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Special Education

Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2012-2:
Improving Data and Practices Regarding Disciplinary Removals of Students with Disabilities

Superintendents, Principals, Administrators of Special Education, and Other Interested Parties
Marcia Mittnacht, State Director of Special Education
June 13, 2012



Analysis of school suspension data reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) suggests a wide range of practices for determining suspensions as well as for collecting and reporting data, resulting in inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Because these practices are district-based and likely to reflect such factors as school climate, staffing patterns, physical spaces, community culture and other local characteristics, there is considerable variability in the data.

Accurate and reliable data concerning disciplinary removals from classrooms (referred to as "removals" throughout this advisory) and suspensions is a critical component of assessing school practice so as to improve student outcomes. It is also required to ensure consistency with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, ESE is required to review disciplinary data for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) each year to determine, among other things, whether students with disabilities, and demographic subgroups of students with disabilities, are suspended at a disproportionate rate. Consistent data for students with and without disabilities in relation to suspensions is our main goal for this advisory, so that our assessment of school practices is even-handed and appropriate.

This technical assistance advisory is designed to (1) ensure that districts have systems in place to accurately maintain data on removals, and report suspension data to ESE, particularly for students with disabilities who have IEPs, and (2) assist districts in their development and implementation of practices to engage students who have been removed from their classrooms in continued learning.

The advisory addresses:

  1. Data Management: ensuring that complete and accurate data collection systems are in place;
  2. Suspension Determination: understanding the criteria for a removal that constitutes a suspension for the purposes of data reporting to ESE.
  3. Maintaining engagement in learning.

I. Data Management Systems Should Be Comprehensive

Districts' data management systems should include policies, procedures and practices for the accurate and consistent collection, recording, and review of removals of students with IEPs at both the building and district levels. These policies, procedures and practices should provide for identification of school and district personnel responsible for:

  • collecting disciplinary removal data;
  • reviewing removal data, and assuring the accuracy of the data prior to submission to ESE; and
  • reviewing removal data to determine patterns and identify interventions.

A. Reporting Consecutive and Cumulative Removals

The federal special education law requires more than reporting suspension data to the State. Local data management systems must be sufficiently comprehensive to enable districts to track and review removals of students with IEPs, and to determine both whether a student has been removed for more than 10 consecutive days, and whether a student has experienced a "series of removals" (sometimes referred to as "cumulative removals") that constitute a change of placement under the IDEA. This information is essential to implementation of disciplinary procedures that conform to federal special education program requirements.

Under 34 CFR §300.536(a)(2), a series of removals may constitute a pattern representing a change of a student's special education placement depending on whether

  • the removals total more than ten school days in a school year; and
  • the child's behavior is substantially similar in all incidences that have resulted in removals; and
  • the determination takes into account such additional factors as the length of each removal, the total amount of time the child has been removed, and the proximity of the removals to one another.

The district must have sufficient, reliable, and accurate data to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a specific pattern of removals constitutes a change of placement. If the district determines that a change of placement will result (or has resulted) due to the removal(s), then it must conduct a 'manifestation determination'1 to determine if the behavior(s) that resulted in the removals was either caused by, or directly related to the student's disability, or whether the district failed to implement the IEP with fidelity. Depending on the answers to these inquiries, different procedures, as well as responsibilities and authority, apply.

Data on removal should be reviewed on a regular basis to determine whether particular students are experiencing frequent removals and, if so, to design appropriate interventions based on the student's programmatic and instructional needs. ESE has developed and included with this advisory a self-assessment inventory to assist districts in reviewing policies, practices and procedures.


Note that districts continue to report suspension data to ESE through the Student Information Management System (SIMS) and the School Safety and Discipline Report (SSDR).2 In recent years, ESE has reviewed and analyzed suspension and other discipline data during program reviews and school improvement activities and learned that more clarity in reporting definitions would greatly improve the accuracy and usefulness of the data. The following table outlines current definitions of in-school suspension (ISS) and out-of-school suspension (OSS) that generally apply to reporting removals to ESE. The bolded or italicized language in the definitions is discussed in greater detail in the next section.

Data Collection Method What is Collected? ISS Definition OSS Definition
Student Information Management System (SIMS) SIMS reporting is "incident based" and does not show the number of days that a student is suspended, nor the reason for the suspension. It only collects "incidents" of suspension periods and is cumulative over the school year. DOE045: The number of disciplinary actions &133; that removed the student from academic classes and placed him/her in a separate environment. The student remained in school during the suspension period. DOE046: The number of disciplinary actions imposed by school officials that removed the student from participation in school activities. The student remained out of school for the duration of the suspension period.
School Safety and Discipline Report (SSDR) The SSDR collects &133; all incidents involving drugs, violence or criminal incidents and for General Education students other suspensions of more than 10 consecutive school days and, all incidents of any suspension for Special Education students. A disciplinary action &133; to remove a student from participation in school activities for 1 day or more. Students suspended in school remain in school during the suspension period but are removed from academic classes and placed in a separate environment. A disciplinary action imposed by school officials to remove a student from participation in school activities for 1 day or more. Students suspended out-of-school are not in school during the period of their suspension at any time.

II. Determining Suspension for the Purpose of Reporting

One area of confusion regarding removals that must be included in the data reported to ESE has consistently been the amount of time that a student must be removed to warrant reporting. As noted in the table above, both SIMS and the SSDR indicate that a removal of a day or longer should be reported. For students with disabilities, based on federal special education guidance, and consistent with the definition of "school day" in federal and state special education law,3 and the data directions received by the state in reporting suspensions to the U.S.D.O.E., removals of a half day or more "from participation in school activities" should be reported as a day of suspension.

Therefore, if a student with a disability is disciplinarily removed from participation in his or her regular schedule either in-school or out-of-school for a half day or more, then the removal meets the criteria of a day of suspension for reporting purposes. For example, if the school day is six (6) hours in length, a student who is disciplinarily removed from participation in his or her regularly scheduled school activities for three or more hours has been suspended for one day for reporting purposes.

Questions also have been raised regarding the meaning of "from participation in school activities." For students with disabilities, the significant factor is that the student has been disciplinarily removed from his or her regularly scheduled school activities, including his or her classroom, and is in an environment other than his or her agreed upon special education placement.4 For the purposes of consistency in reporting, the Department recommends that this same definition be used for students without disabilities and regardless of whether or not educational services or programs are provided in the separate environment to which the student is removed.

In-school Suspensions
  • Criteria 1: The student remains in school.
  • Criteria 2: The student is disciplinarily removed from his/her regularly scheduled school activities for at least half of the school day or more.

If both criteria have been met, the removal is reported to the Department as a suspension even if the student receives alternative or supplementary educational services. Removals of less than a half of a day are not reported to the Department as suspension, but must be recorded at the school level and regularly reviewed to ensure that a "pattern of removal" is not taking place and to identify appropriate interventions, as explained in Section I of this document.

This definition and criteria apply, whether or not the student continues to receive the special education services required under the IEP, because the student has been removed from the agreed upon placement anticipated by his or her IEP.5

Students with IEPs who are placed at and attending out-of-district day or residential special education programs may still be considered to receive an ISS if the student is removed from his or her regularly scheduled program of services anticipated by the IEP. However, at this time, out-of-district day or residential programs are not required to report suspension data to the state, but rather are required to report suspensions to the public school districts that placed the student in the out-of-district program.6 Public school districts should then report the suspension through the SSDR and/or SIMS, as appropriate.

Out-of -school Suspension
Out-of-school suspensions of students with IEPs including all removals resulting from 'special circumstances'7 , are removals that have two discrete characteristics that allow for unambiguous determinations based on whether or not the student is removed from his/her accepted special education placement school building for half or more of the school day.
  • Criteria 1: The student is disciplinarily removed for at least half of the school day.
  • Criteria 2: The student is removed from his or her regularly scheduled school activities and from school buildings and grounds and/or school sponsored events.

Similar to in-school removals, if the student with an IEP has been removed for less than half of the school day, the removal is not reported as a suspension. However, as previously mentioned, these removals must be tracked as outlined in Section I, with appropriate follow up if a series of removals is determined to be tantamount to a change of placement under federal and state special education law.

Other Removals

One type of removal is often not considered "suspension" and that is when a student is expelled from school for a temporary period, such as for the rest of the school year, but not permanently expelled. Sometimes a student commits a disciplinary offense that is more egregious in nature and the school district chooses expulsion rather than considering a shorter "suspension." Anytime that a school district expels a student for a limited period, that removal should also be reported as a suspension using the SSDR as, regardless of the cause, such a removal would inevitably extend for longer than ten (10) consecutive days and is considered a long term suspension.

Other types of removals, such as removal from transportation vehicles or removal from after school activities would not usually "count" as suspension unless they are extended removals and meet the criteria for a cumulative removal outlined in section 1A above. However, those removals should be documented at the local level so that patterns can be discerned and corrected.

III. Maintaining Engagement in Learning

Current research suggests a predictive relationship between suspensions and school drop outs, and suspensions and achievement gaps. Students who are suspended are not learning curriculum information that will advance their knowledge and skills, or problem solving skills that will teach them alternative, positive behaviors.

The Department is tasked with the responsibility to ensure that districts are not inappropriately suspending students with IEPs at high rates. Consequently, the Department must review policies, procedures or practices that may contribute to high rates of suspensions, as well as ensuring that districts are attending to the requirements related to the development and implementation of IEPs, the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and the procedural safeguards of the special education law. While local public school districts will set their own discipline policies, high rates of suspension of students with IEPs can result in ESE ordering corrective action for districts if any of the district's policies, practices, or procedures neglect or ignore the requirements related to the procedural safeguards of the special education law.

However, of equal concern with compliance is the overall effect of continued suspension and the loss of learning time as well as the documented connection of suspension to poor student outcomes in a number of areas. The data is alarming:

  • The data for younger students shows more than 2,100 students in pre-school through third-grade received suspensions during the 2009-2010 school year, 1,546 of them for weapons or drug related offenses. An additional 574 students lost 1,825 classroom days because of suspensions for nonweapon and nondrug-related offenses that could include swearing or truancy; children as young as 4 were excluded from school.
  • Statewide, across all grades, students facing minor offenses lost nearly 54,000 days of classroom time during 2009-2010. This data under represents the issue as, for students who do not have IEPs, the SSDR does not require reporting any suspensions for minor offenses when the duration of the removal is less than 10 days. Yet, the data shows that the number of days lost for minor offenses exceeded the number of days lost by students charged with gun, knife and other weapon possession, alcohol, sexual assault, theft and vandalism combined.

Preliminary review of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 data does not show a better picture. While students with IEPs have protective safeguards after 10 consecutive days of disciplinary removal, even these safeguards are absent for shorter removal periods. Public schools are strongly encouraged to provide appropriate, alternative structured learning time8 for students removed from their regular classes, in as many circumstances as possible --- although preventing removals in the first place is preferable. Disciplinary removals have too often resulted in significant losses of effective learning time and can lead to increased discipline issues, school failure, and dropout. Preventing these negative outcomes is a priority for Massachusetts school districts.

Additionally, it is our hope that the attached self-assessment inventory will be of assistance to school districts as they examine their current policies, practices, and procedures in relation to disciplinary removals.


Download PDF Document  Download MS WORD Document
Disciplinary Removal Self-Assessment Inventory


Last Updated: June 13, 2012
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