervention model. But she said teachers in her school have found that classes go more smoothly and are more efficient after the troubled students help solve their own behavioral problems.

She also said her district has hired outside recess and lunch monitors to help provide teachers more time to work with students and parents on issues like these.

“If the normal redirection or quick reminder by the teacher isn’t working, we meet as a team and we’ll look at what skills are lagging to cause the problem. We’ll talk with the student about why that time is so difficult, what’s making it difficult and we’ll come up with a solution together,” D’Aran said.

“We used to spend hours in these meetings trying to figure out what to do with these children without involving the children in the conversation,” she said. “We’d come up with these plans, tell the students to do it and they’d do it. But it often wouldn’t work because we didn’t really know what was making it difficult in the first place.”

That more collaborative approach helps not only the student with the behavioral problems, but the entire classroom atmosphere, Greene said. He said the long-held model of trying to force better behavior through “adult-imposed consequences” and “imposition of will” is ineffective, and too often sends students on a trajectory that leaves them worse off.

“I fully appreciate that there will be parents, teachers, staff members and facilities that have been dealing with these situations the same way for a long time,” Greene said. “But I find that most are willing to hear new information, as hard as it is, and willing to try new ways to handle these challenges. If we understand that this isn’t about behavior — or about modifying behavior — but rather lagging skills that are preventing kids from accomplishing tasks, it becomes very clear to people why timeouts aren’t effective or even why giving out stickers isn’t effective.”

Sun Journal staff writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report.

Courtesy of Lives in the Balance
Child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, founder of the organization Lives in the Balance, is behindthe annual International Summit on Non-Punitive, Non-Adversarial Interventions for At-Risk Kids. The event was held Nov. 8 in Portland.

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