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"We're telling students, 'We don't want you here.'" | North Carolina leads nation in suspending students with disabilities

A WCNC Charlotte investigation found North Carolina relies on lengthy exclusionary discipline for students with disabilities more than any other state.

ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. — Every child is guaranteed a public education free from discrimination, but a WCNC Charlotte investigation found schools in North Carolina report suspending and expelling students with disabilities, per capita, more than any other state in the country. North Carolina's reliance on this form of punishment forces vulnerable kids, many of them in elementary school, to miss weeks of classroom learning.

Advocates say the research shows exclusionary discipline doesn't correct the behavior and only creates more problems for students and society.

Oftentimes, they say the punishment is discriminatory.

Suspended 17 days in elementary school

On a Monday afternoon in late July, school is the last thing on 9-year-old Cohen's mind. Instead, the rising fourth grader is carefree on a playground in Kannapolis enjoying summer break.

"He's amazing," his mother Julia Waitt said smiling. "He's autistic, but it's not really a disability for him. It's more like an ability. He's extremely smart."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Cohen on a playground

Diagnosed with autism, anxiety and ADHD, Cohen can be challenging. That's why Waitt has spent years adapting her behavior to meet her son's needs.

She said his former school failed to do the same.

"It was awful," Waitt told WCNC Charlotte of his experience. "I honestly don't know how he passed the second grade. I feel like they just pushed him out."

Cohen is now more than a year removed from his time at Landis Elementary School. During second grade there, records show his "inappropriate," "aggressive" and "disruptive" behavior prompted Rowan-Salisbury Schools to suspend him for a combined 17 days.

"He would get suspended and then come back and then get suspended for the same thing again," his mom said. "He was disruptive because his needs were not being met."

She said the cycle of suspensions fostered Cohen's unhealthy relationship with school.

"It makes me ill," she added. "He was like, 'I hate it there.'"


Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Julia Waitt discusses her son's school experience.

A school is not supposed to suspend or expel a student if their behavior stems from their disability. Education attorneys consider that to be disability discrimination.

"I do feel like he was discriminated against, because they automatically tried to tag him as a bad child," Waitt said. "He was not a bad child. He was struggling."

Required district reviews of Cohen's education and clinical history ultimately found his conduct had "a direct or substantial relationship" to his disability, records show. Those hearings determined the violations of the student code of conduct were in fact a manifestation of his disability.

"The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right."

North Carolina's constitution lists education as a fundamental right. Beyond that, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures "a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities." More than 210,000 students across North Carolina or 14% of all students are served under IDEA, according to state records.

The latest federal data from the 2019-2020 school year, shared with Congress in April, shows North Carolina's public schools, per capita, reported this kind of discipline (greater than 10 days combined) more than any other state in the nation.

Hover your mouse over or tap a bar to see data state by state. WCNC Charlotte re-arranged the data to show North Carolina and South Carolina first, and that Wisconsin did not report any data.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction records show more than 2,600 students in all received out-of-school suspensions or expulsions greater than 10 days that school year, while nearly 19,000 received 10 days or less. Both numbers were lower than the previous school year, but also included remote learning. Most of the students punished at length were Black, DPI data show.

"We're telling students, 'We don't want you here,'" Caitlin Whalan Jones, with the Council for Children's Rights, said. "Really what we're doing by excluding these students is the same thing that we're trying to prevent. We don't want to segregate students with disabilities."

Whalan Jones is not just a disability and education attorney. She's also the mother of a 1-year-old with Down Syndrome.

"It is concerning that this is the reality of what she will be entering," she said. "It's very, very concerning, alarming that this is happening."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Caitlin Whalan Jones sits down for an interview with WCNC Charlotte.

Whalan Jones is the director of the Council for Children's Rights Education Law Program. The organization, which represents students and their families, saw a need during the pandemic to start taking referrals from the community. During the first two initial years of those referrals, data provided to WCNC Charlotte show the number of cases has increased by almost 25%. 

"We don't talk about it enough. We've started to talk about it more, because of the pandemic," she said of the problem. "School feels like just another place where (these kids) don't belong, which is heartbreaking, because as a society, we think of education as this way out, but if we're saying it's only education for some or only students who behave in a certain way, that's not what we as a society, we as North Carolina, have said about education and how we perceive education should be."

She knows the research shows exclusionary discipline is ineffective, plus a pre-cursor to dropping out of school and potential criminal behavior.

"Taking a child out of school is not beneficial and so, we really want to be selective when we are using that disciplinary consequence," Whalan Jones added. "There are lots and lots of options before we remove a student from a classroom. What we really need to be doing for these students is providing them the support and skills and tools to change the behavior."

Seeking Solutions

Lawmakers in several states have largely banned this form of discipline for specific elementary school grade levels, with violence considered an exception. Limited research suggests positive results in places where schools use alternatives to address students' individual needs.

The Education Commission of the States identifies several alternatives, including schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports that includes "proactive strategies for defining, teaching and supporting appropriate student behaviors," restorative practices that focus on peaceful and non-punitive ways of "building, nurturing and repairing relationships" and trauma-informed practices aimed at understanding and considering "adverse childhood experiences" when deciding discipline.

The organization is led by a governor and a state legislator. The political party of that chair and vice chair alternate every two years.

Rae LeGrone said North Carolina's problem is exacerbated by the state's lack of education funding.

"It's extremely unfair that students are left without the resources they need and that families are suffering," the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators vice president said. "Our state is shirking its responsibilities to the students in all of our buildings by underfunding."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Rae LeGrone discusses education with WCNC Charlotte.

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LeGrone is a high school art teacher. She said post-pandemic, there are even more students in need of individual attention and fewer teachers and support staff to help. LeGrone said state lawmakers could help overwhelmed and outmatched educators by properly funding education as ordered by the courts in the decades-old Leandro case.

"Teachers and support staff don't have the tools available to them in the classroom to differentiate and give every student a sound education," she said. "I can't help but think that if every (elementary) classroom had a teacher's assistant like we used to, then a lot of these suspensions would not be taking place, because students' needs would be met. Things that would be easily solved with having two adults in a classroom are now taking up a whole classroom's time, because there's one teacher who has to focus solely on one or two students, so it's really lessening the education of everybody in the school building."

DPI data show while the number of students has remained relatively stable over time, funding for teachers' assistants has decreased by nearly 25% since 2005. 

In a statement, Gov. Roy Cooper's Office noted his budget fully funds the Leandro plan and would increase funding for students with disabilities by dedicating more resources to create smaller classrooms and add more support staff. Lawmakers have yet to finalize and approve a state budget.

"Every child in North Carolina has the right to a high-quality education and this report is concerning," Deputy Communications Director Jordan Monaghan said of WCNC Charlotte's reporting. "While I would direct you to the Department of Public Instruction for specific questions on these policies, we know that many students have specific needs and our school policies must aim to meet those needs instead of simply removing those students from the classroom."

Rowan-Salisbury Schools responds

After Cohen's initial suspensions, emails show Rowan-Salisbury Schools and his teacher committed to a partnership that would help the second grader "reach his greatest potential," all as his mother asked them to find "ways to keep him in school." By the time he hit 10 days of out-of-school suspensions, the district pledged to explore additional options to help him "be successful at school."

Records show, when he acted out, R-SS continued reacting with suspensions.

"I want the school system to see what they're doing to these children. These children do not deserve this. They didn't ask to be born this way and it's not their fault," his mother said. "It's everybody that will not learn to adapt to how they need to be treated. They're the problem."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Michelle Shue

R-SS Director of Marketing & Communications Michelle Shue said she couldn't talk specifically about any case, but told WCNC Charlotte the school district is now more student-focused under its new leadership.

"We are making that real effort this year to look at the whole child and not just the whole child, but their whole history and determining what is best in that moment and what our reaction is going to be," Shue said. "We've had to adjust and adapt and that requires sometimes that you make mistakes."

Shue said R-SS is now equipped with better training, new community partnerships and improved internal oversight to ensure consistently fair discipline. The district recently revised its strategic plan to include a grounding practice that "student voice matters" and added a new position to help serve as a liaison between families and administrators.

"We can't teach kids unless they're in the classroom. It is our number one priority to serve our students. They come first. We really feel like that's a focus for us this year to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make sure we're providing that opportunity to students," she said. "We love kids of all kinds with all kinds of abilities and so we want to do the very best we can for them and as humans, we're learning too."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Landis Elementary School

"Those kids who were not served to the best of your ability at that time. Is there a feeling of letting those kids down?" WCNC Charlotte asked Shue.

"I can speak to this as a former teacher. I think that teachers often feel like they've failed their students..." Shue said, tearing up. "...There are a million ways that teachers feel like they've failed in a day and society has a million other ways that they tell us that we've failed and that can be really hard. It's a daily reality that teachers feel as if they fail students in one way or another. I feel certain that at every level through a school district, your principals and your district level supervisors, all the way up to the superintendent are constantly trying to figure out, 'How do we do better? How can we do more tomorrow?' and we always want to do better tomorrow. We don't want to go in and repeat hard days before...We always just want to learn that, 'We got to do better tomorrow' and the nice thing is we have the chance to do better tomorrow...We're going to make it our priority to do better next time."

Hover your mouse over or tap a bar to see data from each school district.

R-SS is one of more than two dozen school districts in North Carolina on a state warning list for "Significant Disproportionality," specifically for out-of-school suspensions totaling more than 10 days for Black students during the 2021-22 school year. Schools on the warning list receive technical assistance and monitoring activities from the state. Districts that fail to meet the state's disciplinary targets can eventually be required to set aside a mandatory amount of federal IDEA grant money "to intervene in the area determined disproportionate."

"We need to pay attention to that. We need to be looking at that very carefully," Shue said of the disparity. "We're glad to know that that's an issue and were going to work on that."

For the latest stories that focus on people seeking solutions to systemic issues, download the WCNC Charlotte mobile app and enable push notifications.

Several local and regional school districts are also on the warning list, including Buncombe County Schools, Kannapolis City Schools, Iredell-Statesville Schools, Mooresville Graded School District, Union County Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

CMS considered ending suspensions for certain elementary school students last decade, but school board members opted against it in 2017. Instead, board members amended the district's policy to require the superintendent to review and approve the short-term suspension of any pre-kindergarten through second-grade student. The board also required monthly reporting of those suspensions and the underlying reasons for them.

The latest version of the policy also makes it clear the superintendent "will support principals in developing strategies and interventions to address the needs of students and to reduce and avoid out-of-school suspensions."

Credit: CMS

CMS told WCNC Charlotte its Exceptional Children Department moved forward with additional training for teachers and administrators over the summer on "best practices for supporting student behavior and discipline for students with disabilities."

"Additionally, our district has implemented curricula to support social-emotional learning in K-12 schools and continues to expand the number of school counselors and social workers to proactively support student mental health needs," Executive Director Leah Davis, Ed.D. said. " All schools have also been asked to develop and implement proactive school-wide climate and disciplinary practices and procedures with access to support from our Student Discipline and Behavior Support department for the start of this school year. Many schools have also been trained in the implementation of restorative practices which seek to deepen relationships between students and staff as well as get to the root causes of student behavior as a means to avoid suspension. Finally, our district code of conduct provides all school leaders guidance in the specific procedures to be implemented when considering the suspension of a student with disabilities."

NCDPI declined WCNC Charlotte's request for an on-camera interview and did not offer an explanation as to why North Carolina leads the nation.

"While disciplinary measures are used at the discretion of school officials, the NCDPI does ensure that appropriate technical assistance and monitoring occurs to support school officials with the discipline of students with disabilities and the unique needs associated with those disabilities," the state agency said in an email. "Discipline for students with disabilities requires educators to be both preventative and responsive when violations of student codes of conduct occur. For patterns of behavior, individualized education program (IEP) teams can develop behavior intervention plans and provide specially designed instruction to target those behaviors prior to suspensions. It is more challenging to intervene on behavior prior to suspensions when the behavior in question does not have a pre-existing pattern and maybe a unique occurrence -  particularly if there are underlying mental health needs."

NCDPI added the state makes additional funding available for grants that "support students with intensive behavior needs" and provides help evaluating discipline and developing plans "to address intensive behavioral needs."

While North Carolina leads the country, federal data shows South Carolina isn't that far behind. Advocates say it's unclear the reason behind the states' numbers and suggested other states may not report data as reliably.

A fresh start

Cohen's mother has since moved him to a behavioral treatment day school.

Just weeks after Cohen's summer afternoon at the playground, he returned to that school for his fourth-grade year.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Cohen and his mom walk together

Waitt said the new school makes it a priority to keep the 9-year-old in the classroom.

"Sometimes he has triggers and he has episodes, but if you do the proper thing, he can come right back to," Waitt told WCNC Charlotte. "This new school has been so much better, but they are open to learning. They are open to learning him. I'm terrified that when he ages out, what the next step is. What do I do when he has to go back to another school?"

The fight for his education is an exhausting one for Waitt, but a right worth the fight.

"He's the most loving kid you'll ever meet. He's got a lot of love," she said. "All I want to do for him is to keep fighting. He's come so far from when he started school in kindergarten to now. He fights every day. He really does."

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

WCNC Charlotte is committed to reporting on the issues facing the communities we serve. We tell the stories of people working to solve persistent social problems. We examine how problems can be solved or addressed to improve the quality of life and make a positive difference. WCNC Charlotte is seeking solutions for you. Send your tips or questions to newstips@wcnc.com.

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