PORTLAND, Maine — Students with disabilities in Maine’s largest cities are much more likely to be suspended from school than their classmates without disabilities, an education expert said this week.

Daniel Losen, director of University of California-Los Angeles’ Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said that trend follows national statistics and carries troublesome implications in terms of future dropout and incarceration rates.

Losen is scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at Friday’s third annual International Summit on Non-Adversarial, Non-Punitive Interventions for At-Risk Kids, a conference expected to attract 450-500 attendees to Portland.

“People think that suspending kids out of school is necessary, but there are a whole range of alternatives that are much more beneficial,” Losen told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “Few teachers will say that the kids come back three or five days later more ready to learn. It doesn’t work. Plus, there’s a cost involved when we suspend kids out of school. Even for taxpayers who don’t care about anything but the bottom line, it’s not an economically efficient way of going about this.”

Friday’s event is organized by child psychologist Ross Greene, founder of the Portland-based nonprofit Lives in the Balance and author of the books “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School.”

“Schools can be very punitive, very adversarial,” Greene said. “There can be a very ‘us-versus-them’ attitude in schools and that’s unnecessary. What we’re doing now isn’t working very well for the kids who are at the greatest risk.”

Losen said for secondary schools in Maine’s three largest cities, recent statistics show that students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than classmates without disabilities, and male students with disabilities are most likely to be kicked out of school.

According to 2009-2010 data from the U.S. Department of Education, 4 percent of secondary students in Portland schools face suspension at one time or another. That figure goes up to 6.5 percent for students with disabilities and 11 percent for male students with disabilities.

In Bangor, the state’s third largest city, 5.3 percent of secondary students without disabilities are at some point suspended, while 11 percent of students with disabilities face suspension and 14.3 percent of males with disabilities do.

Of the three largest cities, the disparity was greatest in Lewiston, according to Losen’s data. Of secondary students in Maine’s second largest city, 12.7 percent were suspended at one time or another, while that number jumps to 22.2 percent for students with disabilities and 31.4 percent for male students with disabilities.

Figures showing that students with disabilities are much more likely to be removed from school can be found all across the country and represent an alarming trend that stacks the deck against teenagers who already face an uphill climb compared to their classmates, Losen said.

“When kids exhibit problem behavior, the solution isn’t to kick them out of school, where they’re more likely to be unsupervised and get into trouble,” he said. “We know that even being suspended once in the ninth grade doubles the chance of that student dropping out. And if you look at who’s in the juvenile justice system, by a conservative estimate at least a third have disabilities, and some studies indicate it could be up as high as 80 or 90 percent. That’s not a cost-effective way of dealing with students with special needs.”

Better solutions than suspensions

Nationwide, school districts suspend students for a wide range of behaviors, Losen said.

“It can include anything from getting out of your seat when you’re not supposed to or rolling your eyes at the teacher,” he said. “It can also include more serious offenses, so there’s a wide range of things that can cause you to be suspended.”

In Lewiston, school Superintendent Bill Webster said his department recognized the disparity and has made changes in the years since the data Losen cited was collected. Among the reasons a Lewiston student can be suspended, according to district policy, is for severe harassment of classmates or by making a bomb threat.

Webster said in the past year, Lewiston schools have set aside three additional rooms for students to serve suspensions in-school, where they work with staff and counselors to resolve their problems, as opposed to the previously more common out-of-school suspensions.

“We still have a long way to go, but I can say that the use of in-school suspensions has reduced greatly what would have been out-of-school suspensions. Increasingly, schools across the country are realizing suspensions themselves are not the answer,” Webster said. “Many times, students themselves need other supports, whether it’s counseling or support at the family end. … There is that recognition that we can’t wash our hands of these students, and we as a society pay the price for those districts that do.”

The best way to handle students with behavioral problems, according to Greene, is to go even further toward nonadversarial, nonpunitive solutions. Greene argues that students with disabilities are often exhibiting problem behavior as a result of a frustrating skill deficiency that prevents them from coping appropriately with their situation.

Parents and educators should work with troublesome students to determine which skill is lagging and involve them in coming up with a plan to compensate for it so that their educational environment is less frustrating, Greene said.

That sounds like a lot of work, admitted Nina D’Aran, principal of the Central School in South Berwick, which has adopted Greene’s intervention model. But she said teachers in her school have found that classes go more smoothly and are more efficient after the troubled students help solve their own behavioral problems.

She also said her district has hired outside recess and lunch monitors to help provide teachers more time to work with students and parents on issues like these.

“If the normal redirection or quick reminder by the teacher isn’t working, we meet as a team and we’ll … look at what skills are lagging to cause the problem. We’ll talk with the student about why that time is so difficult, what’s making it difficult and we’ll come up with a solution together,” said D’Aran.

“We used to spend hours in these meetings trying to figure out what to do with these children without involving the children in the conversation,” she continued. “We’d come up with these plans, tell the students to do it and they’d do it. But it often wouldn’t work because we didn’t really know what was making it difficult in the first place.”

That more collaborative approach helps not only the student with the behavioral problems, but the entire classroom atmosphere, Greene suggested. He said the long-held model of trying to force better behavior through “adult-imposed consequences” and “imposition of will” is ineffective, and too often sends students on a trajectory that leaves them worse off.

“I fully appreciate that there will be parents, teachers, staff members and facilities that have been dealing with these situations the same way for a long time,” Greene said. “But I find that most are willing to hear new information, as hard as it is, and willing to try new ways to handle these challenges. If we understand that this isn’t about behavior — or about modifying behavior — but rather lagging skills that are preventing kids from accomplishing tasks, it becomes very clear to people why time-outs aren’t effective or even why giving out stickers isn’t effective.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.