Suspension and Expulsion: The Experience

Many students—not just autistic ones—believe that they have been unfairly suspended or expelled from school.  Many students—not just autistic ones—do not fully understand why they were suspended or expelled (sometimes it is hard for adults to figure that out either).  Suspensions are very often used as a punishment in U.S. schools not only for serious offences, but also for all kinds of minor infractions of the rules.  Crying in school may lead to unofficial suspensions, in which parents are told to pick up their children and take them home.  But students may be officially suspended for not meeting the school dress code (this includes even very young children, whose parents pick out their clothes), for having the “wrong” hairstyle, or even for carrying a backpack with the “wrong” picture on it.[1]  Most school codes of student conduct still include vague terms for misbehavior, such “insubordination” or “willful defiance,” which individual teachers can interpret subjectively.  In recent years, some major school districts have removed this language, but in many other places students can still be suspended for eye-rolling, walking away from a teacher without being dismissed, failing to complete homework, or even tapping their feet on the floor.[2]

Sometimes just needing to use the restroom at an inconvenient time for the teacher or other school staff member will be enough.  In December 2018, an 11-year-old autistic African-American child asked to use the bathroom in his elementary school.  The principal of the school, who was escorting him and another student back to their special education classroom, refused to let him go–even though access to the restroom at any time was the rule for Special Education students.  The child couldn’t get around the principal to reach the nearby bathroom, so he went out the back door of the school to find another restroom.  The principal then ordered school staff to lock all the doors and not let the student back in.  He wasn’t trying to run away—in fact, he spent 15 minutes circling the school, as teachers ignored his appeals for help, walking past him outside without speaking, and even pulling down the window blinds in his face.  Finally, another student took pity and opened a door for him.  The school sent his parents an incident report, but they failed to mention the dangerous and illegal lock-out—and the child received a two-day suspension for leaving the school building without permission.   Only after the school’s security tapes were reviewed did the true story come out.  The principal was then placed on paid administrative leave.[3]

 

Suspension and expulsion are over-used forms of discipline in American schools, for students of all neurotypes.  But autistic children face special challenges.  Sensory, emotional, or other stressors can drive them into meltdowns or shutdowns, during which their “fight or flight” instincts take control, sometimes leading to violent reactions. Meltdowns /shutdowns are clearly “manifestations” of autism, and so theoretically schools should respond to them with behavioral interventions.  Yet in practice, many autistic students face suspension, expulsion, and even arrest for what they do during these episodes. Students cannot control their own actions during meltdowns, so is it reasonable or fair for them to be punished in this way?

Moreover, many teachers don’t acknowledge their own role in triggering these problems.  In New Mexico, for example, a second-grader had a meltdown because his teacher yelled directly into his face, and then took away his Ipad, which was a very important comfort object for him.  She caused the meltdown, during which she was struck in the nose, causing a bruise.  Yet not only was the child—who happens to be black—suspended from school for having a meltdown, but his teacher actually pressed battery charges against an 8-year-old.[4]

In Florida, an autistic fourth-grader who had just gone through a long, stressful day of testing, was bothered by the noise when his teacher put on a movie (presumably as a reward for the other students.)  Seraph put on headphones and sat at a computer to distract himself from the noise, but he could still hear the movie.  So he started tapping computer keys loudly to drown it out.  That’s where the trouble began.  The teacher called in the dean, the assistant principal, and the school resource officer to remove him from his classroom.  He was willing to leave, but, looking for a quiet place to recover from the noise, he entered the school media room.  At this point, another teacher began reading a book to him—yet more noise.  Seraph, with his hands covering his ears, went over to the teacher and knocked at the book, using his elbow.  (The teacher was untouched).  The school resource officer then tackled him to the ground with so much force that Seraph ended up with carpet burns on his face.  He was suspended for several days—not because anyone was injured or even threatened, but simply because he was autistic and overstressed by noise.[5]

 

It is not unusual for autistic students to be get in trouble for leaving their classroom, or even their school without permission.  What is unusual is for schools to acknowledge what autistic students remember–that they often fled to avoid bullying:

I received three suspensions from my school during my time there, two for leaving the room to seek sanctuary in the library when the entire class (teachers included) united in mocking me, and one for deliberate non attendance over a period of days (truanting).[6]

Autistic students are disproportionately bullied at school.  And within a few years of being in school, they realize that the advice they are given—”speak to a member of the school staff”—is almost always ineffective.  School staff rarely stop the bullying.  They may fail to see what happened (and bullies are very adept at flying under the radar).  They may believe the bullies rather than the victim—because a highly verbal neurotypical bully can be more convincing than an autistic victim, or because there may be multiple bullies whose united testimony outweighs that of the victim.  (This is what happened to my own daughter.)  School staffers may simply not care.

one time a boy way bigger than me punched me in the face and made my nose bleed, and a teacher caught me inside trying to clean myself up, and I got yelled at for being inside during recess even though I was dripping with blood; nothing was done about the boy who hit me . . .[7]

People beat me up and they’d go free and I’d be in detention.[8]

Teachers may even dislike the autistic student and want him or her to suffer.  One autistic student listed reasons why she hated school:

Being bullied and being told it was my fault.

Being my teacher’s punching bag.[9]

 

The only solutions for these students are either to endure the suffering (the trauma this causes was described in an earlier post), to run away (and thus be suspended), or to retaliate—and retaliation often ends in their being suspended or expelled as well.  Here is “Aristophanes’s” description of his experience at school:

Attempting to avoid a fight, getting flat out sucker punched instead, and going to the principal who gave me as much detention as the aggressor, reasoning ‘you’re going to be an adult soon, you need to learn to solve your own problems, that’s the lesson here.’

Going back literally a week later, getting punched again, and retaliating by stomping my heel on the kid’s ankle, fracturing his tibia and earning me a suspension that go around.[10]

Other autistic students remember fighting with their bullies, and then being punished for it—while the bullies got off scot free:

Once [a privileged person] tried to stab me and he got off without a punishment simply because [his] family was rich.  I got a suspension and was threatened with expulsion because i kicked him in the stomach and dropped him to the ground.[11]

An increasing number of parents are filing lawsuits against school districts that allow things like this to happen.  For example, a Staten Island teenager was suspended for three days because he allegedly pushed to the ground bullies who had been physically assaulting him for years—including breaking his arm at one point.  His parents sued the school district, “claiming he was wrongfully punished for something his school should’ve done — and that’s stop his bullying.”[12]  A lawsuit pending in Cinncinnati, Ohio, charges a local school district with denying a student’s right to FAPE, both by refusing to recognize his disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations, and by failing to address the constant bullying he was subjected to.  The suit alleges that the school district suspended this young man multiple times, when he fought back or even just shouted at the students bullying him.  Even when he didn’t fight back, the school sometimes disciplined him.  In one of the incidents reported in the lawsuit, a bully spit on him, and called him names on the school bus.  It was the victim, not the bully, who was suspended for this incident.[13]

Perhaps the most significant problem with the use of suspension and expulsion as forms of discipline is that many autistic students hate school, and therefore prefer being removed from it.  This is the attitude of “Agent Smirnoff”:

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in suspension, as it granted me peace from the incessant bullying and allowed me to play on my computer all day.[14]

“deog” felt the same was about expulsion:

The highschool years are very difficult. . . . My misery and depression was profound. I got expelled by my sophmore year. i was ditching certain classes almost every single day…    I was so happy when I got expelled and I have no regrets about that because I was just done . . .[15]

It is fairly common for autistic and other students to misbehave on purpose in order to get some relief from their sufferings at school.  Sebastian, a student in New Mexico “relished being sent to in-school suspension, which he came to see as a haven from the stress of the classroom. Once, his mom says, he randomly punched a classmate in the parking lot in an effort to get sent back to the peace and quiet of in-school suspension.”[16]

When I was in grade school, I would purposely act up in order TO GET suspended. Sure my mom wouldn’t let me watch TV and stuff and would sometimes make me work on store bought workbooks, but I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to be at school. Suspension was a reward to me. The school was starting to catch on that I was acting up on purpose and tried something called an “in school suspension”. I was in a classroom with a “babysitter” and with the exception of the “babysitter”, I was all alone. I was allowed to draw and color all day long. The classroom I was in was even quieter than my own house. I perfered quiet. Some punishment.[17]

 

The problem with students seeking out suspension and even expulsion for relief from stress is that they don’t realize the implications for their future.  Having a “record” is not helpful when applying to college or looking for a job, but many autistic students find school so painful that they don’t care.

Instead of suspending autistic students at such high rates, school districts should be looking for ways to make school more tolerable for them, ways to prevent them from having meltdowns, ways to seriously address the problem of bullying.

 

[1] Morgan Craven et al., “Suspended Childhood: An Analysis of Exclusionary Discipline of Texas’ Pre-K and Elementary School Students, Updated with 2015-16 Data,” for the Texas Appleseed organization, November, 2015; updated March, 2017: http://stories.texasappleseed.org/suspended-childhood-updated.

[2] Nina Agrawal, “California expands ban on ‘willful defiance’ suspensions in schools,” Los Angeles Times September 10, 2019:  https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-09-10/school-suspension-willful-defiance-california.

[3] Jessica Oh, “Child with autism locked out of school,” report on Kiro 7 television in Seattle, January 23, 2019:  https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/child-with-autism-locked-out-of-school/908564250/.  This incident was widely reported elsewhere.

[4] “Teacher files charges against 8-year-old student who hit her”, report on KQRE TV, April 14, 2018:  https://abc13.com/education/teacher-files-charges-against-8-year-old-student-who-hit-her/3344462/.  The incident was also widely reported.

[5] David M. Perry, “America Keeps Criminalizing Autistic Children,” Pacific Standard June 12, 2017:  https://psmag.com/education/america-keeps-criminalizing-autistic-children.

[6] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[7] dragoncat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 28, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.  It is worth noting that this topic elicited four pages of responses.

[8] tlc, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (March 30, 2018):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[9] SchrodingersMeerkat, in the “Things You Hated About School” discussion on the Autism Forums website (October 27, 2017):  https://www.autismforums.com/threads/things-you-hated-about-school.22361/#post-443119.

[10] Aristophanes, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website: https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[11] The Musings of the Lost, in the “Why School Sucked” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=357585&start=60.

[12] Elizabeth Rosner and Chris Perez, “Autistic student suspended for standing up to bullies, $5M suit claims,” New York Post August 17, 2018:  https://nypost.com/2018/08/17/autistic-student-suspended-for-standing-up-to-bullies-5m-suit-claims/.

[13] Max Londberg, “Suit: Winton Woods Officials Allowed Bullying of Student with ‘Significant Autism’ for Years,” Cincinnati Enquirer August 19, 2019:  https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/08/19/suit-winton-woods-officials-allowed-bullying-student-autism/2054763001/.

[14] Agent Smirnoff, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

[15] deog, in the “I’m So Done!!!! discussion on the Autism Forums website: https://www.autismforums.com/threads/im-so-done.27361/#post-552380.

[16] Ed Williams, “Criminalizing Disability,” Searchlight New Mexico, May 7, 2019:

[17] MagicMeerkat, in the “Is Suspension Really a Punishment?” discussion on the Wrong Planet website:  https://wrongplanet.net/forums/viewtopic.php?t=194004.

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