Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline with Supports and Services for Children with Disabilities

October 26, 2021

En Español

Children with disabilities, like all children, struggle to manage their emotions and behaviors at times. Some disabilities make these challenges more difficult and can lead to impulse control and outburst. These behaviors vary widely from student to student and need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately, there are ways to help when behaviors become disruptive to a student’s ability to learn and work in a classroom.  

To support children with disabilities navigating behavior challenges in school, all children should receive a Functional Behavior Assessments (FBA). The FBA is a chance to gather information about the cause or function of a behavior and in what conditions the behavior occurs. This assessment’s information is then used by the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Team to develop a plan. These plans are called a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) and are created to support the student in their classroom. The BIP is a course of action developed by the IEP team to address the target behavior and/or encourage new behaviors through positive interventions, strategies, and supports. This individualized process allows schools to meet the behavioral support needs of students with disabilities.  

“Behavioral problems are often a key indicator that a student should get screened for a disability”, said Brian Keller, an attorney with DRT. However, not all children displaying behaviors are identified to be screened for a disability in school. When these children fall through the cracks of identification, they don’t receive an FBA or have a BIP plan developed. Ultimately, this removes the opportunity to address the root cause of behaviors and may result in more punitive responses to behaviors from schools. 

Of further concern, is that even when children have identified disabilities and do have IEPs and BIPs, often they are not being implemented correctly. Sometimes students don’t receive the full services they are guaranteed in their BIPs. Other times schools may only follow portions of the BIP instead of all its guidance, and instead rush to extreme interventions, like restraint, isolation, or suspension.  

In school, ‘restraint’ means limiting a student’s freedom of movement by physical contact or holding. ‘Isolation’, also called ‘seclusion’, means confining a student alone in a room, enclosed space, or structure from which they are physically prevented from leaving. In Tennessee, the law only allows schools to use restraint and isolation in emergencies. Restraint and isolation are not allowed to be used as coercion, convenience, forced compliance, or retaliation. And when they are used, the school must notify parents. Read the TN Dept. of Education’s FAQs about Restraint and Isolation for Students with Disabilities

For children with behavioral issues, FBAs and BIPs are key to them getting the support they need in school,” states Sherry Wilds, DRT’s Assistant Legal Director. “These are things that really are life changing for kids, for the good or the bad.” Read more about FBAs and BIPs

When schools don’t follow IEPs and BIPs and/or inappropriately restrain, isolate, or suspend a student following a behavioral incident, “It can get students in the juvenile justice school-to-prison pipeline,” explains Wilds. This means the misuse of restraint and isolation is not only immediately traumatic for many children and ineffective as a long-term solution of behavioral issues. It may also result in children being pulled from school and placed in juvenile facilities – sparking a series of additional barriers to success in adulthood.   

Once in facilities, children face further traumas and lack of services. You can read about the national investigation DRT contributed to in the National Disability Rights Network’s report Desperation Without Dignity. Read the report. Once in youth facilities and the juvenile justice system, children are more likely to be incarcerated as adults. This reveals again that without appropriate supports, children cannot achieve their highest potential and become the engaged citizens they are more than capable of becoming.  

Incorrect implementation of IEPs and BIPs, as well as inappropriate use of restraint and seclusion, is something DRT has seen many times. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, DRT received 278 calls from parents with issues ranging from problems with planning of IEPs to the use of discipline. After opening dozens of individual cases, DRT alerted the TN Department of Education of systemic violations, and they are currently working together to find remedies. 

Our goal is to have an educational system that is not only safe for Tennessee’s children with disabilities, but that provides the supports and services they need to thrive,” said Jack Derryberry, DRT’s Legal Director. “We have the tools to serve our children. We just need to use them correctly.” 

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Children with disabilities may have behaviors in school. These behaviors can make it hard for them to learn. Behavioral Intervention Plans (BIP) can help children learn if they are followed. When BIPs are not followed then students may be hurt. Sometime children are put in isolation or restrained. This can hurt children too. Some children are even sent to juvenile detention instead of getting help. When children go to juvenile detention they can be hurt even more. Disability Rights Tennessee is working to help children have BIPs and to be safe in school.