Disabled students improperly suspended at network of charter schools, complaint says


By Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark

Newark’s largest network of charter schools suspends students with disabilities at a disproportionate rate, violating their rights, according to a new complaint filed with the state.

The complaint alleges that North Star Academy suspended 29% of students with disabilities during the 2016-2017 school year. The network disputes the claims in the complaint and says the actual figure was 22%.

North Star has removed students with disabilities from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons, including suspensions and expulsions, 269 times this school year, according to the complaint filed by an attorney at the Education Law Clinic and the health from Rutgers Law School in Newark. The complaint is based on state data and reports from parents who contacted the clinic.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to those at Newark Public Schools, where students with disabilities have been sent for disciplinary reasons just 87 times this school year, according to state data. Overall, only 1.3 percent of special education students and 1.1 percent of all students were suspended in 2016-17, according to the attorney’s analysis of state data. Excluding North Star, the city’s charter schools together suspended about 9% of students with disabilities, according to the analysis.

North Star serves approximately 5,000 students at 13 Newark schools. Founded in 1997, it is New Jersey’s largest network of charter schools and one of its most successful, with its mostly low-income students consistently outperforming their peers in the state’s wealthiest districts. .

His students are also suspended more often than their peers at many schools. At North Star, 23% of students were suspended in 2016-17, compared to 6% of students statewide, according to publicly available state data.

The complaint, filed Aug. 17, alleges that North Star fails to adequately modify its disciplinary policies to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities, particularly those with behavioral issues, who find it difficult to follow strict school rules. As a result, these students are being unjustly punished, causing them to miss classes and be separated from their general education peers in violation of federal disability law, according to the complaint.

“These disciplinary policies have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on students with certain disabilities,” according to the filing, which was sent to the state Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Policy and Procedure. .

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education confirmed that the complaint was being investigated.

North Star denies the allegations, saying it properly adjusts its disciplinary policies to the needs of students with disabilities.

The allegations add to an ongoing national debate about school discipline and the harmful impact that punitive policies can have on black and Hispanic students and people with disabilities, who tend to be suspended at higher rates. Across the country, many district schools and charter schools have attempted to move away from suspensions and adopt an approach known as “restorative justice,” which pushes students to try to undo any harm caused by their behaviour.

Nationally, students with disabilities are suspended at about twice the rate of their non-disabled peers — a slightly higher disparity at charter schools, according to

data from 2013-2014. During this time,

that students do less well academically after being suspended, adding to previous research showing that students who have been suspended are more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system and drop out of school. ‘school.

North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools network – one of many large charter school organizations whose reliance on strict discipline and demanding academics is sometimes referred to as “

.” Some schools have

in recent years, but others have stood their ground, insisting that their no-nonsense approach to misbehavior creates a safe and orderly environment where students can focus on academics.

According to the complaint, North Star continues to take a rigorous approach to behavior management. Each week, students receive behavior points in the form of “paychecks”. They can lose points for even minor infractions, such as not paying attention in class or violating the school uniform code. If their points drop below a certain level, they can be sent to detention or suspended, the complaint states.

The complaint alleges that some students with disabilities struggle to follow the rules and end up being punished at a higher rate than non-disabled students. Federal data from the 2014-2015 school year seems to support this claim. That year, students with disabilities made up 7.2% of North Star enrollment, but they received 16.5% of in-school suspensions and 12.9% of out-of-school suspensions, according to

by the Civil Rights Office of the United States Department of Education.

North Star spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said the network’s suspension rates have declined since 2015. She added that network officials “would be surprised to see a significant gap” in suspension rates today between students with and without disabilities.

She also said the network believed North Star’s suspension rate for students with disabilities cited in the complaint was incorrect. The network asked the state Department of Education to provide “the underlying data source so that we can understand where any confusion may have arisen,” she added.

She also noted that the ministry has repeatedly renewed the network’s charter, a process that involves on-site inspections and review of school data, including data related to special education. She added that North Star students with disabilities rank in the 75th percentile on state PARCC exams among all special education students in New Jersey.

“We take great pride in the high quality instruction and support we provide to all of our special education students to meet their individualized learning and behavioral needs,” she said in a statement. “North Star has a 20-year track record of success in fulfilling its mission to prepare all students for college and university, including our special education students.”

The lawsuit was filed by Deanna Christian, an attorney at the Education & Health Law Clinic who has represented parents in arbitration cases against North Star. She said she filed the lawsuit after several parents raised concerns about the network’s disciplinary policies. (The Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocacy group that has represented parents in


, saying he has received complaints from North Star parents about students with disabilities being suspended “inappropriately”.)

Christian, who makes a

focused on the rights of students with disabilities who attend charter schools, requested suspension data from the state for general and special education students in district and charter schools. She found that North Star had one of the highest suspension rates in the state for students with disabilities, even though the network’s share of special education students was well below the state average, according to the complaint.

Federal law requires students with disabilities to be educated alongside non-disabled peers whenever possible. The complaint alleges that North Star violated the rights of students with disabilities by improperly suspending them, which reduced their learning time and separated them from their peers. He relies on parent reports and written North Star policies, saying the clinic “understands” that the discipline code is enforced “regardless of the student’s disability status” and that the code is rarely enforced. modified for students with disabilities.

The complaint calls on the state to investigate North Star’s disciplinary policies and their effects on students with disabilities, including whether such students are held back more often than students without disabilities. It suggests several remedies, including additional training for teachers and administrators in “positive interventions” to manage the behavior of students with disabilities.

“These exclusionary disciplinary policies prevent children from going to class,” Christian said in an interview. “And when kids aren’t in class, they’re not learning.”

North Star has made a relative available for an interview for this story. The parent, Crystal Williams, has four students at North Star, including Jayson, an eighth grader at the network’s Valisburg Middle School.

Williams took issue with the complaint’s assertion that North Star is not changing its discipline code for special education students. She said school staff had done all they could to accommodate Jayson, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

For example, the school awards Jayson extra behavior points at the start of each week and teachers give him three warnings before deducting points, Williams said. A dean even allowed Jayson to do laps in the school hallway and do push-ups in the gym when he’s having trouble concentrating, she added.

Still, Williams said Jayson was suspended about 10 times in the past year for offenses such as throwing a book and giving a teacher the middle finger. She also picked him up from school several times after he misbehaved but before he was suspended, she said.

However, Williams defended Jayson’s multiple suspensions, saying they were only for “serious” violations and that the policy protected all students. She added that he had work to do each time he was suspended and always received a “fresh start” when he returned to school.

“It’s a little awkward not having your child in school,” she said. “But the biggest lesson is that for us to be a community, your child has to behave properly.”

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for his newsletters here: chalkbeat.org/newsletter

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