Database: Special Ed to Prison Link?

Schools need better methods to teach students with disabilities

“Cody Beck was handcuffed in front of his classmates and put in the back of a police car outside of Grenada Middle School, Mississippi; he had lost his temper when arguing with another student, and hit several teachers when they tried to intervene. Cody was 12 years old. Officials at his school determined the incident was a result of Cody’s disability.

As a child, Cody was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He had been given an Individual Education Program (IEP), which detailed the resources, accommodations, and classes that Cody should receive as a student with special needs. After temporarily being arrested by the police, Cody was not allowed to return to school. He was called to youth court three times in the four months after the incident happened and was out of school for nearly half that time as he waited to start at a special private school.”

This story was reported by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. According to the report, Cody represents one in three children who have disabilities, ranging from emotional disabilities like bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia, and have experience in the juvenile justice system each year. In 2001, The Coalition for Juvenile Justice reported that “between 70 and 87 percent of incarcerated youth suffer from learning or emotional disabilities that interfere with their education,” and “in the adult criminal system, 82 percent of prison inmates have dropped out of high school.”

“When the special education system fails, youth end up in jail,” asserted The Hechinger Report. It is true that the school-to-prison pipeline has not been stopped, but we cannot simply conclude that special education turns out to be the only culprit. Cody’s case may be related to some frowned-upon practice in special education, such as inappropriate expulsion or discipline, but as educators and researchers, we need to find more effective methods to educate our students with disabilities.

The data from the 2012-14 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey show that among the U.S. household population (16-74 years old), 8 percent reported having a learning disability, but among the U.S. incarcerated population, the number was as high as 23 percent, almost three times higher.

Among the individuals with learning disabilities in the household population, the majority were white, followed by black and Hispanic. In contrast, in the incarcerated population, two thirds of the people with learning disabilities were black or Hispanic. Consistent with previous studies, the data indicate that black and Hispanic individuals with learning disabilities are more likely to be at risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Skills gap. In everyday life, adults need a set of literacy and numeracy skills to support their success in many social contexts and work situations and to fully integrate and participate in the labor market, education and training, and social and civic life. The PIAAC assesses those skills. According to the study, blacks with learning disabilities, both in the household and prison populations, perform one level lower than their white peers in literacy and numeracy.

Education gap. Low educational attainment and high school dropout rates are factors that affect the skill level of people with learning disabilities. The PIAAC data show that people with learning disabilities had fewer years of formal education than their peers without learning disabilities. Most individuals with learning disabilities had low education levels and finished their highest level of education before they reached age 20. Compared with whites and Hispanics, blacks with learning disabilities had a higher percentage of individuals leaving education at age 15 or younger.

Students with learning disabilities are likely to have a disadvantage in literacy/numeracy skills, compared with their peers without learning disabilities. The PIAAC tells us that the low skills level of people with learning disabilities is associated with low educational attainment. An issue we identified in the study is that a substantial percentage of blacks with learning disabilities finished their highest level of education at age 15 or younger.


Angela, diagnosed with a learning disability when she was in the first grade, completed her high school freshman year with a 3.72 GPA. Janeice, who had been diagnosed with emotional disturbance and started her IEP as a second-grader, began her junior year in the fall of 2013 with a 3.20 GPA. Angela and Janeice are two African-American female students who were studied by researchers from Georgia State University and Florida Atlantic University respectively, because they have overcome obstacles and achieved academic success.

Much of the success achieved by Angela and Janeice certainly hinged on the high expectations and strong support of their parents and teachers. However, it is important to note that although both students had their IEPs—through which they received accommodations and assistance to meet their IEP goals—neither has ever been in a self-contained special education classroom nor has been pulled for special education services outside of the general education setting. Angela’s and Janeice’s mothers considered this as a significant factor in their academic success.

Research shows that when students with learning disabilities improve their reading skills, they are more likely to advance with their grade levels, be included in general education classrooms, and complete high school. Educators should use IEPs not only to manage the alignment with the state content standards at each grade level but also to effectively improve the skills level of students with special needs. Essentially, improving the literacy and numeracy level of students with disabilities can reduce school dropout rates and prevent juvenile delinquency.

“Too many of the 6.5 million children and youth with disabilities in this country leave high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in the 21st century global economy” (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). School leaders must strive to effectively link the 21st century skills to special education to close or at least substantially reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.

Jinghong Cai ( is a research analyst with NSBA’s Center for Public Education.

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