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Students with Disabilities Denied Education, Pushed Out of School

Students with disabilities are routinely pushed out of schools and denied the right to an education. This demonstrates that equality in law is not equality in life.

Francine Almash

July 6, 2017
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Image from Time

Isaiah is a 10-year-old boy with high-functioning autism living in Brooklyn. Isaiah’s educational journey began first in a publicly funded prekindergarten program. At the age of 4 Isaiah was classified as a preschooler with special needs, though he was 8 years old before he received a diagnosis of autism.

Isaiah began kindergarten in his zoned community school in 2010. He had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with a classification of learning disabled and was placed in an integrated class (with one special education teacher and one general education teacher, where 40 percent of the students have IEPs). By the end of kindergarten Isaiah had been suspended once from the school’s afterschool program, and sent home from school once by the principal for kicking his teacher. His teachers also attempted to ban him from his kindergarten stepping-up celebration because he refused to sing in the end-of-year show. He left his first year of public school with one principal’s guidance note (which goes in a child’s folder as proof of an official violation of the Chancellor’s code of conduct) on his record. Isaiah returned from summer break in the fall of 2011 with a new IEP, and a mandate for a one-to-one crisis paraprofessional to manage his behaviors.

By mid-year, Isaiah had eight additional disciplinary violations of Chancellor’s code of conduct in his folder, including two in-school suspensions, and one superintendent’s suspension. He was 6 years old. He was moved from his first-grade integrated class to a small special ed class with a 12:1 student to teacher ratio, second/third grade bridge class (due to his having been identified as having and well-above-average IQ). By March 2012, after months of a Behavior Intervention Plan that relied on restraint, removal, and isolation from his peers, Isaiah was labelled too high-need for his community school and too high-functioning for District 75, the specialized district in New York that houses students with special needs. He was placed on “indefinite” home instruction while the Department of Education (DOE) referred him for nonpublic placement (NPS)–education in a state supported nonpublic special education school.

He received one hour of instruction a day for the remainder of the school year. Isaiah’s mother had to hire a sitter in order to work. Due to the expense, she was forced to cut her hours, and the family, which consisted of Isaiah, his mother, and two brothers, was forced to rely on food stamps to get by. At that time he began home instruction, Isaiah was diagnosed with anxiety and depression relating to his treatment at school.

When no school was found by October 2012, Isaiah’s mother parentally placed him in a private school for children on the autism spectrum (the only school that would accept a child with the record Isaiah had accumulated by his 7th birthday). Three years later, Isaiah was officially diagnosed with high-functioning autism and his IEP was changed to reflect his new classification.

Isaiah spent three years at his private school, with the $85,000 for tuition and related services paid for by the DOE since they had failed to previously place him in a public school. The private school process is complicated, especially if you don’t have money. A lawyer (or mediator) is required to file a case with the DOE and can cost a parent anywhere from $2,500 to as much as $20,000. And most private schools expect parents to make monthly payments (which can be as much as $4,000 to $9,000 a month) until reimbursement is won. If a case is very strong, and a family is unable to make monthly payments (as was the case with Isaiah’s mother), some schools may accept a student on faith, but in those cases a parent may be required to use a lawyer approved by the school. The lawyer will charge a partial fee with the expectation that the DOE will pay the difference when the case is settled. If any of this doesn’t workout however, and the DOE refuses to settle, the parents are left on the hook for any unpaid tuition and fees. Unsurprisingly, with such large amounts of money at stake, the needs of the student fall somewhere between the need of the school to get paid, and attempts by the DOE to deny or delay payment.

Conventional wisdom says that private schools offer better education than public ones, but in when it comes to special education, this is not always true. Private schools may not require the same certification requirements as a public school for teachers or support staff, and in the school Isaiah attended, there was incredibly high rate of turnover among workers–mostly due to the low wage. What private schools do offer, however, is a willingness to accept a wide variety of disabilities. And schools that accept children labelled as a “behavior problem” by the DOE can be a welcome lifeline for desperate parents.

During his time at private school, Isaiah continued to have a one-to-one crisis para. The position was filled by three different people over the years, all of whom were hired from an outside agency contracted with the DOE. All three had a high school diploma and had completed a short agency training on working with challenging students, but none had any training or education specifically related to working with students with disabilities.

In fifth grade, the DOE reclassified Isaiah from autistic to emotionally disturbed (in spite of neurological and psychoeducational reports stating that Isaiah was on the autism spectrum) and mandated that he return to a District 75 public school for kids with special needs. In October of 2016 he was forced to leave his private school. The DOE was unable to place Isaiah in a school until February 2017. That is five months out of school.

Isaiah was placed in a 12:1:1 class (the designation for a District 75 class with one special education teacher and one adult support in a class of no more than 12 students) for severely emotionally disturbed children. On his third day at the school he had his finger broken by a staff member who used inappropriate force after he became upset when another student destroyed an art project he’d been working on. Isaiah was unable to return to school after the incident. During his very brief time in District 75, he was again assigned a one-to-one crisis para. This para was employed by the same outside agency as his three previous paras, and possessed the same qualifications–a high school diploma and a short agency training. As with his previous paras, she was given no information regarding Isaiah, including his disability classification. On the day Isaiah became upset, his para did not address the event that had upset him, but instead called in assistance to remove Isaiah from the room–a common practice when a para is not trained with the appropriate tools to de-escalate an emotionally dysregulated student (or prevent that student from becoming dysregulated in the first place). A crisis counselor and another staff member ultimately took Isaiah to the “time-out” room–a safe space (often referred to as the “blue” room because the walls are commonly covered with blue mats) that is legally mandated to be free of furniture or any items that may pose a risk, where an emotionally dysregulated child can be taken to re-regulate his or her emotions. It was in the time-out room that Isaiah had his finger broken.

After Isaiah was hurt at school, he began receiving home instruction for one hour a day while the DOE continued to try and find an appropriate placement. As of June 2017 they had still failed to do so.

The case of Isaiah is reflected in the cases of countless other students who are pushed out of the education system–who by the age of six are told that they are a problem and that there is no place for them in school. The damage that is done to a child psychologically is only paralleled by the damage this does to the child’s education, an education that is being denied Isaiah. Federal law mandates that all students–regardless of disability–have the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), but it is a right that is robbed from countless students with disabilities. On one hand, it is robbed in the name of money saving measures by the Department of Education. On the other hand, it is robbed because the DOE refuses to listen to those who really have the interests of students with disabilities in mind–many of the teachers, the parents and the students themselves who know what kids like Isaiah need in order to learn.

As far back as 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) required a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting possible for students with disabilities (1). By the time the EAHCA was amended as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, research had shown that the best way to meet these requirements was to give students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum and educate them alongside their nondisabled peers as much as possible (2). This method of integrating students with disabilities into general education classes, giving them access to the general education curriculum and educating them alongside of their nondisabled peers, rather than in segregated classrooms, is known as inclusion, and studies show it works (3). Or at least it should.

Twenty years after the passage of EAHCA, studies showed a 34 percent dropout rate among high school students with disabilities (4). Over 40 years after Congress passed legislation mandating equality in education for special needs students, these students continue to lag behind their general education peers in all areas except school discipline (5).

New York City public school students with disabilities as a group are suspended at nearly twice the rate of general education students (6). Students classified as emotionally disturbed have not only historically had disproportionately high dropout rates, they are suspended from school five times more often than their nondisabled peers (7). These statistics are perhaps not so surprising in a city with a long history of segregation, especially when one considers that the majority of the city’s 188,000 special education students are black and Hispanic, and come from homes that qualify for free lunch (8). These students are more likely than their white counterparts to be labeled with “behavior” problems, and more likely to be placed in more restrictive settings and assigned a paraprofessional (known as a crisis para). They are also more likely to experience restraint, removal, and isolation in a “safe” room.


In a capitalist system, one of the greatest oppressions of disabled people has been seen as their exclusion from the labor force (10). In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) banned discrimination in the workplace. However, the search for never ending profits combined with the failure to fully include students with disabilities in education means that often disabled people are relegated to the lowest paying jobs, when they are able to get a job at all. In spite of the implementation of ADA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a gross underemployment of disabled people.

According BLS data, in 2015 17.5 percent of persons with disabilities were employed, in contrast to 65 percent of nondisabled people. In the United States, those living with a disability have an unemployment rate more than double that of their nondisabled peers. Additionally, 32 percent of disabled people who are employed are only employed part-time (compared to 18 percent of those without a disability) (11).

These higher-than-average rates of unemployment and underemployment also mean higher rates of poverty for the disabled.
Federal labor laws, as with federal education laws, meant to safeguard the rights of the disabled, have not provided equality for people with disabilities. It demonstrates once again that equality in law is no guarantee of equality in life.


New York City has the largest public school system in the country, serving approximately 1.1 million students in over 1,800 schools (12). In community schools, students with IEPs are served within integrated coteaching (ICT) classes–in which there is a split between students with and without IEPs, taught by one general education and one special education teacher–or self-contained special education classrooms–classes with no more than 12 students taught by one special education teacher and one full-time paraprofessional. Students considered to have needs too great for their zoned community school are placed in District 75 schools. After District 75, children “too disabled” for public school are often referred for placement in a state-funded nonpublic school (NPS) (which can be either a day school or residential program). In addition, every year a percentage of parents choose to send their children to charter schools, while others opt out of public school altogether by placing their children in private schools. Children with special needs attending nonreligious special education private schools can seek reimbursement from the Department of Education for tuition reimbursement, provided they can prove that the DOE has failed to provide an appropriate public education based on their child’s disability. In 2015, the city agreed to pay tuition for 4,170 students in private schools, at a cost of $176.3 million (13). All of this is a huge maze that can leave anyone’s head dizzy, particularly families who do not speak English or who do not have time to learn the ins and outs of the education system.

When people like Betsy DeVos talk about “school choice,” much of what she says appeals to parents who feel stuck in a complicated system like this one–a system that for many feels next to impossible to navigate. She talks about vouchers as a solution to the problems in schools rather than addressing the problems themselves. School choice is yet another way to displace the burden of education from the state to families who are unprepared and often uninformed about their rights. Quality public schooling should be a right for every child, not just for those whose parents have the means to navigate the complex system.

All students with IEPs, whether attending a charter, NPS, or private school (religious or otherwise), are entitled to special education services provided and paid for by the DOE. Services for students in these non-DOE schools are referred to as “pass-through services,” and in 2016, they cost the city $3.5 billion (14).

Historically, New York City has lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to inclusion of special education students (15). In 2010, special education in New York City was subject to the biggest overhaul in recent years when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a plan for principals of community schools to take in all but the most severely disabled students in their zoned neighborhoods. When the plan was announced, 17 percent of the city’s public school students were enrolled in special education, costing the city $4.8 billion annually. Education officials claimed that cost was not a factor in the decision, but rather the need to improve results for students with disabilities. It’s worth noting, however, that at the time, the education budget had increased by $1 billion dollars in five years, and the city was spending $1.2 billion annually on private school tuition thanks to Supreme Court rulings that strengthened the rights of parents and students to seek reimbursement when the public schools fail to provide adequate services (16). During this same year, in an effort to win funding from President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, New York State agreed to let student test scores account for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, meaning that teachers’ ability to get a raise, receive tenure, or keep their job was connected to the progress of each and every student in their class (17).

This push to put New York City schools more in alignment with national norms and comply with federal law regarding the education of special needs students in less-isolated settings, started with a two-year pilot phase. In June of 2012, just months before the program was mandated to expand to 1,700 (the number in 2012) schools in the system at the start of the new school year, the city did not provide the necessary resources or training needed to meet increased student needs—and even those who long-pushed for a broader acceptance of students with disabilities expressed fears that the city was moving too fast on its plan. Advocacy groups, Community Education Councils, and the United Federation of teachers all publicly expressed concern over the lack of preparation and understanding regarding the new program. Thought the DOE claimed it had provided extensive training to teachers, at a workshop held by the UFT for over 600 teachers, principals, and parents the majority of participants reported not having any idea what the program meant for their schools (18).

The plan moved forward, and when schools opened in September they were no longer allowed to turn students away based on their disabilities. Under what was called “A Shared Path to Success,” the city promised that all students’ needs would be met by their local schools. At a the same time, high-stakes testing and an emphasis on student output placed increasing pressure on teachers and principals by tying student progress to school funding and job security. Special needs students beared the brunt of the city’s failure to prepare school staff for the increase in the variety of disabilities they would be expected to manage; many of them trapped in schools without the capability to service them and denied the ability to move elsewhere. Teachers also suffered, as their job security and performance were now tied to standardized test results–required to not only teach special education students that they were not trained to teach, but also pressured to have these students to perform well on high-stakes tests.

In New York, like in the rest of the country, students with disabilities experience higher rates of suspensions than students without disabilities. Students classified as emotionally disturbed have a suspension rate five times that of students without IEPs, and those categorized as learning disabled and other health impairment (the classification for students with ADD and ADHD) are suspended three times more (19). (Keep in mind that these suspensions rates are from 2016, two years after Mayor De Blasio and Chancellor Farina made a concerted effort to lower school suspensions) (20). Of the 188,000 students with IEPs, over 150,000 of them are black and Hispanic, 125,000 are male, and 145,000 come from households with income levels that qualify them for free or reduced lunch (21).

These numbers show that, although inclusion works, it must be done right. Simply placing students with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers is not enough. If community schools are expected to educate more and more diverse learners, they must be given training and resources. Additionally, expectations must be realistic. A system that punishes teachers and principals when disabled students don’t produce the same results as their nondisabled peers (especially when they haven’t been given the tools to do so), creates a climate in which special education students–especially low-income students of color–are being disproportionately underserved, punished, and excluded from school.

Although federal law mandates educational equality for students with disabilities, anyone can see that students with disabilities are victims of immense inequality. More and more the responsibility is being pushed to anyone but the government–especially in the current climate of privatization. When kids fail, it is the teacher’s fault! It is the principal’s fault! It is the family’s fault! And more and more, the system blames the kids themselves. To change this, teachers and families must hold all levels of government accountable for quality education–no matter how much it costs. We must unite to fight for an education system that is fully funded and where decision-making power is in the hands of students, teachers, and parents, and where the a child’s well-being outweighs the bottom line.

1. Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Pub. L. No. Public Law 94-142 (1975).

2. Katz, Jennifer, and Pat Mirenda. “Including Students with Developmental Disabilities in General Education Classrooms: Educational Benefits.” International Journal of Special Education 17, no. 2 (2002).

3. Katz, Jennifer, and Pat Mirenda. “Including Students with Developmental Disabilities in General Education Classrooms: Educational Benefits.” International Journal of Special Education 17, no. 2 (2002).

4. “24th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities (IDEA).” Washington, DC: Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, 2002.

5. “Graduation Rates Lagging For Students With Disabilities.” Disability Scoop, January 22, 2016.

6. “The New York City Council’s Response to the Mayor’s Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget and Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.” New York, NY, April 3, 2017.

7. “Are Students with Disabilities Suspended at a Higher Rate Than Other Students? | New York City by the Numbers.” Accessed May 22, 2017.

8. “NYC Department of Education Local Law 27 0f 2015 Annual Report on Special Education School Year 2014–2015.” Annual Report. New York, NY: New York City Department of Education, February 29, 2016.

9. Edelman, Susan. “Queens School Locks Disabled Kids in Isolation Room: Teacher.” New York Post, October 11, 2015.

10.Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary,” June 21, 2015.

11. “The New York City Council’s Response to the Mayor’s Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget and Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.”

12. “The New York City Council’s Response to the Mayor’s Fiscal 2018 Preliminary Budget and Fiscal 2017 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.”

13. Alex Zimmerman, “New York City Is Paying for More Students with Disabilities to Attend Private School; Advocates Say Problems Persist,” Chalkbeat New York, July 8, 2016.

14. “Staff Costs and Pass-Through Payments to Charter and Nonpublic Schools Propel Education Department Spending.” Focus On: The Preliminary Budget. New York City Independent Budget Office, February 2017.

15. Yasmeen Khan, “Special Education Reform Brings City More In Line With National Trend,” Schoolbook (New York, NY: WNYC, August 9, 2012),

16. Winerip, Michael. “In Brooklyn, Hard-Working Teachers, Sabotaged When Student Test Scores Slip.” The New York Times, March 4, 2012.

17.Khan, Yasmeen. “Special Education Reform Brings City More In Line With National Trend.” Schoolbook. New York, NY: WNYC, August 9, 2012.

18. “Suspensions Continue to Fall in New York City Schools under de Blasio,” Chalkbeat, March 31, 2017, h

19. “NYC Department of Education Local Law 27 0f 2015 Annual Report on Special Education School Year 2014–2015.”

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