Cassandra didn't expect the phone call about her son.
She had just picked up the eighth-grade child from the nurse's office at Anchorage's Goldenview Middle School on a Tuesday in March. He didn't feel well.
"We bring him home and an hour later we get a call from the office, telling us he's been put on emergency suspension for what he did Monday," Cassandra said.
Her son has autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Alaska Dispatch News isn't using the last name of the mother, Cassandra, to avoid identifying her son.
The call from the office was notice that the school had handed him a five-day emergency suspension for "aggressively staring" at a teaching assistant in a general education classroom, Cassandra said.
According to the report prepared by the school's assistant principal and provided by Cassandra, the teaching assistant said that Cassandra's son "made a threatening gesture, by staring at (the teaching assistant) aggressively while poking himself in the throat with a pencil."
"I was so unbelievably shocked that zoning out could be interpreted as something so threatening that he had to be immediately removed from the school building for five days," said Cassandra, who ended up appealing her son's suspension.
Normally, the school district doesn't disclose discipline records for individual students. In this case, however, Cassandra agreed to provide the information because she believed her son was improperly punished. His behavior was a product of his disability and was not a threat, she said.
Joe Zawodny, Anchorage School District discipline director for secondary education, said the district doesn't comment on specific student discipline cases. Speaking to out-of-school suspensions broadly, he said: "From time to time, students exhibit behaviors that pose a threat to the school and we need to remove them."
Zawodny said the district has been working on reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions handed out to all students while also maintaining safe schools.
"I feel like districtwide it's an issue that we address and I don't want to just focus on one group," he said. "The district wants to decrease out-of-school suspensions for all students."
This past school year, the total number of out-of-school suspensions dealt to all Anchorage School District students shrank by about 10.5 percent compared to 2015-16. But while the numbers are smaller, students with disabilities continue to get suspended out of school at a rate about three times that of their non-disabled peers. The disparity persisted during the 2015-16 and 2014-15 school years as well, according to an analysis of the discipline data published by the Anchorage School District.
"We need to figure out what in the system isn't working for kids of that student group," Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said in an interview earlier this month.
A national and statewide trend
In its data, the Anchorage School District defines "students with disabilities" as those who qualify for a variety of special education services because of conditions that include autism, emotional disturbances, deafness, blindness, intellectual deficiencies and others. That definition is set in federal law.
During the most recent school year, the Anchorage data showed that 9.9 percent of its students with disabilities, or 728, were dealt at least one out-of-school suspension, compared to about 3.4 percent of students without disabilities, or 1,424.
The disparities are on par with the latest available national and statewide statistics, though the gap in Anchorage is slightly wider.
The U.S. Department of Education reported that during the 2013-14 school year, 12 percent of students with disabilities nationwide were suspended out of school at least once compared to 5 percent of non-disabled students.
Across Alaska public schools during the 2015-16 school year, about 9 percent of students with disabilities got at least one out-of-school suspension compared to about 4 percent of non-disabled students, according to data provided by the state education department.
The Anchorage School District's work to drive down the total number of out-of-school suspensions mirrors national efforts as well. Researchers have said that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school and are more likely to end up in jail. Zawodny said increased attendance is also linked to increased graduation rates.
"We want all students in school and learning and actively participating," he said. However, he added, the district also cannot have dangerous behavior in its schools.
A disproportionate percentage
The total number of students suspended out of school at least once decreased about 17 percent between 2016-17 and 2014-15, from 2,587 to 2,152. For students with disabilities, it dropped by 13 percent, from 840 to 728, according to district data.
But those 728 disabled students made up a disproportionate percent of the total suspensions handed out. In 2016-17, they were suspended out of school a total of 1,459 times. That's 42 percent of all out-of-school suspensions for the year. Students with disabilities made up only 15 percent of Anchorage schools' student population.
The data was similar the prior two school years:
• In 2015-16, 780 students with disabilities got 1,656 out-of-school suspensions, or about 43 percent of all suspensions out of school. That school year, 10.6 percent of disabled students got at least one out-of-school suspension compared to 3.5 percent of their non-disabled peers.
• In 2014-15, 840 students with disabilities were handed 1,804 out-of-school suspensions, or 41 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. That school year, 11.3 percent of students with disabilities received at least one out-of-school suspension compared to 4.2 percent of their non-disabled peers.
Statewide during the 2015-16 school year, Alaska's 1,618 students with disabilities received 3,083 out-of-school suspensions, or about 30 percent of all out-of-school suspensions handed out that year. Students with disabilities made up nearly 14 percent of the student population.
Reasons for gap unclear
Jason Hlasny, Anchorage School District director of special education for secondary education, said in an interview earlier this year that the reasons behind the disproportionate suspension rates for students with disabilities were not clear.
"I know it's a national trend, and I've looked at the data and the reasons and the factors are not clear," he said. "It's a very complex issue."
Hlasny said the district was in the process of expanding its support for students. He said school officials next school year would look at strategies for establishing positive relationships between students and staff and increasing support around student behavior. He said schools would also continue to teach social and emotional skills to students, as they have for years.
"The goal is to be positive and proactive; to have supports in place that support all kids," he said. "This is best practice."
Cassandra called for school officials to do more to drive down out-of-school suspensions for students with disabilities.
"I think it's important to realize that this problem is not new and it's not related to the budget," she said. "Sure, I want to see increased training and stuff like that. What I really want is for the School Board and senior administration to step up and say it's a priority across the entire district that we solve this, and create a plan, and reward people for reaching goals."
Cassandra ended up appealing her son's emergency suspension in March. She won and the decision was overturned, she said, but by then her son had already missed five days of school. The middle school had also already brought in two students to describe her son's behavior that got him trouble.
According to a copy of the student statements provided to Cassandra from the school administration, the students said her son was not doing his work, but they didn't notice anything else. Her son told the school that he has anxiety and was chewing on the metal part of his pencil, according to the report prepared by the assistant principal. Cassandra said in an interview that she noticed no markings or cuts on her son's neck.
After reading the school's report, Cassandra said, she asked if her son could return to school, but was told no. She said his therapist said staring and inappropriate eye contact were hallmarks of autism. She said she worried about the stigma created by the suspension and the calling of student witnesses.
"At this point, he's already been out of school for five days and at this point, there are two kids from his class who were called to make statements," she said. "And this is middle school, what do you think these kids did? They go back to class and say, 'Oh you'll never guess what happened.' "
School Board member Starr Marsett, who has long advocated for students with disabilities, said the district needs to educate assistant principals and teachers about students' disabilities and how to calm them down.
"I think until we do that, we're going to continue to have high rates of suspensions," she said.
Marsett has a son with autism. In ninth grade, he was suspended 21 times for reasons including profanity and willful disobedience, she said. He just graduated high school this spring.
Marsett said she would like to see schools work with teachers, classrooms and parents to create plans to de-escalate students who act out in the classroom.
"It's about changing the culture in the school and changing the mentality," Marsett said. "It's about educating everyone that this child is different, they have a different response to things and they have a disability."
Hlasny said students with disabilities have individualized education plans and may also have a behavior intervention plan, which sets the course for how staff should respond to the student's behavior and how to teach positive behavior.
"The behavior plan is individualized. It's developed from data. We're trying to figure out why certain behaviors happen," Hlasny said. "Then we develop a plan to support the behavior. We develop strategies."
'We recognize it's a problem'
Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview last week that over the past five years he has noticed a stronger effort by school districts nationwide to reduce out-of-school suspensions.
"There has definitely been a much stronger recognition that this is a concern rather than just a story of, 'Oh well, what do you do? They're bad kids. We've got to kick out bad kids so good kids can learn.' "
Losen and the center study schools and disproportionate discipline practices. He said school officials are "never ever supposed to suspend a student because of their disability." Federal law requires that school districts hold a hearing to determine if a student's behavior was brought on by a disability if the suspension exceeds 10 days. Still, Losen said that he believes schools across the nation have disproportionate suspension rates because they are suspending those students for behaviors triggered by their disabilities.
"It's hard to think of any other reason why in just about every district in almost every state you'll find the same pattern," he said. "So if it has nothing to do with their disability, why is it that kids with disabilities of every racial group are suspended at two and three times the rate of their non-disabled peers? What other explanation would it be?"
According to the data, Anchorage students with disabilities were most often suspended out of school in 2016-17 for "dangerous actions," followed by "fighting/physical violence," "disruptive behavior" and "reckless and unsafe behavior."
Black students, homeless students and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students also had high rates of out-of-school suspensions compared to other races and subgroups of the student body, according to the data.
Zawodny said that if students bring drugs, alcohol or weapons to school that typically leads to an automatic out-of-school suspension. But principals and assistant principals have more flexibility with discipline measures for other bad behavior.
"We try to match our discipline to individual student's needs," he said. "We try to use out-of-school suspensions at times that the student's behaviors pose a risk to the behaviors of our school."
Zawodny added that the data published by the district did not show the interventions that the school staff worked through before suspending the student.
The Anchorage data also did not include information on the length of the suspensions.
Zawodny said he would eventually like to see the number of out-of-school suspensions reduced to zero across the district — that means student behavior would also have to improve.
Both Zawodny and Hlasny said the district ultimately wants to keep all students in school and engaged in their education. About the disproportionate suspension rates, Hlasny said: "We're having difficult conversations with folks."
"We recognize it," he said. "We acknowledge the data. We recognize it's a problem."
Bishop, the district superintendent, said district officials were going to examine the details of the suspension data, including looking at which schools were giving the suspensions and the nature of the students' disabilities.
"We will then create initiatives and opportunities for success," Bishop said. "We don't want a lot of suspensions, but the biggest part is there should not be disproportionality."