An in-depth look at discipline of special education students in public schools.
I never realized how special education students are treated when it comes to discipline compared to their non-special-education peers until I encountered the issue first-hand at my son’s middle school. My son is a 13 year old autistic student with an Individualized Education Plan with behavioral interventions in place. While my son may be 13 years old physically and chronologically, his mental and emotional age hovers between 6 and 8 years old. He was also diagnosed with ADHD and an unspecified mood disorder. His teacher had asked the class to write down three goals the students had for the school year. My son wrote down his goals as threats and watching movies. Immediately, the school, without regard to my son’s individual situation (i.e. life experiences, mental and emotional age, previous behavior patterns, mental health diagnoses, etc.,) they immediately notified law enforcement and the decision was made to criminally charge my son with a felony. A judge ordered my son be taken into custody and taken to the youth detention center, 20 miles from our home. The next day we went to court and he was released into my custody on probation, but he remained suspended from school for another three days until we could meet with the school for a manifestation hearing to determine whether my son’s “misconduct” could be attributed to his disability or not. Even after it was determined that the behavior was indeed a manifestation of my son’s disability, he still faced criminal and disciplinary action by the school. Since that, my son has had many issues with returning to school and it has not just affected his life at school, but also his life outside of school.
Throughout this process, I learned that special needs students with emotional and behavioral disorders are 3 times more likely to be arrested before leaving school than other students. Up to 85% of juveniles in detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, but only 37% had actually been receiving any type of services in school. This made me question whether special education students are truly getting the services they need and what could be done so they get the most out of their education.
How do we fix this broken situation? First, we must understand the problem and the extent of the problem. We can do this by going through the statistics and talking with people who are directly involved in all aspects of the area – teachers, parents, students, law enforcement, and community service providers.
One of the issues we must look at are the laws that govern the education of special-needs students. The law I want to focus on for this paper is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA). This law was originally put in place under the title the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Revisions were made throughout the years, and in 1990, the name of the law was changed to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The most recent revision that still stands was done in 2004, and now the law is referred to as IDEA 2004, for short. IDEA 2004 contains six main principles to govern the framework around which special education services are designed and provided. Those principles are:
• Free Appropriate Public Education – this guarantees that each child with a disability and is eligible for special education will be entitled to a free education, appropriate to the needs of that specific child, and offered by the public school system. This principle is often referred to as FAPE.
• Appropriate Evaluation – this requires that each child who is thought to have a disability receive an appropriate evaluation with more than one type of evaluation being used. Such tools such as classroom observation, formal assessments done by a team who has been trained in the administration and interpretation of such assessments, reports from teachers, and parents. No single test can be used to assess a child’s need for special education. These cumulatively are used to determine eligibility for special education and related services and how to meet the educational needs of the child.
• Individualized Education Program – this is the centerpiece to a special education student’s right to FAPE. This principle in the law requires that once an evaluation is done, the multidisciplinary team draws upon the information gathered to create and implement an education plan specific to the child’s individual needs and education level. This is often referred to as an IEP.
• Least Restrictive Environment – the law guarantees that a special education student be receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible, and whenever possible, to include the student in general education classes as much as possible. The team must explore the range of modifications and supplementary aids and services that are needed by the student to ensure the student can be appropriately educated in the general education classroom using modifications and supplementary aids and services. This is often referred to as LRE.
• Parent and Student Participation in Decision-Making – this guarantees the student and the student’s parents are allowed to be a part of the decision-making process to ensure that the student is receiving free appropriate public education. This guarantees rights to receive notices regarding services, the right to participate in all such meetings, the right to give consent for certain activities such as evaluations, changes in placement and release of information to others. This also guarantees the student and the student’s parents the right to be equal in the decision-making process.
• Procedural Safeguards – These are a set of activities whose purpose is to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected, all information necessary to make decisions about the provision of a free appropriate public education to the student is provided to parents and the student, procedures such as mediation and due process are in place to resolve any differences between the parties.
One of the issues I have noticed throughout my research and in dealing with this issue personally with my son is that the highly-regarded “zero-tolerance” policies do not adequately address how to discipline a student under IDEA 2004. There are some guidelines regarding out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and alternative educational placements. Other than that, the law appears vague and leaves room for individual school districts to use their own discretion on what constitutes a zero-tolerance violation and to institute the same punishment (to an extent) with special education students that they would use on students in the general classroom. The problem with these “zero-tolerance” policies is that the whole idea is that it doesn’t matter the circumstances surrounding the infraction or the student’s disability – just that the infraction occurred.
While violence, disorder and drugs in schools are very serious issues that must be addressed, these policies present particular problems for special education. Those who educate those in special education recognize the need for schoolwide discipline that brings uniformity to consequences for certain acts. However, many educators argue for exceptions based on the relevance of the student’s disability to the event in question.
Mary is a mother of two boys who are both on the autism spectrum. One need that she said would help special education students with behavioral and emotional issues would be to update a behavioral intervention plan every school year to ensure that the student’s current behavioral needs are being addressed and lets school staff and parents know what issues are urgent versus what issues may be able to wait and see if they work themselves out.