Students with disabilities improperly suspended at Newark’s largest charter school network, complaint says

Newark’s largest charter-school network suspends students with disabilities at a disproportionately high rate, violating their rights, according to a new complaint filed with the state.

The complaint alleges that North Star Academy gave suspensions to 29 percent of students with disabilities during the 2016-17 school year. The network disputes the complaint’s allegations and says the actual figure was 22 percent.

North Star removed students with disabilities from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons, including suspensions and expulsions, 269 times that school year, according to the complaint filed by an attorney at the Education & Health Law Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark. The complaint is based on state data and reports by parents who contacted the clinic.

Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to ones at Newark Public Schools, where students with disabilities were sent out for disciplinary reasons just 87 times that school year, according to state data. Overall, just 1.3 percent of special-education students and 1.1 percent of all students were suspended in 2016-17, according to the attorney’s analysis of state data. Excluding North Star, the city’s charter schools together suspended about 9 percent of students with disabilities, the analysis found.

North Star serves roughly 5,000 students in 13 schools across Newark. Founded in 1997, it is New Jersey’s largest charter-school network and one of its highest performing, with its predominantly low-income students routinely outscoring their peers in the state’s wealthiest districts.

Its students are also suspended more often than their peers at many schools. At North Star, 23 percent of students received suspensions in 2016-17, compared to 6 percent of students statewide, according to publicly available state data.

The complaint, filed on Aug. 17, alleges that North Star does not adequately modify its discipline policies to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities — particularly those with behavioral challenges, who find it hard to follow the schools’ strict rules. As a result, those students are unfairly punished, causing them to miss class and be separated from their general-education peers in violation of federal disability law, the complaint alleges.

“These discipline policies have a disproportionate and discriminatory impact on students with certain disabilities,” according to the filing, which was addressed to the state education department’s Office of Special Education Policy and Procedure.

A state education department spokesman confirmed that the complaint is being investigated.

North Star denies the allegations, saying it properly adjusts its discipline policies based on the needs of students with disabilities.

The allegations add to an ongoing nationwide debate over school discipline and the harmful impact that punitive policies can have on black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities, who tend to be suspended at higher rates. Across the country, many district and charter schools alike have tried to move away from suspensions and toward an approach known as “restorative justice,” which pushes students to try to repair any harm their behavior has caused.

Nationally, students with disabilities are suspended at about twice the rate of their non-disabled peers — a disparity that is slightly higher at charter schools, according to a recent analysis of 2013-14 data. Meanwhile, new research suggests that students do worse academically after being suspended, adding to prior research showing that students who have been suspended are more likely to get caught up in the criminal justice system and drop out of school.

North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools network — one of several large charter-school organizations whose reliance on strict discipline and demanding academics is sometimes called “no excuses.” Some of the schools have softened their discipline policies in recent years, but others have held firm, insisting that their no-nonsense approach to misbehavior creates a safe, orderly environment where students can focus on academics.

According to the complaint, North Star continues to take an exacting approach to managing behavior. Each week, students receive behavior points in the form of “paychecks.” They can lose points for even minor infractions, such as not paying attention in class or violating the school-uniform code. If their points dip below a certain level, they can be sent to detention or suspended, the complaint says.

The complaint alleges that some students with disabilities struggle to follow the rules, and wind up being punished at a higher rate than non-disabled students. Federal data from the 2014-15 school year appear to support that claim. In that year, students with disabilities made up 7.2 percent of North Star’s enrollment, yet they received 16.5 percent of in-school suspensions and 12.9 percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to data compiled by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Barbara Martinez, a North Star spokeswoman, said the network’s suspension rates have declined since 2015. She added that network officials “would be surprised to see a meaningful discrepancy” in suspension rates today between students with and without disabilities.

She also said the network believes the suspension rate for North Star students with disabilities cited in the complaint is incorrect. The network has asked the state education department to provide “the underlying data source so that we can understand where any confusion may have arisen,” she added.

She also noted that the department has repeatedly renewed the network’s charter, a process that involves on-site inspections and a review of school data — including data related to special education. She added that North Star students with disabilities perform in the 75th percentile on the state PARCC exams among all New Jersey special-education students.

“We take great pride in the high-quality instruction and support that we provide to all our special education students to meet their individualized learning and behavioral needs,” she said in a statement. “North Star has a 20-year record of success in delivering on its mission of preparing all students to get to and through college — including our special education students.”

The complaint was filed by Deanna Christian, an Education & Health Law Clinic attorney who has represented parents in arbitration cases against North Star. She said she filed the complaint after several parents raised concerns about the network’s discipline policies. (The Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocacy group that has represented parents in lawsuits against North Star, endorsed the complaint, saying that it has received complaints from North Star parents about students with disabilities being “inappropriately” suspended.)

Christian, who is doing a yearlong fellowship focused on the rights of students with disabilities who attend charter schools, requested suspension data from the state for general- and special-education students in district and charter schools. She found that North Star had one of the highest suspension rates in the state for students with disabilities, even though the network’s share of special-education students was far below the state average, according to the complaint.

Federal law requires that students with disabilities be taught alongside non-disabled peers whenever possible. The complaint alleges that North Star violated disabled students’ rights by improperly suspending them, which reduced their learning time and separated them from their peers. It relies on parent reports and North Star’s written policies, saying it is the clinic’s “understanding” that the discipline code is applied “without regard to a student’s disability status” and that the code is rarely modified for students with disabilities.

The complaint calls on the state to investigate North Star’s discipline policies and their effect on students with disabilities, including whether those students are held back more often than non-disabled students. It suggests several remedies, including additional training for teachers and administrators in “positive interventions” to manage the behavior of students with disabilities.

“These exclusionary disciplinary policies are keeping kids out of class,” Christian said in an interview. “And when kids are not in class, they’re not learning.”

North Star made a parent available to interview for this story. The parent, Crystal Williams, has four students at North Star, including Jayson, an eighth-grader at the network’s Valisburg Middle School.

Williams disputed the complaint’s claim that North Star does not modify its discipline code for special-education students. She said school staffers have gone out of their way to accommodate Jayson, who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

For instance, the school allots Jayson extra behavior points at the start of each week and teachers give him three warnings before deducting points, Williams said. A dean has even allowed Jayson to run laps in the school hallway and do pushups in the gym when he is having trouble focusing, she added.

Still, Williams said that Jayson was suspended about 10 times last school year for infractions that included throwing a book and giving the middle finger to a teacher. She also picked him up from school several times after he misbehaved but before he was suspended, she said.

However, Williams defended Jayson’s multiple suspensions, saying they were only for “egregious” violations and that the policy keeps all students safe. She added that he was given work to do whenever he was suspended, and that he was always given a “fresh start” when he returned to school.

“It is a little inconvenient not to have your child in school,” she said. “But the greater lesson is that for us to be a community, your child has to behave correctly.”