Report says that Tennessee’s misguided policies to blame for classroom discipline issues, not students

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A recent analysis suggests that Tennessee schools are progressively resorting to punitive measures and excluding special education students with behavioral challenges instead of implementing evidence-based interventions to support their academic and behavioral development, according to a new study.

The blame for this situation does not lie with educators, school personnel, or the students themselves, as stated by the report.

The Tennessee Disability Coalition, in its recent publication on Friday, points fingers at state policymakers for establishing priorities and enacting policies that are largely ineffective and potentially harming thousands of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Consequently, the coalition asserts that educators are utilizing strategies in the classroom that are termed by the report as “ineffective, dangerous, counter-productive, and rights-violating.”

Criticism has arisen following the implementation of a series of stringent laws in Tennessee aimed at promoting discipline in schools, from the 2021 Teacher’s Discipline Act, granting teachers the authority to remove consistently unruly students, to a new law in 2024 mandating a one-year suspension for students who assault teachers on school premises.

According to the report, these policies disproportionately impact students with disabilities, particularly those with behavioral challenges, thereby limiting their educational opportunities.

“These policies not only result in placing students with behavior needs in more restrictive environments, alternative school placements, and the juvenile justice system, but they also have a broader impact on other marginalized groups, including students of color and students from lower-income backgrounds,” the report emphasizes.

Jeff Strand, the coalition’s public policy director, expressed concerns that recent Tennessee laws demonstrate a lack of comprehension about special-needs students with behavioral issues, leading to policies that do not effectively address the underlying causes of disciplinary problems.

“Qualified teachers recognize that behavioral issues are a child’s way of seeking help,” stated Strand, a former special educator and author of the report. “The approaches we are witnessing in Tennessee are exacerbating rather than resolving the problem.”

In particular, the report highlights issues such as the scarcity and rapid turnover of special education teachers; systemic deficiencies in training and support for special and general education instructors and administrators concerning students with behavioral challenges; a shift towards punitive and exclusionary methods; and inadequate access for students to beneficial school-based supports and therapies, including an insufficient presence of school psychologists, counselors, speech-language pathologists, and board-certified behavior analysts.

Concerns raised by families over educator preparedness

Chris and Angela Powell, parents of a child with autism and ADHD, detailed their firsthand encounters with gaps in educational services in schools.

Regarding their son Charlie, whom they describe as intelligent, caring, and kind, his behaviors often led to disciplinary measures like lost recess, prolonged stays in the principal’s office, or even physical restraint or isolation during his initial years at an elementary school in Williamson County, near Nashville.

“These disabilities are not always visible, and his actions were a means of communication. However, he was being marginalized and penalized based on his disability,” Angela Powell, now a advocate for individuals with special needs, explained. “His general education teachers seemed unprepared to handle students with needs like ADHD or autism.”

The Powells observed a lack of qualified therapists and specialized support staff in Williamson County’s two school systems, leaving educators ill-equipped to manage classroom disruptions. Ultimately, Charlie transitioned to homebound instruction, receiving lessons at home and missing the opportunity to engage with non-disabled peers in a school setting. Currently being homeschooled at the age of 12, he reflects the struggles faced by families.

“If the most affluent county in Tennessee struggled to educate my son,” Chris Powell remarked, “it raises concerns about the challenges families in other regions encounter.”

Concurrently, the report highlights that only three of the state’s ten largest teacher preparation programs, situated at the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, offer more than two courses focused on instructing students with disabilities.

Additionally, despite the state’s recent shift to a novel K-12 education funding model to allocate more resources to students with heightened needs, such as those with disabilities, districts are not mandated to allocate additional funds for special education services.

Furthermore, despite pledging an annual injection of an extra $1 billion into the K-12 funding pool, Tennessee lags in the bottom quintile of states in terms of per-pupil funding.

Transition from exclusion to inclusion policies

Tennessee was previously one of many states with laws formally excluding children with disabilities from public schools, citing their presumed inability to benefit from attending such schools. Before the enactment of a federal law in 1975 guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to public education, only one-fifth of these children were receiving education in public institutions.

The expansion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990 heralded the inception of the inclusion movement, asserting that children with disabilities can thrive in educational settings alongside their non-disabled peers with tailored support. Despite substantial research supporting the advantages of inclusion for students with disabilities, surveys indicate that general education teachers often feel inadequately prepared to cater to the needs of such students, particularly individuals with behavioral challenges.

In Tennessee, approximately one-tenth of the state’s public school students utilize an individualized education plan (IEP) aimed at providing specialized instruction and services corresponding to their disabilities.

Despite this, state education department data reveal that these students encounter a disproportionate number of formal disciplinary actions, encompassing in-school and out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and placement in alternative settings. In the most recent academic year (2021-2022), 12.5% of students with disabilities faced removal from their classrooms, despite federal regulations limiting excessively exclusionary disciplinary measures.

Moreover, the coalition asserts that informal exclusionary disciplinary practices, primarily directed at students with disabilities and challenging to quantify, are prevalent. These informal methods may include sending students back home for the day, inappropriate placement on homebound instruction, excessive application of threat assessments, inappropriate use of in-school suspension, and exclusion from school transportation.

In response to the report, a spokesperson for the state education department declined to comment on the allegations.

Acknowledging the complexity of disciplining students, especially those with special needs, JC Bowman, the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, stressed the increased mental health challenges since the pandemic. The organization has advocated for enhanced mental health funding in the state to address these issues.

Bowman expressed openness to novel approaches that prioritize classroom safety, order, and equitable learning opportunities for all students.

The state comptroller’s office is investigating the issue of “informal removals,” also known as “off-book suspensions.” Its Office of Research and Education Accountability has commissioned a forthcoming report aimed at comprehending the prevalence of informal removal practices, which often infringe upon the rights of students with IEPs.

Strand emphasizes that both formal and informal exclusion methods permit schools to sidestep the development of effective behavior correction plans, hindering students from participating in class and learning.

He recommends that Tennessee parents educate themselves on the rights of children with disabilities, including those with behavioral challenges.

The coalition is hosting a free webinar on Tuesday, June 25, at 5:30 p.m. Central time on Facebook in light of these pressing issues.