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Bucking the Trend
Creating supports to help
African American special education students
stay in high school:
Charles County Public School’s “Hiatus” Project

by Frank Conahan, Douglas Lamb, and Teresa Robinson
Charles County Public Schools
La Plata, Maryland

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Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) is dedicated to the elimination of structural impediments to success for our African American students. Two years ago, CCPS was honored by the NAACP for intervention that lead to dramatic improvement in SAT scores among African American male students. Charles County, in Southern Maryland, serves a large African American population, -- 40% of students. Over the last three years, over-representation of African American students in special education placements has been reduced overall from 33% to 10%; the percentage of African American students in special education falling from 16% to 10% of their total enrollment. Unfortunately, this progress does not erase the disparity in treatment that we still notice between Euro and African American students, especially in the area of discipline among students with disabilities. We have, for this reason, put in place supportive intervention that has helped to reduce out-of-school suspensions among African American students with disabilities.

In 2001, we instituted the Hiatus program at our largest high school as a way to address disciplinary issues among special education students who were being suspended to the superintendent and ending up either at our off-sight detention school or assigned home teaching for prolonged periods. (We called it Hiatus because we intended to have the student return to his normal schedule as soon as possible after a break, rather than be removed for an extended period of time making eventual return quite uncertain.) Although not offered exclusively to African American students, the students who have benefited from this program have been overwhelmingly African American and it’s availability helped several to stay in school.

The Hiatus program teaches students alternative behaviors to the ones that are resulting in referrals so as to make them successful students and young adults in their school and home community. Hiatus is a twelve-week program that focuses on rewarding behavior that is consistent with success in an academic setting. Students are expected to do the work they would be doing in the regular classroom. Students are also expected to follow established rules and procedures to which they are exposed in the program. The rules and procedures are consistent with those in the regular education setting, but are more stringent and restrictive. The philosophy behind the program is that students who are given the opportunity to learn appropriate school and classroom behavior in a structured setting through repeated opportunities to practice those behaviors and who receive positive reinforcement for those behaviors, have an increased chance for success upon their return to the regular classroom.


The Harvard Civil Rights Project Website features an alert that warns that, “Minority Children With Disabilities Will Be Harmed If IDEA's Discipline Safeguards Are Reduced or Eliminated.” The lead article, however, tends to imply that they are in a pretty serious state even without that eventuality coming to pass. It states, “among children with disabilities, Latino, Native American, and African American children are substantially more likely than whites to be suspended, removed by school personnel, or removed by a hearing officer. For example, according to national OSEP data from the 1999-2000 academic year, African American students with disabilities are more than three times as likely as whites to be given short-term suspensions. Racial disparities are nearly as great for long-term suspensions with both American Indians (2.72 times) and African Americans (2.6 times) more likely to be removed for more than ten days. Moreover, African American, Latino, and American Indian children with disabilities are each 67% more likely than Whites to be removed on grounds of dangerousness by a hearing officer.” (Civil Rights Alert, June, 2003.)

Reflection on other relevant material tends to reinforce the urgency of the Harvard Project’s concern. According to the US Department of Education’s report the Condition of Education (1997,) fully one quarter of “students of color” have been suspended at some point during any four-year period. Skiba (2003, in The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment) notes that not only are African American children much more likely than Euro American children to be harshly disciplined, but they apparently have a lower threshold for punishments. He points out that African American students are also much more likely to be disciplined for nebulous and subjective infractions such as “disrespect.”

The Harvard Project authors warn that, “Research indicates that students who are suspended or expelled are at greater risk of dropping out, regardless of disability status. Minority students with disabilities already have higher dropout rates than non-minority students. Disruptions in academic programs and relationships with caring adults are often more problematic for students with disabilities than for their non-disabled peers.” (Ibid) Minority students are clearly at very high risk in our schools, which are frequently failing them.

In their 2003 report, (Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policy) Advancement Project authors ( in collaboration with the Harvard Civil Rights Project) punctuate the bleak description of this crisis with reports of several schools that are, as they put it, “bucking the trend.” These are schools that have put much needed supports in place to help their minority students with disabilities remain in school and succeed. All of these programs tend to center around a highly supportive programmatic structure and one or more central adult figures that act to mentor and guide these students. In each case, discipline is seen not at a reason to remove the child from school, but as an indicator that a higher level of support is required.

Designing the intervention

If we reflect on the situation of Black students, we can see some of the components we will need to build into any successful intervention for these students. If we want to be successful, we must keep in mind several things: Different students tend to respond to different teaching strategies (Troxler, 2000; Magmer 2000; Tomlinson, 2000; McAdamis, 2001). We must equip the teachers to create a learning environment that conduces to achievement and retention among male, and especially African American male, students before, during, and after they present with behavior problems. This emphasis on task and skill acquisition rather than on competitive standing in consistent with Hale’s (2001) advice to “throw out the bell curve.”

We must raise the consciousness of the administration, and help them to understand and embrace creative alternatives to those approaches that lead to time away from school and eventually drop out among this group. We must raise everyone’s awareness in our schools to the possible presence of racially biased ways of perceiving our students and their behavior so that we can all be on guard against it in our colleagues and ourselves.

We must fight the impact of low expectations and negative perceptions of the group among the young people themselves. This last piece is salient. It is not blaming the victim to point out that, under the influence of negative perceptions of this group among their teachers, these young men often perform well below their potential. In this way, they reinforce their own low expectations as well as the low expectations of their teachers and administrators. We must get them to cooperate with us in our project if we are going to achieve our goals. We must help them to understand that it is possible for them to succeed at school that success here is meaningful, and that success here will be recognized and rewarded. We must provide them with access to adults who will mentor them and help them to identify with the school and with their role in it.

If we have a group that tends to share the low opinion of its skills with some of its teachers, then we must work to create situations in which the probability for success is optimized to work against this perception. This will require a high level of structure and positive feedback to be built into our program. We will want to use a lot of shaping, direct instruction, and frequent reinforcement.

If our group is estranged from the school system, we must work to build trust. This means building explicit and public contingencies into our program design and making sure that reinforcement is contractual and consistent and delivered according to contract, with as little arbitrary exercise of adult authority as possible. We must spell out how the reinforcement is to be earned and deliver it accordingly so the young person can count on himself rather than on the good opinion of the teacher.

Since the young people will be admitted as a result of infractions of discipline, which are likely to be related to certain deficits in their repertoire, we will need a teaching component that addresses conflict resolution and dealing with other students, authority figures, etc. This will be rather directive in nature; to simply describe the behavior of these students as in some way “cultural” does not change the fact that it gets them in trouble. This means the program should have a lot of group work to address these issues and help the students build up fraternal support for efforts at change and successful navigation of the school situation.

Finally, these students, like all students, need strong supportive relationships with adults. This will tend to reinforce the development of trust for which consistent reinforcement program application lays the foundation. For this reason, the adults who run this program will have to take on a mentoring and case-management role. The teachers may become involved with students proactively so that they will not get into serious trouble from which they will need a special program to rescue them.

All these structures will tend to enhance self-esteem. The manifest determination of the program staff to keep students at the school should also send a positive signal to the students. The implication of this model is that one needs to build a program that focuses on reinforcement, social skills building, self-efficacy and identification both with success and with adult role models, reintegration with continued monitoring and support. Not surprisingly, these are the components of the programs that have been successful in bucking the trend (see above.)

The Hiatus Program

The skills that we need to help our students develop are neither strictly speaking functional nor academic, and special education either typically would not address or would not be able to address with sufficient rigor in an inclusion setting. The skills that are associated with the program goals we mention above include self-monitoring, negotiating social interactions, and anger management. Additionally, Hiatus’ format was designed to intensify and re-emphasize training in following rules and working to a schedule.

The Hiatus program uses a dual schedule reinforcement system to address behavior management concerns. A Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior (DRO) schedule addresses behaviors of concern. Students are reinforced on an every ten minute interval for following classroom rules. In addition, students receive reinforcement for tasks completed. Data is kept on the student’s performance on an every ten minute interval for the behavior schedule and per task for the work schedule. A student’s performance is assessed by his percentage scores on these two schedules. Individualized behavior plans designate specific additional strategies used in conjunction with the overall classroom management system.

The first week in the program student is assessed to determine the behaviors of concern to be addressed. Since the behaviors of concern presented in the Hiatus classroom may be different from those exhibited in the regular education setting, the staff will take data from both settings into account in developing an appropriate intervention. Data collected during this period will be used in developing an individual behavior management plan. The staff also assesses the student’s academic needs to determine appropriate modifications to work and effective instructional strategies to use with the student.

A student in the Hiatus program does not participate in the regular schedule of classes until he has achieved pre-set goals in the Hiatus classroom. The student must meet the specified goals for each week of the initial four week period in order to begin to earn his way back into the regular education setting. The student must meet with the regular teachers and negotiate the terms or conditions under which he can participate in an abridged version of the regular schedule. Once the student has participated in and been successful in the abridged schedule, he may again negotiate with teachers for expanded participation in the regular schedule until he has successfully earned his way back in to the regular schedule full time.

Each student in the Hiatus program is closely supervised. Students are not permitted to leave the room without supervision until they have earned this opportunity. A student earns the right to travel through the school without supervision by demonstrating the ability to follow classroom rules and complete assigned work for a certain percentage of intervals and tasks throughout the day over a number of weeks. For each student, this is specified in an individualized behavior plan.

Students earn their way back into regular classes by meeting behavioral and work goals established in the behavior plan. In the first week, a student could earn a sufficient number of points to be permitted unsupervised time in the school. By the second week, he could earn the opportunity to participate in a regular class such as physical education. A student’s opportunity to return to and participate in the regular education milieu is dictated by the student’s success in the Hiatus classroom. By the fourth week, a student is able to meet with his regular teachers and begin the discussion about behavioral and academic expectations for the regular classroom.

The Hiatus program also provides training for the regular classroom teacher. Teachers are expected to observe in the Hiatus classroom to learn how to implement the behavior plan as well as other strategies for successful instruction of the student who will eventually return to their classroom. Teachers in the regular classroom setting are critical in ensuring the successful re-entry of the student into the regular schedule. Through the Hiatus program, the regular education teacher is taught to work with the student to assist him in setting specific attainable goals for behavior and academics as the student slowly re-enters the regular education setting. The student has an opportunity to be successful and the teacher has the opportunity to gain experience working with him as preparation for his eventual return full time to the regular education setting.

The Hiatus program also provides social skills training and training in study skills. Students in Hiatus typically have a difficult time negotiating social situations as well as solving problems that arise in the school setting. Many times, students are repeatedly engaging in a problem behavior because of a limited behavioral repertoire. That is, the problem behavior continues to be a problem because they do not have any other strategy for addressing problematic situations. Training in problem solving provides the opportunity for students to practice using problem solving strategies, negotiation and de-escalation strategies in a “safe” environment. Teachers provide typical scenarios that are problematic then lead students in discussion of possible strategies for resolving the issue presented. Following this, teachers and students role play the situation thus providing practice in using the technique. Finally, students use the techniques with each other in practice situations.

Social skills training supplements the problem solving training. The students who typically end up in Hiatus demonstrate marked deficiencies in social skills. Through social skills training, students can learn appropriate social overtures to persons they are attracted to or to person in authority. Other skills that are taught are ways to ask for help without losing face, to refuse a request from an adult without being insubordinate as well as the myriad number of other social behaviors that contribute to the success of a student. Social skills training in the Hiatus environment provides the students with rudimentary skills needed to be successful when he returns to the regular education setting.

Drug education is also provided to the student in Hiatus. A representative from the County Health Department presents a drug education class for all students in the program. In addition, students may receive individual drug/alcohol counseling confidentially through the Health Department. The confidentiality issue seems to be critical in a student’s decision to access this counseling. That is, the student may be more likely to access services from an outside and more “neutral” source if they are not concerned that teachers and administrators know of their involvement in that service.

Teachers and assistants in the Hiatus classroom are trained in the use of time out booths and physical restraints. Specific guidelines are established that specify the conditions under which these interventions are to be used.

Students who fail to meet the goals in Hiatus after four weeks are referred back to the team for further discussion and development of an alternative treatment strategy, although they are not necessarily dismissed from Hiatus, which served as a long-term placement for several students in the last two years of operation.

How Hiatus worked in Charles County Schools

Charles County is a middle sized but rapidly growing community outside of Washington D.C. The population of the county has increased dramatically over the past several years, and this increase in population is reflected in our school enrollments, which rose from a total head count in September 1999 of 22,720 students, to 24,660 in September 2002.

Along with the overall increase in enrollment, we have had a complementary increase in the percentage of students we serve in the county schools that can be referred to as African American (from 32% in 1999, to 40% in 2003.) This increase has not been dramatic nor has it been localized to a particular part of the county. Charles County has always had a substantial African American minority population, which in some parts of the county traces its origin to colonial times. Charles County is also home to several military bases and has become an attractive suburban residential option for U.S. government workers. Charles County is bordered on the north by Prince George’s County, which is the nations most affluent large African American majority community, with which there is a fair exchange of population.

During this period of growth, Charles County Public Schools has been sited for over-representation of African American student in special education placements. Since school year 2000, we have aggressively worked to improve this situation and have come very close to parity of representation among racial groups. We have achieved this in the elementary schools and continue to work to eliminate differences in population representation at the secondary level.

Table 1: Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Charles County Schools’ Special Education Enrollment by Percentage as of February 4, 2003
Date > 2/2000 2/2001 2/2002 2/2003 9/2003
Elementary 8% 3% 5% 0 0
Middle 39% 30% 23% 17% 16%
High 49% 30% 40% 30% 24%
Total 33% 21% 23% 12% >10%

The growth of the population and school enrollments was reflected in an increase in major incidents of maladaptive behavior among special education students. This is reflected in the jump in suspensions of special education students to the superintendent, which generally resulted in some out of school disciplinary consequence between 1998 and 2001. More problematic than the mere increase in suspensions was the fact that African American students consistently accounted for over 60% of referrals. African American males alone constituted more than half of suspension to the superintendent.

Disciplinary actions that remove the students from the school have been much reduced as a result of this program. Most of the school’s special education students have been successfully maintained at the school, even after having been, in some cases suspended to the superintendent. Although this program was not made available exclusively to African American students, they have made up the majority of participants and it has been they who have chiefly benefited from it.

Changes Among Students Suspended to the Superintendent

In the year prior to our intervention, fourteen special education students at our high school were suspended to the superintendent for serious offenses, of whom 10, or over 70% were African American. During the first year of our intervention, during which time the school census had increased by 100 students, 13 special education students were suspended to the superintendent, of whom seven were African American, or slightly over half. During the second year of the program, during which the school’s population increased by an additional 150 students, ten special education students were suspended to the superintendent, half of whom were African American.

Table 2: Special Education Students’ Suspensions to the Superintendent at our High School 8/1999 to 6/2003
Year Suspensions Census %AfroAm Students %AfroAm (Split) Students @ School Suspended
99/00 5 1573 33% 80% (4AA/1E)
00/01 14 1648 33% 72% (10AA/4E)
01/02 13 1749 33% 54% (7AA/6E)
02/03 10 1905 34% 50% (5AA/5E)

Since the number of students suspended to the superintendent for serious offenses is relatively small, it is impossible to say that we have observed more than a general positive tendency in this area since the introduction of the program. With that caveat, one can note that the number of suspensions among African American students was reduced between 2000 and 2003, and the representation of African American students among special education students suspended was reduced from nearly all to exactly half. Since only a third of the student body is African American, African American students are still over-represented in the 2002/2003 count by about 50%. Nonetheless, this distribution compares favorably to the distributions between 1999 and 2001.

Some of this improvement may simply be a reflection of the overall improvement in the county’s approach to it’s African American special education population. During this period, the over-representation of African American students improved both in special education placement in general (as we have noted) and among special education students suspended to the superintendent.

Table 3: CCPS Special Education Students’ Suspensions to the Superintendent by Number
1998 to 2003
98/99 40 26 11 5 83
99/00 45 25 10 4 84
00/01 53 33 13 5 104
01/02 53 36 13 3 108
02/03 40 30 6 5 81

Table 4: Suspension of Special Education Students to the Superintendent by RaceAcross the County 1998 to 2003
% of African American Students 2/1999 2/2000 2/2001 2/2002 2/2003
Charles County Schools 32% 33% 35% 35% 39.5%
Special Education 44% 44% 43% 42% 44%
Special Education Students Suspended to Superintendent 61% 65% 62% 61% 56%

In September of 2002, a second high school in the county, instituted a Hiatus program directly modeled on the one opened in our first high school with assistance from the experienced Hiatus teachers. The year prior to intervention, 13 special education students, of whom 8 were African American, were suspended to the superintendent from a school of 1249 students. In 2002, with Hiatus available, 8 special education students, of whom 3 were African American, were suspended to the superintendent from a school of 1,408 students. In the year 2001/2002, 43% of the enrollment of this school was African American; during this last year, 46% of the school’s enrollment was African American. These results tend to support the notion that our project played an important role in these reductions.

In any case, having Hiatus available definitely helped us retain more of these students who were suspended to the superintendent at the school for longer periods rather than at alternative offsite placements. At our first school, of the 14 students suspended to the superintendent in 2001/2002, four never left the campus, but were simply directed to Hiatus at the time of their suspension hearing instead of to an out of school placement or home teaching. All four of these students were African American and each returned to his regular inclusion schedule prior to year’s end. Another student, also African American, was reintegrated into the school after suspensions for fighting. This young man had numerous problems and stayed associated with Hiatus for much of the next two years, he was not suspended to the superintendent a second time, however, and remained in school. One other student was able to remain in school from October until April by remaining affiliated with Hiatus. Re-integration into an inclusion schedule was impossible and the student withdrew and finished his year (he passed) off site. This last student was also African American.

During the second year, fewer students were offered Hiatus as a result of suspension to the superintendent, largely because the administration had increased confidence in the program and was willing to forgo suspension to the superintendent in most cases if the student was willing to enter the program. Of the 10 students who were suspended during the course of the year, 5 had nothing to do with Hiatus. Of these, 2 were removed from school at their hearings because they were not considered appropriate for placement onsite. One refused to enter Hiatus, preferring home teaching. One student accepted an early release from school in May of the year. The last was referred for additional mental health evaluation. Of these students, 4 were Euro-American. Of the students who were served through Hiatus, 3 were reintegrated into the school through Hiatus from alternative out of school placements. Two other students related to the teachers at the Hiatus program without actually joining the program and taking classes with the Hiatus staff. Of these last 2, 1 was able to stay in school without removal and successfully made the case at his hearing that his offense did not merit removal from school. The other student left school after a tumultuous period. The last student was a Euro American female, all the other students were African American males.

At the second high school, of the 8 students suspended to the superintendent, 3 were allowed to remain in the school if they participated in the Hiatus program, all three did and went on to graduate with their grade. Two of the students who did not enter Hiatus were evaluated for psychiatric placement. The remainder opted for the alternative school.

Students from our first school who were not suspended to the Superintendent could also be, and were served by the Hiatus staff. In fact, the program was designed to be used to avoid the most extreme disciplinary measures on the part of the administration. Many of the most successful cases served through Hiatus were never suspended, since their behavior responded to the intervention. Of the students served during the past year at Hiatus at this school, 18 had been suspended prior to placement, which means that 24 avoided suspension through affiliation with the program. At our second school, of the 11 special education students served through the program, 8 avoided suspension to the superintendent.


As of the end of this year, the representation of African American students among those suspended to the superintendent was 40% higher than one would anticipate given their representation in the student body. Although this compares favorably with the 90% over-representation among suspensions in 1999 and the 80% in 2000, it is still too high. Male African American students have consistently accounted for about half of all students suspended to the superintendent, despite the fact that at most they have only ever made up 20% of the student body.

Some of this over-representation is a direct result of the failure of the system to create user-friendly classrooms for these students over the several years of their schooling; some of it is a direct result of these young men choosing to do things that cannot be tolerated under any circumstances and in consideration of which racial considerations are irrelevant. We invented Hiatus chiefly for those students in the former category because retention of these students is important, even if the classrooms in which they find themselves are not ideally suited to them. With support and continued effort on the part of the system to improve these classrooms, these students can still benefit from continued education. They can get no benefit from these classrooms if they are not in them.

Hiatus has been overwhelmingly a program that has served African American male students, although it does not limit enrollments in any way. Of the 31 special education students served in our first school’s Hiatus program over the last 2 years, 24 have been African Americans. At the second school, of the 11 special education students served in its first year, 10 were African American. They have not all succeeded, but a majority of those admitted have and the expectation upon entering Hiatus is that the student will. There are several reasons for this that do not have to do with race, per se, but do speak to the kinds of issues we raised in the introduction. Hiatus provides students with a high level of structure and supportive relationships to adults.

One of the reasons that these young men did better in our program was quite simply because of the high level of support academically. At various times, there were as many as two certified teachers, often both special educators, and an instructional assistant, teaching a group of only eight or nine students.

Many of these students simply had fallen so far behind that they could not keep up in less supportive environments; this led to behavior problems. After a certain amount of remedial work, some of the students were in a much better place academically and could go back to competitive classes and succeed. Others could not keep up in competitive classes, but could negotiate some kind of academic participation as long as he had this level of support available to him.

Another reason that this program worked for these students was that it often got them out of situations that had just gotten too much for them interpersonally. Several of these students had antagonized teachers and peers to such an extent that success in their classes became almost impossible for them. After a certain period away from these situations, a hiatus, tempers cooled, and these students could return to class having essentially forgotten about the various tensions that had existed hitherto.

A definite factor in the success that these students had was the high level of investment in their success on the part of the teachers and school administrators across the board. At our high school especially, the level of support from the principal and vice principals, the chair and facilitator for the special education department, the various sports organizations, and a large cross section of regular and special educators remained very high throughout. Not only did all these educators get behind the program and offer resources, including things like special shoes for a student who had a chance at a spot on one of the sports teams, but they offered extra time and help with assignments, and various other intangibles that went a long way toward making the students succeed. In fact, the status of most students among teachers and peers tended to increase when they entered the program.

Special mention of the support of the administration needs to be made and considered. This program is expensive in terms of staffing, space, and disruption to the normal school routine. At both of the high schools, but especially at the first, the administration made sure that the teacher in charge of Hiatus had everything he needed when it came to resources, time, good facilities, and support with the regular education teachers, guidance counselors, and others in the school system with whom he had to work. Negotiating work, grades, reintegration into classes, coverage, and various other difficult arrangements could have been quite an issue, but support from the administration made sure that these matters went as smoothly as possible.

Ultimately, the reason that these young people were successful was that the students’ success was the obvious structural goal of the program. The reinforcement systems and the way that adults interacted with the students were explicitly aimed at their success rather than catching them in failure or in breach of the rules, which is often the way that these students had perceived interaction with teachers and other authority figures in other settings.

The chief factor that worked against success in this program was heavy drug use. This is not something that especially affects students with disabilities nor minority students, but it was a problem for some of the students who were not successful in the Hiatus program. Of the students that simply did not make it in Hiatus regardless of the type of support they received, the majority had serious drug problems.

We hope that we in Charles County have gotten to the end of the beginning of our effort to attack the inequity of our treatment of African American (especially male) students in our system. In school year 2000, African American students were over-represented in special education by 40%, among students diagnosed with mental retardation by 60%, and among special education students suspended to the superintendent by 90%. By school year 2003, African American students currently tend to be found in special education at a rate which is about 10% higher than other students, 40% higher (than other students) among students diagnosed with mental retardation, and 40% higher (than other students) among special education students suspended to the superintendent. Our numbers indicate a very unfortunate situation in the latter two categories if these numbers are looked at in isolation. They are only redeemed by consideration of the distance we have come and our commitment to further progress.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine October 12, 2003

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