In both Missouri and Kansas, students with disabilities are referred to police at a higher rate.
In both Missouri and Kansas, students with disabilities are referred to police at a higher rate. (Mary Ann Lawrence/USA TODAY)

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.

When Jill Brady was called into her son’s school in Belton, Mo., about two years ago, she found a school resource officer standing over her fourth grader.

“’I have never seen my kid that scared in my entire lifetime,” Brady said. “He was so traumatized.” 

Brady said her son — now in sixth grade — is neurodivergent. He had thrown a pencil on the floor after his teachers pressured him to complete his math assignment.

When the teachers reacted to his outburst by clearing students out of the classroom and bringing in other adults, he became frightened and tried to leave the room, Brady said. 

“They had this woman who doesn’t know my kid for nothing, standing over and intimidating him wearing a badge and a police uniform and making him feel trapped and not safe,” Brady said.

Advocates and experts say situations like Brady’s are common in schools, which data shows tend to favor discipline when it comes to handling behavioral issues of students with disabilities. 

In many districts around the Kansas City metro area — and throughout the nation — students with disabilities are more likely to be referred to law enforcement by their schools, according to a recent analysis of federal education data by the Center for Public Integrity

Experts say referring students with disabilities to the police can lead to a lifetime of negative outcomes. They also say the disparities should be avoidable.

Often, when schools call the police on students with disabilities, “there’s some lack of implementation or a poor implementation of these supports and services that are mandated by law,” said Cyrus Huncharek, a senior public policy analyst for the National Disability Rights Network

“When these needs are not being met, some sort of behavior arises that the school doesn’t really know how to deal with, and so then they get law enforcement involved.”

The disparities in KC-area districts of police referrals for students with disabilities

In every state, students with disabilities were more likely to be referred to law enforcement, federal data shows. 

Nationwide, students with disabilities are referred to police at almost twice the average rate — 8.4 students referred per thousand compared to 4.5 per thousand overall — in the most recent data available, from the 2017-18 school year. 

For some major districts in the Kansas City area, the disparity is even starker.

In the Blue Springs School District, in Missouri, where the overall police referral rate is already above the state average, students with disabilities were more than twice as likely to be referred to police in 2017-18 compared to the overall district rate. 

When asked by The Kansas City Beacon about the Department of Education data, Blue Springs found 25 fewer police referrals in its internal records, but spokesperson Katie Woolf did not explain the discrepancy or break down the smaller number by whether or not the students had disabilities. 

On the Kansas side, the Shawnee Mission School District data — with a similarly high overall rate — showed students with disabilities were more than twice as likely as the district average to be referred to law enforcement. 

David Smith, spokesperson for Shawnee Mission, confirmed the numbers and said the district plans to review its policing practices in April to address inequities.

Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, both with fewer police referrals overall, still referred students with disabilities about three times as often as their district average. 

The Kansas City, Kansas, district emailed The Kansas City Beacon guidelines for school police officers that encourage them to refer issues to the school whenever possible rather than using arrests or citations. The district also confirmed the federal data. 

How school police referrals are counted

The federal data, which is self-reported by districts to the U.S. Department of Education, doesn’t explain why students were referred or the consequences of the referral. 

The data also might not capture the full scope of the problem, as schools have different thresholds for what cases they report to the Department of Education. 

The department asks districts to include reports to “any law enforcement agency or official, including a school police unit, for an incident that occurs on school grounds, during school-related events (in-person or virtual), or while taking school transportation, regardless of whether official action is taken.”

State laws in both Missouri and Kansas require districts to report certain serious crimes to law enforcement. Those reports can sometimes lead to arrests, charges filed, citations or court appearances.

Districts also communicate with their own police forces or municipal resource officers to keep them informed, request help with less serious disciplinary or safety issues, or consult with them about whether a situation merits a more official report. Districts may or may not report those kinds of referrals. 

Melissa McConnell, communications specialist for Belton schools, said the district defines referrals as situations where it is legally required to notify law enforcement, meaning the incident with Brady’s son may not have been classified as a police referral. 

In an emailed statement, McConnell said the district cannot legally comment on specific incidents, but “ensuring the well-being of students and staff is a priority,” and the district encourages families to meet with district officials if they feel a situation was not handled well. 

The Beacon is not reporting Belton’s 2017-18 police referral rates because of a major discrepancy in the numbers in the federal database, which McConnell says are inconsistent with the district’s internal records. McConnell could not say how the inaccuracy happened since the district self-reports the data to the federal government. 

When IEPs fail to prevent a police referral

Brady’s son has an individualized education plan. IEPs are created for students with disabilities to ensure they receive the specialized services they need. 

But leading up to the incident where a school resource officer got involved, his teachers were inconsistent in implementing the plan well, Brady said. 

Even kids who are having incredibly challenging behaviors can be served with the right kinds of supports.

Jennifer Mathis, bazelon center for mental health law

One would let him do whatever he wanted, leading him to fail his schoolwork, while another would “trigger” him by putting too much pressure on him.

Brady had talked to her son’s teachers about how to help him stay calm at school, but she says they didn’t follow her advice on the day he threw the pencil. 

“You have to read his body language, and you need to know when to stop and let him take a minute,” she said. “And they weren’t doing that.”

Although the incident didn’t involve putting him through the criminal justice system, he did receive an in-school suspension.

IEPs, required by federal law for students who qualify for special education services, are supposed to be one of the main protections for children with disabilities. 

But experts described a number of factors that can cause those protections to fail:

  • IEPs use “boilerplate” language and don’t fully address a child’s individual needs.
  • A student’s IEP is not fully implemented.
  • When a student acts out due to unmet needs, schools are unprepared.
  • School resource officers are present, making them a simple solution to issues schools find overwhelming. 

“It’s not often the fault of teachers, but there isn’t the staffing or level of support,” said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “Kids have a lot of protections procedurally … but in terms of what actually happens on a daily basis in schools, I think kids with disabilities really often don’t get the kinds of support that they need.” 

The Bazelon Center, the National Disability Rights Network and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri all oppose having school resource officers stationed in schools. An ACLU report using earlier federal data found a correlation between having officers in schools and more arrests. 

“Not every school resource officer is this horrible person or is treating kids poorly, but the data does show that in the aggregate, they tend to do more harm than good,” said Huncharek with the National Disability Rights Network. 

Huncharek and Mathis lead the Coalition for Smart Safety, a group that recently advocated against proposed national school safety legislation that would increase policing and threat assessments of students. 

“Once students have an arrest record, I think it makes kids often feel like they’re not valuable contributing citizens, that they’re a failure,” Mathis said. “Even when people don’t have that or can overcome those feelings, arrest records, conviction records, follow people for life.”

How districts are addressing disparities for students with disabilities  

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

“Even kids who are having incredibly challenging behaviors can be served with the right kinds of supports,” Mathis said. 

Proper support can require intensive planning, learning what triggers behaviors, addressing kids’ needs and helping them find replacements for problematic behaviors. 

Kansas City Public Schools is adopting some of those strategies in a bid to decrease disparities in discipline, reduce police referrals and promote positive interactions with school security. 

KCPS looks for security officers who work well with children and don’t overreact, said Marcus Harris, KCPS’ director of security. Applicants go through a psychological test and receive training on de-escalation, implicit bias, crisis intervention and youth mental health. 

“The main thing is we take our time,” Harris said. “And that’s not usual in law enforcement.”

For example, an officer might spend 10 minutes walking up and down the hall with a student to help them calm down. 

We don’t want the students to be traumatized by the police’s approach at all.

Luanne Barron, Kansas School for the Deaf superintendent

Some students with disabilities can have trouble processing or reacting to situations appropriately, said Lateshia Woodley, assistant superintendent of student support at KCPS. “We have to adjust for that.” 

The Kansas School for the Deaf in Olathe also tries to avoid negative student interactions with police.  

Speaking through a sign language interpreter, Superintendent Luanne Barron said police crisis intervention teams sometimes work with students who are acting out, but officers don’t match the stereotype of a strict and angry police officer. 

“We don’t want the students to be traumatized by the police’s approach at all,” she said.

In the Department of Education data, the Kansas school has one of the highest rates of police referrals in Missouri or Kansas, 53.8 per thousand. But Barron said the 2017-18 school year was an outlier. Because the school had only 130 students, seven referrals caused the rate to rise dramatically. 

“It’s very rare that we contact the police,” Barron said. “We try to handle everything in-house unless a student is out of our control.” 

Across the state line in Belton, Brady is keeping her son in remote learning for now. She is wondering whether she should send him back to in-person school when the pandemic abates. 

“It’s a pipeline to prison,” she said of schools that criminalize students with disabilities. “It makes me really sad that that’s a real fear that parents have to deal with when they send their children to school.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.