Abstract: Child Disability and Serious School Discipline Disparities (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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79P Child Disability and Serious School Discipline Disparities

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Christine James, MSW, LSW, Doctoral Candidate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ

Youth who experience harsh school discipline have a greater likelihood of not completing high school and criminal justice involvement in early adulthood. Students with disabilities are disproportionally affected by harsh school disciplinary actions, school arrests, and juvenile justice system referrals. A US GAO report indicated youth with disabilities had a suspension rate twice that of other students, even after controlling for poverty. Few studies have explicitly examined associations of disability with school disciplinary outcomes and whether there are differences by types of disability. I hypothesize that students with disabilities will be more likely to experience harsh school discipline, and that youth with less apparent, or “invisible” disabilities, such as cognitive or behavioral health conditions, will be more adversely affected due to being less readily identified and accommodated as such. Further, I hypothesize that harsh school disciplinary environments, such as “zero tolerance” policies that raise discipline levels for any infraction, may aggravate the association between disability and serious school disciplinary outcomes for youth.


This study is based on population-based longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study of approximately 5,000 children born in large US cities, followed to age 15. Survey data are linked with unique school-level data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, which measures school environments. These analyses examined the associations of disability (and their types) with serious school discipline outcomes at youth age 15, including youth and parent-reported suspensions and expulsions. Disability status included disabling health (physical, developmental, or behavioral) conditions by age 9 as reported by the caregiver, and cognitive disability, measured at age 9 by a test of verbal ability, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). Associations were estimated using OLS linear regression models, controlling for a rich set of child/family characteristics. Moderation of school-level factors, including rates of harsh disciplinary actions, on associations between disability and discipline outcomes were tested by including interaction effects.


The complete case analysis sample included 2,504 youth with 14% meeting the cut-off criteria for cognitive disability and 33% of the sample reporting any disability conditions. Adjusting for covariates, the presence of any disability conditions was associated with a 7 percentage point (p<.001) or 5 percentage point (p<.01) greater likelihood of serious school discipline as reported by caregivers and youth, respectively. Cognitive disability was associated with a 6 percentage point (p<.05) greater likelihood of serious school discipline as reported by caregivers, but was not associated with youth reports. Higher Black racial composition at school worsened the relationship between any disability conditions and serious school discipline (p<.05), while higher Hispanic school composition weakened this relationship (p<.05). No other moderators tested changed the associations found in the main analyses.


Children with disabilities receive more serious school discipline in adolescence. This study highlights an ongoing inequity in our school systems. Findings from this study have important implications for building solutions, such as demonstrating the impact of zero-tolerance policies and the importance for both identification and accommodation of youth with disabilities during critical high school years.