In the fall of 2021, Marie’s daughter began to behave differently at school.
The 14-year-old girl, who attends a Vermont public school, became “mouthy” with her teachers and started using profanity in class, her mother said. Her daughter had been diagnosed several years earlier with obsessive compulsive disorder, ADHD and anxiety, Marie said, and is enrolled in special education.
Citing fears of retaliation, Marie agreed to speak under the conditions that she be identified only by her middle name, and that VTDigger would not name her daughter or her school.
Her daughter began to receive reprimands and in-school suspensions, Marie said. She was frequently sent to the assistant principal’s room during school days. School staff began to call Marie to come pick up her daughter, saying that the girl was “out of control.”
Sometimes, when Marie arrived, school officials would encourage her to keep her daughter out of school for a few days.
Her daughter wasn’t being suspended, Marie said, but the staff made it clear that she should not come back to school.
“‘I just think she needs a few days off,’” school staff would say, Marie recalled. “‘You know, this teacher is not going to be here, and that teacher is not going to be here, and I think it's going to be too much for her.’”
What Marie’s daughter experienced — being effectively pulled out of class without a standard suspension process — has been dubbed “informal removal” or “unofficial suspension.”
Advocates and state officials say the practice violates Vermont law. And, they say, it deprives students — mostly children with disabilities enrolled in special education — of their right to an education.
“When the student is not at school, they're not getting any educational services,” said Rachel Seelig, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project and chair of a state special education advisory panel. “And they're not being allowed to interact with their peers or be included in a classroom setting.”
Because of its informal nature, there is no data showing how frequently such removals occur. But advocates report that they appear to have grown more common since the arrival of Covid-19.
“I would say that the incidences of informal suspensions have increased during the pandemic,” Karen Price, a director of family support at the Vermont Family Network, said in a text message. “And it appears to be related to schools not having sufficient providers.”
‘These are the formative years’
Ivy, the mother of a boy who attends a different Vermont school, said her fourth-grade son has experienced such removals for years.
Ivy agreed to speak under the condition that her son and his school not be identified, and that VTDigger use her middle name to refer to her, saying she was also worried about retaliation. Her son has Down syndrome and ADHD, she said, and also receives special education services at his northern Vermont public school.
“He gets frustrated or overwhelmed with work he doesn't either want to do or understand,” Ivy said. “And that comes out as undesirable behaviors like yelling and swearing and spitting and things you don't want kids to be doing.”
Sometimes when that happens, school staff call Ivy and tell her to come get her child from school. She works from home, but picking up her son “means I lose work for that day, regardless of whatever important meeting I had,” she said.
Ivy assumed that school staff would be recording such absences as suspensions. But recently, after she obtained her son’s attendance records, she found that most of those removals had not been recorded.
“For those few times that there was any kind of documentation at all, it just said that Mom came and picked him up,” Ivy said. “It made it seem like I wanted to come and pick him up.”
Because her school was not documenting the removals, Ivy said, she doesn’t know exactly how many times her son was pulled out of school. But she estimates that it has happened a “couple dozen times” since he started kindergarten.
She said she hopes to get official permission to transfer her son to an independent school.
“These are the formative years,” Ivy said. “He’s supposed to be getting a foundational education. And he's not.”
An illegal practice
Special education advocates and the Agency of Education agree that such removals are unlawful.
“From the perspective of the law, ‘informal,’ ‘unofficial’ or ‘soft’ suspensions do not exist,” said Ted Fisher, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Education. "Failure to properly categorize a suspension or expulsion as such, or afford a student their due process rights pursuant to (state rules), is unlawful.”
Under state law, students may be suspended if they are deemed “harmful to the welfare of the school” or if they are seen as a threat to the school or its students. Students can also be suspended for behavior outside of school that jeopardizes “another student's equal access to educational programs.”
For short-term suspensions, usually 10 days or fewer, students have the right to an informal hearing, and parents or guardians must be notified in writing. In cases of long-term suspensions, students have the right to a formal hearing before the school board and legal representation.
Vermont schools are supposed to record information about all suspensions, including the length and dates, details about the precipitating incident, and demographic information about the disciplined student.
If a student with a disability is suspended for 10 days total during a school year, school officials must assess whether that student’s misbehavior was caused by their disability; if they determine that it was, staff are supposed to consider changing the student’s educational plan.
“Student suspension should only occur due to significantly disruptive or dangerous behavior,” Fisher said, noting that the practice of informal removals is “of increasing concern to us.”
In theory, schools are supposed to do everything possible to keep students in the classroom. For students receiving special education services, staff and parents follow a document called an “Individualized Education Plan” — often called an IEP — that outlines their educational goals and needs.
If a student receiving special education repeatedly exhibits disruptive behavior, that can be an indicator that their educational plan is not working and needs to be revised, said Price, of the Vermont Family Network.
“If there is some behavior escalating, the teacher has techniques on what to do, what not to do,” she said. “Offer the child this or that, (or have them) go to different parts of the classroom, do some different work, have a sensory break.”
Darren McIntyre, the executive director of the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators, declined to speak at length about informal removals, saying he had not yet had a chance to discuss informal removals with his organization’s members.
He noted that staffing shortages in schools are so dire that special education staff are sometimes pulled away to complete tasks outside their usual work.
“A lot of times it's special educators covering various duties that they wouldn't normally,” he said. “And at times (that) takes away from instruction, whether that's direct instruction or co-teaching in the classroom with (general education) teachers.”
If a school cannot meet a special education student’s needs on certain days, that student is supposed to receive “compensatory services” — essentially, the school must make up lost class time later.
But when students are pulled out of class without the proper record-keeping, “no one even knows how much time was missed,” Price said — meaning it’s impossible to say exactly what compensatory services are required. And it’s unclear whether many of the special education students who experience such removals are getting compensatory services at all, she said.
“We're basically at the end of the school year, and I think everyone's still sort of scrambling to figure out where they stand,” she said.
‘It won’t happen again’
Earlier this year, the state’s Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments, a group of state and local officials appointed by Vermont lawmakers to examine disciplinary practices in schools, found that such removals are commonplace for some families.
In a report issued in March, the task force wrote that some families receive calls to pick up their children “multiple times a week and sometimes very shortly after the child arrives at school.”
“In some instances, families report they wait in the school parking lot after drop-off to avoid having to return to school minutes later when they receive a phone call,” the report said.
The task force wrote that it was “unsure of how to monitor the use of ‘informal removals’ and recommends more attention to this matter.”
Another report published in January by the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network found that such removals were “one of the most common issues reported” by families of children with disabilities.
“Removing a child from school because of their disability is discrimination, yet these removals occur hundreds and perhaps thousands of times per year, stunting children’s educational growth, and depriving them of their rights,” the report said.
Advocates have asked state officials to take a number of steps to reduce the practice, including clarifying the definition of a suspension to “reduce inconsistent interpretation” and creating a reporting system through which parents can inform state officials when their children experience such removals.
Fisher, the spokesperson for the Agency of Education, said that state officials are “currently working on additional measures to address the problem.”
That could include implementing some of the strategies suggested by advocates, as well as “greater oversight, supervision and monitoring,” Fisher said.
It’s unclear how many schools or parents are aware that such removals violate state rules. At first, Marie said, she didn’t realize there was any problem with the actions of her daughter’s school.
"You would think that the school knows this is the way it's supposed to be,” she said.
But she became frustrated when her daughter was repeatedly sent home or told to stay home with no school work on regular school days. Finally, she said, “I put my foot down.” Now, at least, she makes sure her daughter is given assignments on days where she is told to stay home.
Her daughter has still fallen behind in her schoolwork, Marie said, and she worries that she is not ready to enter high school next year. But Marie said she plans to pay closer attention to any such removals in the future.
“I let the school snowball me the whole year, or most of the year, with this,” she said. “I know it won't happen again. I won't allow it.”
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