On June 11, 2021, Kendra Yoch and Amy Dickerson hosted the sixth session of Franczek’s Educational Equity Webinar Series. This session focused on issues of disproportionality in special education and methods of increasing equity and inclusion for students with disabilities. Our guests were Dr. Cheryl Caesar, Assistant Director of Diverse Learners at Waukegan Community Unit School District; Jeremy Duffy, Senior Legal Compliance Officer at Waukegan Community Unit School District; and Dr. Jennifer Sterpin, Director of Special Education at Lake Forest High School District 115.


To start the conversation, Jeremy and Jenny outlined the relevant ISBE indicators: Indicator 4a related to suspension and expulsion rates of students with IEPs relative to non-disabled peers, Indicator 4b related to suspension and expulsion rates of students with disabilities disaggregated by race and ethnicity, Indicator 9 related to disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in special education as a result of inappropriate identification, and Indicator 10 related to the same inquiry but broken down by specific disability categories. Additionally, ISBE recently made a Significant Disproportionality Report available to districts in I-Star so that districts can track their own data related to disproportionality with respect to the identification, discipline, and placement of students with disabilities. Having this data available will enable administrators to be what Cheryl called “kid watchers and data watchers” to monitor trends, identify disparities, and take proactive steps to address any developing concerns.

Jenny generously shared research from her dissertation, including a review of the literature on disproportionality as well as her findings from interviews with school administrators on their perspectives. She discussed the multiple factors that can contribute to disproportionality, including poverty, inadequate educator preparation, lack of Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions to address skill deficits, implicit bias, and excessive proceduralism. She also addressed several beliefs that can be contributing factors, including the perspective that special education is a magic bullet to support struggling students, the lack of culturally responsive approaches, and implicit or unconscious bias. Finally, Jenny reviewed some of the actions that address disproportionality, including evidence-based MTSS practices, culturally responsive curriculum, universal design for learning, strong leadership and commitment to provide needed resources and professional development, and engagement of multiple stakeholders, including families. She also referenced this resource for additional guidance: Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline.

Cheryl and Jenny discussed some of the approaches and initiatives in their districts related to avoiding disproportionality in the identification of students for special education:

  • Culturally responsive practices
  • Standards-based grading
  • High expectations for students
  • Focus on relationships with students
  • Robust Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions and supports
  • Partnering with community organizations
  • Increased number of counselors and social workers
  • Use of behavior specialists and instructional coaches
  • Parent education
  • Training IEP teams
  • Training for differentiated instruction and effective co-teaching
  • Building collective teacher efficacy
  • Interventions and supports related to attendance following the pandemic

With respect to avoiding disproportionality in restrictive placements, our guests discussed the importance of inclusion and the least restrictive environment for all students. They focused on services and supports rather than places and highlighted the need for problem solving prior to moving to more restrictive placements. Jeremy and Jenny both spoke about professional development to equip teachers to differentiate and implement supports for students with diverse needs within the general education environment. Cheryl and Jenny also discussed the need to educate both parents and educators that a smaller setting is not always better and to consider the benefits of inclusion related to independence, peer interactions, and rigorous instruction.

On the topic of discipline, both districts are moving toward the use of restorative justice practices and away from exclusionary discipline. Both are relying more heavily on behavior interventionists, social workers, psychologists, and MTSS to avoid punitive responses to behavior infractions. They are looking for ways to teach appropriate behaviors and help students learn from mistakes as part of the educational experience. Jeremy noted that he had hoped the implementation of SB100 would push schools away from suspensions and we would see a corresponding decrease in the disproportionate use of that consequence for students of color, but that the data indicate a need for continuing efforts in this area.

Our guests concluded by discussing how special education fits into the broader equity work being done in their districts. They identified the use of an equity audit to identify disparities as well as the need to engage in an ongoing process to improve both equity and inclusion and ensure that each students gets what they need to thrive.

We are so grateful to our guests for sharing their insights on this critical topic. We hope you will join us July 8, 2021 for our next Education Equity Webinar, focused on student discipline.