The state created its Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth programs in 1997 for students who were violent, brought weapons to school, were habitually truant, or engaged in misconduct that would merit suspension or expulsion.
In the 2011-12 academic year, 705 state-approved programs involved 14,470 students.
After receiving complaints from parents and students about districts' placement practices, and reports that many programs were providing a "subpar" education, the center obtained and analyzed four years of data.
Although 16 percent of the students in Pennsylvania receive special-education services, the law center found they accounted for 44 percent of those in alternative schools. In 82 districts, more than half of those in alternative programs in 2010-11 were special-education students.
For example, the law center found that all 19 students whom the Spring-Ford Area School District sent to alternative programs in 2010-11 were special-education students. In the Methacton district that year, 23 of the 26 received special-education services.
While 15 percent of the state's students are African American, that group made up 35 percent of those sent to alternative schools in 2010-11.
In the Norristown Area district, where 45 percent of students were African American in 2010-11, African Americans accounted for nearly 80 percent of those in alternative placements.
Lapp said the data suggested that the Pennsylvania Department of Education was failing to protect many students' civil rights.
"At the same time, PDE must ensure that these schools are not being used as dumping grounds," he said, "and that students who are appropriately placed in these schools are receiving the proper educational services to which they're entitled."
In addition to the investigation, the Education Law Center also is asking the Justice Department to direct the state to improve its alternative-education program, including developing a system to examine student placement and creating procedures to prevent discrimination.
Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or email@example.com.