Special education students in Texas are more likely to receive some of the harshest punishments in the classroom, according to an analysis of state education data. Experts say that tracks with other estimates nationally that find disabled students disproportionally represented in the juvenile justice system.
The Houston Chronicle reports that roughly 1 in 10 students were listed as special education in the 2016-17 academic period. But that same year, special education students accounted for nearly one-fifth of students who were sent to alternative education programs, which are run by local juvenile justice departments.
Other punishments including expulsions, out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions were also given to special education students at the second-highest rate, behind only African-American students, the newspaper reported.
Texas is far from the only state that disproportionately sends its students with disabilities into the juvenile justice system.
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But the numbers are hard to measure, with most studies putting the number of disabled youth in juvenile justice systems nationally at about 33 percent, said Meghan Burke, an associate professor of special education at the University of Illinois.
"The estimates can vary widely -- the only agreement is that they're disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system," Burke said. "For why that's happening, it could be several things, but we don't really know why."
There are some theories. Students with some mental disorders struggle with appropriate decision making and may be taken advantage of by trouble-makers. Experts say disabled students often struggle to get services that best suit their needs, or to receive special education services at all, which can lead to outbursts in class.
The Texas Education Agency says the state is aware of disproportionate rates of punishment for special education students and is working to address the issue.
"The TEA has a number of ongoing initiatives that are focused on ensuring students are not subject to practices that lead to disproportionate representation in special education and/or disciplinary placements," agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culberson said in a statement.
Among the initiatives is a monitoring system that will show how disproportionately each district disciplines students of different racial and educational backgrounds. But that system is still being developed.