Karen Burston cries in her Oklahoma City home as she talks about the discrimination she believes she and her son have faced at Oklahoma City Public Schools. Burston’s son is in a special education program at Sequoyah Elementary School. Credit: Victor Henderson
This story is part of a series on discipline of special education students.
This story is part of a series on discipline of special education students.

Oklahoma’s special education students who are minorities are being expelled, suspended or referred to police at rates of up to four times that of their white counterparts, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of federal data.

The racial disparities raise questions about whether Oklahoma schools are exacerbating the learning challenges that hundreds of their most vulnerable students already face.

The frequency and differences in discipline are most evident in expulsions. According to U.S. Department of Education data from 2011-2012, the latest figures available, Oklahoma expelled the highest share of special-education students in the nation, both overall and in each racial category – black, Hispanic, American Indian, white and multi-racial. The state also had the highest gaps in expulsion rates between whites and each minority group.

Black students were the group with the largest share of expulsions. Nearly 5 percent of black students in special education, or 725 children, were expelled from Oklahoma schools – more than four times the rate for white students in special education.

The racial disparities were evident in other forms of discipline, too.

Federal data show 2,634 black students with disabilities, or 17 percent, received at least one out-of-school suspension – more than twice the rate for white students. The rates were 10 percent for American Indians and 9 percent for Hispanics.

The discipline trends partly reflect the fact that Oklahoma schools disproportionately punish special education students regardless of race. Also, some districts, such as Oklahoma City Public Schools, disproportionately punish minority students regardless of disability status. The district is being investigated by federal officials over the issue.

Special education students include those with learning disabilities, autism, development delays and speech and health impairments. More than 100,000 students in Oklahoma are in special education.

Some education experts say higher rates of expelling or suspending minority students indicate schools are failing to address those students’ needs as required so they can grow academically. That puts children at risk of turning to crime and entering a “school to prison pipeline.”

“That’s inherently dangerous to public safety, and that’s not about improving discipline or the educational environment,” said Brady Henderson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Oklahoma.

Letha Bartell and her fiancé, Davin Miller, make coffee in their southeastern Oklahoma City home. Bartell believes race has been a factor in the discipline of her 9-year-old son, who is in special education. Her son is half black.
Letha Bartell and her fiancé, Davin Miller, make coffee in their southeastern Oklahoma City home. Bartell believes race has been a factor in the discipline of her 9-year-old son, who is in special education. Her son is half black. Credit: Nate Robson

Troubled Son

In Oklahoma City, Letha Bartell fears her 9-year-old son is already destined for life in a prison cell.

Her son has autism, intermittent explosive disorder, a psychotic disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.

Oklahoma Watch is not naming him because of his age.

The boy has been suspended and expelled numerous times, arrested once and placed in in-patient mental health facilities six times.

This Christmas will mark the third consecutive year he spent the holiday at an in-patient facility instead of at home with his family, Bartell said.

Her son was sent to a facility after attacking another student at Positive Changes, which provides education and mental health services to students.

Bartell, who lives in southeast Oklahoma City, said she believes race was an issue in her son’s discipline and in her struggle to get academic services for him at Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Her son is biracial. Bartell is white and her son’s father is black.

Bartell said she has repeatedly asked for her son to have an aide that can focus on his needs, but school officials refused, citing a lack of money.

Her son, a third-grader, can’t read, can barely write and can’t do math beyond 1+1, she said.

“I think they (school officials) think he’s just another little thug,” Bartell said. “He does wear the Jordans and baggy jeans, button-ups and hats.”

Bartell’s fears of discrimination echo allegations being probed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The district was found to disproportionately discipline black students.

Another investigation is looking into allegations of discrimination against special education students by failing to provide them an adequate education.

The district is overhauling its discipline practices after its own audit found that black students, and at some schools Hispanics, were more likely to be suspended than white students, often for minor infractions such as skipping school. Some teachers have complained about the changes, saying schools are turning a blind eye to behavior that can disrupt learning for all students or cause teachers to fear for their safety.

Oklahoma is not alone in grappling with the issue. Districts and states across the nation discipline minority special-education students at higher rates than their white classmates.


Impact on Parents

Racial disparities in punishment of special education students also affect parents.

Karen Burston, of Oklahoma City, said she believes she and her 10-year-old son were targeted by Sequoyah Elementary School officials because of their race and religion. The family is black and Muslim.

During the 2014-2015 school year, school officials and Oklahoma City police repeatedly warned her she could face legal action for her son’s truancy.

Records shared by Burston show that district officials warned her she could be arrested or fined because her son missed or showed up late for seven days of school in 2014-2015. (He missed or was late on other days as well.)

A first-time truancy violation carries a minimum $25 fine or up to five days in jail or both. The maximum penalty is a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail or both for three or more violations.

Burston said her son’s “504 plan,” which spells out how school officials will address her son’s disabilities, allowed her son to show up half an hour late each day because of his anxiety. That’s where most of the missed time came from, Burston said.

Her son, who is not being identified because of his age, suffers from anxiety and has Asperger’s syndrome.

Burston said she went to school officials to point out that her son was not truant because of the provisions in his 504 plan, but that didn’t stop the letters and truancy investigations.

The letters ceased after she complained to the district’s central office, she said. She has asked the Office for Civil Rights to investigate.

Burston said she also has concerns about bullying and alleges a failure to properly execute her son’s 504 plan in the classroom.

“They don’t want us here,” Burston said, her eyes red from crying. “They told me to just take him home. My son has a right to be here.”

District officials declined comment on Burston’s allegations because they are under review by the school district’s attorneys.

Henderson, of the ACLU, said the treatment of minority and disabled students reflects other issues in the state, including high rates of poverty and incarceration for blacks and lower graduation rates for minorities in general.

“It’s profiling or targeting going on in some districts or classrooms,” Henderson said of the discipline. “Even if it’s not on the surface or deliberate, there are prejudices.”

Teri Bell, who heads student support services at Oklahoma City Public Schools, said the district’s discipline audit forced school administrators to come to terms with racial disparities in student discipline.

Many principals and teachers said they were unaware of the discipline gaps until they saw the raw numbers.

“We’ve got a problem, and we’ve got to fix it,” Bell said. “The problem is with us, with the adults.”

Bartell doesn’t know what she will do when her son is released from his most recent in-patient stay.

Many public schools don’t want him because of his disciplinary record, and no one seems able or willing to provide him the services needed to succeed, she said.

“I feel schools don’t want to accommodate my son,” Bartell said. “He can’t play sports because of the outbursts. They don’t treat my son fair… Just because my child has a disability, he doesn’t deserve to get kicked (so he falls) between the cracks.”

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