In a report last year, the National Disability Rights Network, a national nonprofit established by Congress more than four decades ago, found informal removals occurring hundreds and perhaps thousands of times per year as “off-the-book suspensions.” The report said the removals also included “transfers to nowhere,” when students are involuntarily sent to programs that do not exist.
The removals largely escape scrutiny because schools are not required to report them in the same manner as formal suspensions and expulsions, making them difficult to track and their impact hard to measure.
But interviews with families, educators and experts — as well as a New York Times review of school emails, special education records and other documents — suggest that informal removals are pernicious practices that harm some of the nation’s most vulnerable children. Students are left academically stifled and socially marginalized. Their families often end up demoralized and desperate....
Some districts acknowledge that they have come up short.
Such was the case with Jasim McDonald, a Black 14-year-old eighth grader with autism at Alice Birney Waldorf School in Sacramento, Calif. Records show that the Sacramento City Unified School District has a history of disciplining students with disabilities, particularly those who are Black, at a higher rate than most other public schools in the state. The district is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that it “disparately subjected” Black students with disabilities “to exclusionary school discipline and other tactics that remove them from school.”
From early on Jasim exhibited the fidgeting, rocking and pacing behavior characteristic of children with autism. In his first-grade reports, his white teacher at the predominantly white Alice Birney deemed him “disruptive,” or said he “needed a day off” or “wasn’t ready to learn.”...She filed a formal complaint with the Sacramento school district in 2019, alleging that Jasim had been denied an equitable education because of the frequent removals, which Ms. Barnes said were based on his disability and race.
In an investigative report issued that year, district officials found that while the teacher’s actions “may not have been perfect, there is no evidence to suggest that her actions are motivated by race or disability.
Jasim now has a different teacher who tells him he belongs, and assures him if he gets anxious when he leaves the classroom for periods of special instruction that his classmates will not move on without him. He is for the first time testing at grade level and is working on a capstone project about being a Black male student with autism. He said he wants it to show how people of different races and with disabilities can learn.
“Everything will be fine,” he said, “if you have people who support you.”