(CNN) The phone call from her son’s school was alarming. The assistant principal told her to come to the school immediately.
But when Lisa Manwell arrived at Pioneer Middle School in Plymouth, Michigan, her son wasn’t sick or injured. He was sitting calmly in the principal’s office.
John, who has ADHD and finds it soothing to fidget during class, had been removed from the classroom after he refused to stop using a pair of safety scissors to cut his cuticles.
When she asked why he couldn’t stay for the rest of the day, Manwell said the school told her they would call child protective services if she didn’t take him home.
The call was just one of a dozen that Manwell received last fall telling her John couldn’t stay in school because of behaviors she says stemmed from his disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Many schools have promised to cut down on suspensions, since kids can’t learn as well when they aren’t in class. But none of these pickups was ever recorded as suspensions, despite the missed class time.
The practice is known as informal removal, defined by the U.S. Education Department as an action taken by school staff in response to a child’s behavior that excludes the child for part or all of the school day — or even indefinitely.
Excessive use of informal removals amounts to a form of off-the-books discipline — a de facto denial of education that evades accountability, advocates and legal experts say. It has special implications for kids with disabilities: Informally removing these students circumvents federal law that protects them from being disciplined or barred from class for behaviors related to their disability.
Since the pandemic began, parents of kids with disabilities say the practice is on the rise, denying their kids their legal right to an education.
“This is a repeat issue that we see in enforcement across the country, over years,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for the department’s Office for Civil Rights. “And that means that the practice has taken hold in a way that is dangerous for students and needs to be addressed.”
In July, the department issued guidance on discriminatory practices in discipline for students with disabilities. Lhamon said the guidance included informal removals because of how frequently they appeared in the office’s investigations of complaints against school districts.
Informal removals can happen through frequent parent pickups, shortened school days or hours spent in “time-out” rooms.
The Associated Press and The Hechinger Report interviewed 20 families in 10 states who described being called repeatedly and at all hours of the school day to pick up their children. In some cases, parents were called less than an hour into the school day. Others said they had to leave work to get their child so frequently they lost their jobs. Many felt they had no choice but to change schools, or even districts.
Because the removals aren’t recorded, there’s no way to quantify how often they happen. But the National Disability Rights Network says it has seen an increase during the pandemic.
Teacher shortages mean there are fewer staffers available to do evaluations and provide services for students with disabilities, creating “more of an incentive or more of a push for getting kids with behavioral needs out,” said Dan Stewart, the organization’s managing attorney for education and employment.
Students of color with a disability appear to be disproportionately affected based on anecdotal reports to the network from disability rights advocates around the country.
“It’s pervasive,” said Ginny Fogg, an attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, “and the reason for that is that most parents don’t know their rights and the consequence for the school system is not enough to make them not do it.”
“The remedy isn’t, ‘You just can’t go to school,’” she added. “The law was enacted 50 years ago to prevent this very outcome — that students with disabilities aren’t allowed to go to school and participate in an education.”
Manwell said the calls from her son’s school felt relentless.
“They would be calling my personal phone, my work phone. They were calling my husband, who works nights,” said Manwell, a resource planner at Ford Motor Co. “It was impossible. I couldn’t function. I never knew when they were going to call or what was going to happen.”
An official from the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district in Michigan where John goes to school said he couldn’t comment on specific student issues, citing federal student privacy law.
Federal law protects students with disabilities from being repeatedly disciplined or removed from school for behaviors related to their disability. If they are suspended for more than 10 days, families are entitled to a meeting with the school to determine whether the behaviors are a result of the child’s disability. If they are, then the school must offer adjustments instead of suspension. For example, if a child’s disability makes it difficult for them to focus in a loud classroom with dozens of other children, the parent has the right to request a quieter classroom or one with fewer children.
The Education Department’s July guidance made clear that children who are informally removed have the same rights, such as reviews of whether the student’s behavior was a result of their disability, as those who had been officially suspended.
Tricia Ellinger says she would have requested a hearing to make sure her 10-year-old daughter was getting appropriate services and support, had she known that her frequent removals from the classroom amounted to suspensions.
One day last spring, she received three phone calls in rapid succession, telling her to immediately pick up Cassie from Kenneth J. Carberry Elementary School in Emmett, Idaho. When she arrived, her daughter was sitting quietly in the school’s resource room eating a snack. She says a school staff member told her that Cassie was refusing to do her work and needed to go home.
“When I got her in the car, I asked her, ‘Cass, what happened? Did you tear up your notebook? Did you throw your pencil?’” Ellinger recalled. “She said, ‘No, it was just hard. Math is hard.’”
The call was one of about 20 Ellinger says she got last year from the school, which is designed specifically to educate students with disabilities. She says her daughter was also taken out of class repeatedly and kept in a room by herself. None of the removals was recorded as suspensions.
Emmett School District Superintendent Craig Woods said he couldn’t comment, citing federal student privacy law.
Families often do not know what grounds they have to lodge a complaint, Lhamon said. Sometimes they aren’t aware their child should not have been suspended in the first place.
“That is so concerning when schools are excluding students for reasons that are unlawful,” she said. “We want our kids to be in class, learning with other students, fully participant and respected as learners. We do not want our school communities to be sending a message that there’s some category of kids who can’t be there.”
Manwell said most of the calls she got last year from her son’s school were a result of bullying. On the fourth day of school, John got shoved in the locker room, and she got a call to pick him up. Another time, he went to the bathroom and another student threatened to beat him up.
Because of his disability, John was supposed to be granted access to a quiet room so he could recover from difficult incidents. But often, she said, either there wasn’t a room or when he didn’t want to return to class, she’d get a call to come pick him up.
“It was just the stress of never knowing what I was sending my kid into each day. I was worrying the whole time he was gone,” said Manwell. “I could see the damage.”
“He was withdrawing. He started talking about hurting himself,” she said, her voice breaking.
In January, she made the difficult decision to switch John to homebound instruction, sending him to a tutoring center every day for a couple of hours and rearranging her work schedule. It made her life more predictable, she said, and John began to act like his old self.
She said she’d like to send him back to school but doesn’t trust what will happen.
“You want to protect your kids, right?” she said. “I just can’t send him to a school where he won’t be safe.”