Methods: We used publicly available data from the 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to examine the association between the presence of school service professionals and school-reported incidents of discipline across 96,360 schools in the U.S.. We used multiple linear regression to examine the association of the number of SSWs (based on FTE, and normalized by overall student enrollment) and other services professionals (i.e., counselors and psychologists) on disciplinary outcomes. Disciplinary outcomes were defined as one or more incidents of suspension, expulsion, law enforcement referral, and arrests during the school year.
Results: Students with disabilities represented 12.5% of the total student enrollment but accounted for 20.9% of students with at least one in-school-suspension, out-of-school suspension (26.1%), expulsion (18.3%), law enforcement referral (28.4%) or arrest (28.2%). The ratio of school social workers to students significantly influenced in-school suspensions (B=0.20 X , SE=0.04, p<0.001), out of school suspensions (B=0.77, SE=0.05, p<0.001), expulsions (B=0.18, SE=0.02, p<0.001), referrals to law enforcement (B=0.23, SE=0.01, p<0.001) and arrests (B=0.14, SE=0.01, p<0.001). In contrast, the number of students with one or more suspensions, expulsions, or arrests was not consistently significantly influenced by the presence of school counselors or psychologists.
Conclusions and Implications: We found that disparities in the use of school discipline for students with disabilities continues to persist across the country. The positive association between the presence of SSWs, but not other service professionals, and disciplinary incidents may reflect schools attempt to address challenges by hiring more SSWs. However, these results also suggest that there is (as of yet) no generally effective policy for school service professionals to implement alternatives to zero-tolerance policies for students with disabilities.