ROSEBURG, Ore. — Jessica LaVigne was nervous but hopeful on a recent afternoon that the team managing her son’s special education plan at Roseburg High School would tell her something she had dreamed of for more than a decade: He would be able to attend a full day of school for the first time since second grade.
During her son’s elementary years, Ms. LaVigne was called almost daily to pick him up hours early because he was having “a bad day.” By middle school, he was only attending an hour a day. By high school, he was told he had to “earn” back two class periods taken off his schedule by proving he was academically and socially ready.
As she and her son, Dakotah, 15, entered the school for the meeting, Ms. LaVigne, 37, a banquet server at a local casino, felt she had run out of time. “I used to want him to go to college, but now I just want him to live a normal life in society,” she had said earlier. “If he doesn’t go to school, I don’t know how that can happen.”
Dakotah’s tumultuous educational journey has been marked by a series of tactics, known as informal removals, that schools secretly and sometimes illegally use to remove challenging students with disabilities from class. The removals — which can include repeated dismissals in the middle of the day or shortening students’ education to a few hours a week — are often in violation of federal civil rights protections for those with disabilities.
In a report last year, the National Disability Rights Network, a national nonprofit established by Congress more than four decades ago, found informal removals occurring hundreds and perhaps thousands of times per year as “off-the-book suspensions.” The report said the removals also included “transfers to nowhere,” when students are involuntarily sent to programs that do not exist.
The removals largely escape scrutiny because schools are not required to report them in the same manner as formal suspensions and expulsions, making them difficult to track and their impact hard to measure.
But interviews with families, educators and experts — as well as a New York Times review of school emails, special education records and other documents — suggest that informal removals are pernicious practices that harm some of the nation’s most vulnerable children. Students are left academically stifled and socially marginalized. Their families often end up demoralized and desperate.
“The reality is that there are children in this country who are still considered of insufficient quality to go to school,” said Diane Smith Howard, a lawyer with the National Disability Rights Network. “This would never be deemed acceptable for students without disabilities.”
Dr. Russell J. Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University and an expert in special education, said informal removals reflected the “precarious balance” that school districts must strike between discipline and education for disabled students. Some children with disabilities might benefit from a different class schedule, he said, but in practice many are removed from school to solve problems.
“Until we have a method of measuring sincerity,” Dr. Skiba said, “I don’t know how we get at what percentage are for the benefit of the student, what percentage can be to the benefit for the safety of the school and what percentage are ways of maintaining our status quo.”
The Education Department warned schools last summer that informal removals — including shortened school days — could violate federal civil rights laws. The year before, the Justice Department reached a settlement with Lewiston Public Schools in Maine after the department found that the district had violated the civil rights of students with disabilities without “considering their individual needs or exploring supports to keep them in school for the full day.”
Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, said schools were often unaware of how such practices could infringe students’ civil rights.
“It is uncommon in my experience for educators to try to hurt kids,” Ms. Lhamon said in an interview. “Still, the continuation of the practice sends a terrible message to students and to school communities about which students deserve an education.”
More on U.S. Schools and Education
Informal removals only increased during the coronavirus pandemic, advocates say, as students with disabilities regressed the most during prolonged school closures.
“I’ve never seen this level of incorrect management of many of our patients in the school system, kids slipping through the cracks,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the Ypsilanti Health Center, a clinic primarily serving low-income families and people of color in Ypsilanti, Mich.
In October, federal lawmakers called for the department to specifically include informal removals as a type of prohibited discrimination in revisions to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the landmark disability civil rights law. Ms. Lhamon called the removals “an incredibly damaging practice that we very much want to see ended.”
Dakotah was diagnosed as a preschooler with Chromosome 4q deletion, a rare genetic disorder that affected his vision, speech and cognitive and fine motor skills. But with minimal exceptions like a nasal voice and developmental delays, he appeared like any other child.
In Head Start, Dakotah was described as a sociable boy who showed promise. His teachers reported that he had learned the rules and routines, and although he appeared less mature than his peers, he understood what was expected of him.
In kindergarten he became eligible for special education for what school officials described at the time as a “communication disorder,” but they opted instead to place him in a regular classroom and have him pulled out for instruction in a smaller group. In school records that asked about the possible harmful effects of the plan on Dakotah, the assessor noted only one: “Not being with peers 100 percent of the time.”
By first grade Dakotah was thriving and on track academically. Although a progress report noted that he would “often exhibit inappropriate behaviors to gain attention and will mimic the bad behavior of others,” the year ended with his teacher declaring: “Anyway, great kid! We love having him.”
Things started to go awry in second grade. “His behavior gets in the way of his learning daily,” a progress report noted. “He laughs, thinks things are silly and often doesn’t respond to teachers and peers. He has more ability than he shows.”
In an interview at his grandparents’ house, Dakotah said he stopped liking school that year. He said he spent hours away from his classmates in a “safe room” because of his outbursts, which he said happened when he had to do classwork that was too hard, with no help.
“They started doing this to me,” he said, as he wrapped his arms tightly around himself and squeezed, imitating being restrained.
The disciplinary reports started to pile up in third grade, including one reporting that Dakotah had picked up a classmate and hugged him so hard that the classmate cried out in pain. He bounced around districts, causing him to miss nearly a year’s worth of school.
By middle school, he was attending class only one hour a day and was performing at a kindergarten level. School officials said he had bitten through a classmate’s shoe, made “rude finger gestures” and engaged in other behavior that made him unfit for a general education classroom.
Ms. LaVigne, who struggled to reconcile her son’s disruptive and sometimes violent behavior at school with his easy disposition at home, would pick him up embarrassed. She asked the school if they could provide him with an aide who could help him get through his classes, but school officials said they could not afford one.
“I do not like when people are mean to me,” Dakotah said when asked about his behavior at school.
During the interview, Dakotah scribbled out his name to show his progress in writing and then headed outside to show how he could throw a football. One of his dreams is to become a quarterback.
“He’s never had a friend,” Ms. LaVigne said. “I watch him throw a ball and play catch by himself.”
School districts have faced growing pressure from advocates and the federal government in recent years to cut the high suspension rates of students with disabilities, who are estimated to lose millions of instruction hours per year. To avoid such scrutiny, experts say, schools resort to the largely undocumented informal removals as workarounds.
Some districts acknowledge that they have come up short.
Such was the case with Jasim McDonald, a Black 14-year-old eighth grader with autism at Alice Birney Waldorf School in Sacramento, Calif. Records show that the Sacramento City Unified School District has a history of disciplining students with disabilities, particularly those who are Black, at a higher rate than most other public schools in the state. The district is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that it “disparately subjected” Black students with disabilities “to exclusionary school discipline and other tactics that remove them from school.”
From early on Jasim exhibited the fidgeting, rocking and pacing behavior characteristic of children with autism. In his first-grade reports, his white teacher at the predominately white Alice Birney deemed him “disruptive,” or said he “needed a day off” or “wasn’t ready to learn.”
On one occasion, the records show, Jasmin was sent out of class for an outburst and returned to find that his teacher had locked the doors and closed the curtains to her window, which brought about fears among his classmates that they were on lockdown.
Jasim’s mother, LaRayvian Barnes, a longtime classroom assistant who had worked with special needs students at Alice Birney for 22 years, pleaded with Jasim’s teacher and school administrators to stop excluding him from class.
“People would say what a shame it was that she didn’t have more support,” Ms. Barnes said in an interview. “But neither did he.”
By fifth grade, when Jasim had accumulated more than 80 removals, his longtime teacher — the same one who had been instructing him since first grade — gave the school an ultimatum: Either Jasim had to leave or she would.
Ms. Barnes, outraged, was determined that her son would not be another statistic showing that informal removals disproportionately affect Black and low-income students. “She made him the bad, scary Black kid,” Ms. Barnes recalled of the teacher. “I knew there was no coming back from that.”
She filed a formal complaint with the Sacramento school district in 2019, alleging that Jasim had been denied an equitable education because of the frequent removals, which Ms. Barnes said were based on his disability and race.
In an investigative report issued that year, district officials found that while the teacher’s actions “may not have been perfect, there is no evidence to suggest that her actions are motivated by race or disability.”
But they acknowledged that the removals occurred with “measured frequency” and were used by school principals trying to avoid on-the-book suspensions. In a statement this year, the district said that although not all of Ms. Barnes’s complaints were substantiated, “there were clear areas for improvement identified and actions taken.”
Jasim now has a different teacher who tells him he belongs, and assures him if he gets anxious when he leaves the classroom for periods of special instruction that his classmates will not move on without him. He is for the first time testing at grade level and is working on a capstone project about being a Black male student with autism. He said he wants it to show how people of different races and with disabilities can learn.
“Everything will be fine,” he said, “if you have people who support you.”
A New School
Dakotah was cautiously optimistic as he headed with his mother at the end of the school day into the meeting at Roseburg High. If his team determined he could attend for a full day, he said, “it’ll be like going to school for the first time.”
Once everyone was settled, the team reported that Dakotah could write one paragraph and would soon move to two. He could add and subtract numbers from zero to 30. His reading level had dropped from third grade to second, but he was starting sentences with capital letters.
Dakotah’s classroom aide, who was finally assigned after Dakotah had been assaulted in the bathroom the previous winter, reported that he had just had a good day. If he had to rate his behavior, he said, he would give him 70 out of 100.
But the team said Dakotah still needed to show consistent progress and was not ready for a full day. They also said that because he had not been attending the first three hours of school for more than a year he was no longer a “morning person.”
It was all cold comfort for Dakotah. “I wanted to hear ‘full day,’” he said as he stood outside the school after the meeting. “All I heard was ‘earn, earn, earn.’”
A few weeks later, the school team emailed Ms. LaVigne to set up another meeting, offering to add one class to Dakotah’s schedule in December. “There will be a huge gap in time if Dakotah transitions to a full day at once,” a school official wrote. The team asked Ms. LaVigne to reply “agree” or “disagree.”
By then she had reached out to a lawyer. “I do NOT agree to this plan,” she wrote back. “The only thing a reduced schedule has done for him is rob him of time that could’ve been spent learning. In the last several meetings, I’ve been told how he has met his goals, or most of them.”
She added that “I’d like to be provided with prior written notice” — a legal term that sets off alarm bells among educators — if the team did not add a class to his schedule immediately.
The school gave in.
On Dec. 5, Dakotah started a full day at Roseburg. He spent most of the mornings helping out in the office. But he was there, finally, at the same start time as his peers.
But in early January Ms. LaVigne received a familiar phone call. A school principal reported that Dakotah had an altercation with his aide and an assistant principal after being called “a little boy” and was placed in a seclusion room to settle down. He was bound for an in-school suspension.
Something in Ms. LaVigne finally snapped. She told the school she would come get Dakotah and he would not return.
This time it was school administrators on the other end pleading and protesting, expressing how much they liked Dakotah, and that Roseburg was where he belonged.
But it was too late. Ms. LaVigne picked up her son and pulled away from the school, heartbroken.
Jill Weber, the Roseburg High School principal, declined to comment on Dakotah because of privacy laws, but said in a statement that “my staff and I care deeply about every single student who comes through our doors.”
“We do everything we can to build relationships with them,” she said, “so that they know our school is a safe and supportive environment where they can grow and succeed.”
In a separate statement, district officials said abbreviated school days were used sparingly, with the goal of moving students to a full day. The statement added: “We have a responsibility to ensure high quality support and instruction for all students. We need to take into account the rights of all students to be able to access and participate in school in a safe, predictable and welcoming environment.”
Last month Dakotah started in a new school, in a new district. So far he has attended a full day without issue.
This week Ms. LaVigne, who is now connected with a group of attorneys, testified to the Oregon state legislature in support of a bill that would limit the use of abbreviated school days in the state. It is one of several efforts in Oregon, including a closely watched class-action lawsuit, to curb or eliminate the practice.
“It might not help Dakotah,” Ms. LaVigne said of her testimony. “But hopefully it will do something for kids in the future.”