Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.

Special-needs students are disproportionately referred to police in schools, and officers themselves say they need better training.

Back before the era of classroom cops, a student who didn’t follow her teacher’s instructions would have been disciplined by a vice principal. For refusing to leave her seat, the student might have been handed detention, Saturday school, a suspension—or worse, a phone with a parent on the line.

That’s not what happened at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, however. A viral video from the Columbia school showed a sheriff’s deputy violently assaulting a black girl sitting in her desk. She may have been behaving obstinately, but she was not lashing out. Her treatment was both unconscionable and routine: As The Atlantic’s David Graham notes, black students are disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment and school suspensions.

There’s a sharp “discipline gap” between black students and white students. In all but seven states, black students were referred to police and courts for discipline in greater proportions than white students, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity. Implicit bias (or structural racism) may explain why.

There is another discipline disparity, however, that is compounding the racial discipline gap—and it’s a problem that both school-administration experts and campus police officers more or less agree on. Students with disabilities, many of whom are also minorities, are disciplined too often and too severely by school-resource officers.

Suspension figures at U.S. schools show high rates for black students and students with disabilities. (The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project)

In August, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in Covington, Kentucky, against the Kenton County Sheriff’s Office after it was revealed that a school-resource officer handcuffed two students with behavioral disorders. The ACLU’s legal deputy director told The New York Times that, of tens of thousands of students restrained by law-enforcement officers in classrooms every year, the “overwhelming majority are kids with disabilities.”

Indeed, students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement for discipline at higher rates than any group—black, white, or Hispanic—across a majority of states, per the Center for Public Integrity report. For example, schools in Virginia, the state with the highest rate of student referrals to police or courts, referred students with disabilities to law enforcement for discipline at jarring rates.

States that refer the highest rates of students to police and courts for discipline. The figures, broken down by protected category, reflect the rate of referral for every 1,000 students. (Center for Public Integrity)

Students of all races make up the group of students with disabilities. But black students with disabilities, including behavioral disorders, are singled out for the most severe treatment of all—especially black boys.

“What people forget is that children with disabilities are often members of other protected classes. There’s a high percentage of children with disabilities who are also African American,” says Diane Smith Howard, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network. “If you did the Venn diagram, there’s a lot of overlap there. Disability tends to run with poverty.”

(The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project)

The source problem is the disparate treatment of students with disabilities in classrooms. At the secondary school level, students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as their non-disabled peers, per a 2015 report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Howard says that the rise in the presence of police on elementary-school and high-school campuses has exacerbated the rates of school referrals to police and courts. Before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, school-resource officers were rare. Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice, through its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, has provided funding to hire more police officers in schools. States have issued funding as well.

“The reasoning behind that was not so that they could deal with kids who wouldn’t give up their cell phones,” Howard says. “It was to deal with terrorism in schools—school shootings, true acts of violence.”

That’s just the thing: School-resource officers lack the training for the disciplinary scenario depicted in the Spring Valley High School video. That’s not the situation that officers serving in schools are trained to face. Even the National Association of School Resource Officers agrees. The group’s statement on the South Carolina incident calls for greater training and a clearer delineation of officers’ responsibilities in schools.

“Every law enforcement agency that places an officer in a school should have in place a memorandum of understanding (MOU), signed by the heads of both the law enforcement agency and the educational institution,” the statement reads.

NASRO recommends that, at a minimum, school-resource officers (SROs) be officers who receive “specialized SRO training in the use of police powers and authority in a school environment.” Further, the statement recommends that the memo should explicitly “prohibit SROs from becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators.”

For its part, the NDRN recommends that the U.S. Department of Education and the DOJ develop joint guidelines for school-resource officers. The disability advocacy group suggests that the federal guidance document should also require school districts to determine whether they are requiring officers to enforce non-violent school-code violations—as in the Spring Valley High Video.

Substantively, the requests of disability advocates and school-resource officers line up closely.

“Obviously, if a terrorist charges the school, you want a school-resource officer to act like a cop. But you don’t want a school-resource officer to do things that traditionally the vice principal does,” Howard says. “Because the vice principal has been to school to learn how to use educational methods to address nonviolent student behavior.”

School policies—not differences in behavior among students of different races or ability—determine high suspension rates, says Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The group’s 2015 report on the school discipline gap finds that demographics are not destiny. Schools with large minority populations or students with special needs do not necessarily have higher suspension rates. They do only if they choose to.

“Districts make policies, not regions,” Losen says. “We do find that there were plenty of large urban districts with low detention rates, like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and increasingly Chicago.”

Elementary-school suspension rates in 10 of the nation’s largest school districts. (The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project)

Although there appears to be a debate—somehow—about whether the South Carolina school-resource officer made the right decision in choke-slamming a young girl, it isn’t the same debate taking place at the policy level.

“Suspending a child out of school should be a measure of last resort,” the UCLA report reads. “There is a consensus on this point among many of the nation’s leading school administrators, representatives of national teachers unions, law enforcement officers, juvenile justices, researchers, experts in child development and psychology, parents, and community-based organizations and civil rights advocates.”

(Presumably, assaulting a child is never on the table.)

The highest-suspending districts for all elementary school students. OSS = out-of-school suspensions. (The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project)

But there is serious divergence in school-district leadership. Not in student behavior: Student behavior can’t explain a 12-percent jump in out-of-school suspensions for St. Louis City elementary schools between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Student behavior doesn’t explain why suspensions have fallen by half over the same span in Dallas.

“Within school districts, large school districts like urban districts, you see a huge range,” Losen says. “Los Angeles had the highest number of high-suspending schools, but also the highest number of what we would consider low-suspending schools.”

Losen adds, “That goes to show that often the answer is right there in the district. There’s probably a principal who knows what to do to have a healthy school environment, and it doesn’t involve kicking students out right and left.”

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