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School Discipline of Students with Disabilities


By: Emma Freeburg, DRAZ Legal Intern (Summer 2021)*

The 2020-2021 school year was a challenge for students and schools faced with online school, hybrid learning models, new mask and social-distancing rules, and rocky transitions in and out of in-person learning. This year, with most schools back to in-person learning, there has been an increase in challenging student behaviors and the use of school discipline as students adjust to school routines and different expectations. Over the next few weeks, DRAZ will be sharing information and resources about school discipline and the rights of students with disabilities.

This is the first post in an eight-part series that will include an overview of the forms of school discipline, the school discipline protections afforded to students under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and additional protections for students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The blog series will cover Manifestation Determination Reviews (MDRs), informal types of school discipline, restraint and seclusion in schools, and tips for preventing your child from having to face discipline at all. The blog series will finish with a short quiz covering some of the important topics discussed through the series—so be sure to pay attention!

Quick Facts about Discipline and Disability.  Students with disabilities are twice as likely to face school discipline as their non-disabled peers. [1] Researchers often refer to this disparity as “the discipline gap.” This gap has serious and far-reaching consequences for students with disabilities, including lower academic scores, a greater likelihood of dropping out of school, and a greater likelihood of being involved with the juvenile justice system. Because of these risks, it is important to understand school discipline, the legal protections students with disabilities are afforded when facing discipline, and how to prevent student behaviors that result in school discipline in the first place.

Safeguards.  While students with disabilities may be subject to school discipline just like their non-disabled peers, there are certain procedural protections for students with disabilities under the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). These federal laws prevent schools from disciplining students with disabilities for behavior that is caused by or directly and substantially related to their disability.

Formal vs. Informal Discipline. School discipline can be divided into two broad categories–formal discipline and informal discipline.

Formal discipline occurs when a school removes a student through an official suspension or expulsion process. This category includes short-term suspension, long-term suspension, and expulsion. [2] Tomorrow’s blog post will explore protections during formal discipline processes for students with disabilities, including how protections differ depending on whether a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a 504 plan, or neither one.

Informal discipline can take many forms, but in general, it means that a school is denying a student services or is excluding them from school programming without an official disciplinary action. Future posts in this series will discuss the different types of informal discipline often experienced by students with disabilities and will provide information about why such informal discipline may violate a student’s legal right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), as well as what parents can do to address it.

[1] See UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Are We Closing The School Discipline Gap?,

[2] A.R.S. § 15-843

*Emma Freeburg is a law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Emma completed a legal internship with DRAZ during the summer of 2021. This blog post has been reviewed by DRAZ Legal Director Rose Daly-Rooney and DRAZ Education Team Managing Attorney Amanda Glass.

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