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Students at Jefferson High School
Helen Silvis
Published: 02 October 2014

PHOTO: Students at Jefferson High School demonstrated in support of their teachers during contract negotiations in 2013

Oregon Department of Education has sanctioned Portland Public Schools for disciplining Black special education students at a higher rate than white students.

Figures from the department show that Black students make up 15 percent of the district’s special education population, but are 50 percent of those in long-term discipline. Black special education students are five times more likely than white students to be in long-term discipline.

Long-term discipline is more than 10 days of suspension. Nineteen Black students received long-term discipline during the 2012-13 school year. 

The fine won’t take money out of the school district, said Christine Miles, spokesperson for the school district. But it means that nearly $1.5 million in federal disability funds must now be spent on prevention efforts with younger students.

“We need to spend the money on helping all students who may need behavioral support,” Miles said. “We have known for years that this is an area we have to work on.”

Miles said Portland Public schools has already taken steps to fix the problems and is using prevention funding to hire restorative justice coordinators, as well as for its Courageous Conversations initiative and other strategies aimed at reducing conflict and discipline in schools. See The Skanner News story on restorative justice in the Parkrose School District.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act school districts receive funds for special education. Portland Public Schools received $16.8 million in 2012-21013 and $14.5 million in 2013-2014. Because of the disproportionate disciplining of Black students in the special education program, 15 percent of the 2014-2015 funding – $1.5 million—must be redirected to an early intervention program called Coordinated Early Intervention Services.

A memo to the state special education directors from William W. Knudsen, acting Director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs, says moving the funds can benefit all students by helping improve behavior in all schools.

“The rationale for using IDEA funds for CEIS is based on research showing that the earlier a child’s learning problems or difficulties are identified, the more quickly and effectively the problems and difficulties can be addressed and the greater the chances that the child’s problems will be ameliorated or decreased in severity.” Knudsen says.

Education department spokesperson, Crystal Greene said two other Oregon school districts were also found to have disproportionate discipline in their special education programs: Albany and North Marion school districts.

But North Marion appealed, and a review found the problem was not because of district practices, but because of a high number of DHS placements into the school district. 

Overall 6,368 students in the Portland school district are in special education:  306 are Asian; 103 are Native American; 970 are Black; 48 Pacific Islander; 1164 are Hispanic; 3352 are White and 425 are more than one race. 

This article was corrected to add that the statistics which triggered sanctions were from the 2012-13 school year.

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