#23 – “Informal Removal” Policies Deny Educational Opportunities for Students With Disabilities

by Shealeigh

Across the United States, students with disabilities are being sent home from school because of behavioral issues in the classroom. In an October 2022 article for the Hechinger Report and the Associated Press, Meredith Kolodner and Annie Ma reported that, under a policy of “informal removal,” students across the country are being sent home from school because of behavioral issues that stem from their disabilities, but this missed class time is neither counted as suspension nor documented by school administrations.

Kolodner and Ma explained that informal removal is defined by the Department of Education as “an action taken by school staff in response to a child’s behavior that excludes the child for part or all of the school day—or even indefinitely.” Excessive use of informal removals, they reported, “amounts to a form of off-the-books discipline—a de facto denial of education that evades accountability.”

Due to the nationwide shortage of teachers, students with behavioral needs are often pushed out of the classroom because inadequately trained teachers cannot handle the disruptions. Students of color with disabilities are disproportionately affected, even though federal law prohibits students from being disciplined or barred from class for behavior related to their disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the frequency and consequences of “informal removal.” According to Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “The practice has taken hold in a way that is dangerous for students and needs to be addressed.”

This issue affects not only students but also their parents. The Associated Press and the Hechinger Report interviewed twenty families in ten states with children who had been subjected to informal removal. Some parents reported having lost jobs because they had to leave work so frequently to pick up children who had been removed from classrooms; other parents said they had to choose new schools or even districts because of removal policies.

Despite the story’s significance and the Hechinger Report’s partnership with the Associated Press—a news service from which many other prominent news organizations source stories—the issue of informal removals of students with disabilities has received meager coverage from most establishment news outlets. When treated as news, the issue has typically been reported as a local story. Though important, locally-focused coverage cannot convey the national scope of the problem. One exception to this pattern was an in-depth article by Erica L. Green for the New York Times that described informal removals as “pernicious practices that harm some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.”

Meredith Kolodner and Annie Ma, “When Your Disability Gets You Sent Home from School,” The Hechinger Report; and “Kids With Disabilities Face Off-The-Books School Suspensions,” Associated Press, October 4, 2022.

Student Researchers: Isabella Arbelaez, Taylor Callahan, Alexa DeMaria, and Talia Panacy (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)