Discipline of Students with Disabilities: A Position Statement

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May 1998

In recent weeks and months, some lobbyists and some in Congress have indicated a desire to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to give schools greater flexibility to discipline all children, regardless of whether they have a disability, with the goals of ensuring safety and an "appropriate educational atmosphere" in the schools. Likewise, on April 22, Senator Jeffords and Representative Goodling held a joint hearing on the regulations interpreting the recent reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), at which the discipline issues were featured prominently. The National Council on Disability (NCD) is concerned about the way this issue is being characterized and the potential harm to children with disabilities that may come from Congressional efforts to revisit this issue.

Prior to 1975, few children with a variety of physical and mental disabilities were given an opportunity to participate in public education in many districts in the United States because of fears on the part of school officials that these students were "uneducable" or "untrainable." Students were literally turned away at the schoolhouse door. In 1975, after two federal courts had recognized the fundamental right to an education for children with disabilities, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which later became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The basic point of this civil rights law for children with disabilities and their families is simple: all children have a right to a free and appropriate public education. A critical component of IDEA provides due process protections for children with disabilities and their families, so that schools cannot unilaterally decide to remove children from classrooms. This protection was necessary given the history of schools excluding children who were found to be "difficult" or expensive to educate.

In 1997, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress reauthorized IDEA, giving schools new flexibility to discipline students with disabilities who brought weapons or illegal drugs to school or were found to be substantially likely to injure themselves or others. Even before these new provisions were added to the law, schools had the ability to remove students with disabilities from the classroom for up to ten days and expel children when expulsion was warranted after a due process hearing. While NCD recognized at the time of the reauthorization that the additional flexibility on discipline was likely necessary to address the concerns of school officials, NCD was concerned that the discipline issue received undue attention from the Congress, given the documented scope of the problem and the development of ways to improve student behavior short of discipline.

As President Clinton recognized when he signed IDEA '97 into law, "young people with disabilities drop out of high school at twice the rate their peers drop out of high school, and into less certain futures." NCD believes that instead of making it easier for schools to wash their hands of students with disabilities by giving schools new tools to facilitate their discriminatory exclusion, policy makers must look for ways to address the needs of all students with and without disabilities so that they stay in school and succeed.

The same prejudices that resulted in the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities from the education system prior to the 1970s are driving some vocal school officials to push for greater "flexibility" to discipline students who they feel detract from an "appropriate" educational atmosphere. Unfortunately, these officials are being heard by some members of Congress, leading to a renewed effort to water down the federal civil rights protections contained in IDEA in the name of discipline. Historically, the need for "discipline" and "order" has been a pretext for the full-scale exclusion from education of hundreds of thousands of children. Congress acted in 1975 because it recognized that children with disabilities were at greater risk of being subject to disciplinary actions precisely because they have disabilities.

This past January, NCD held a hearing in Louisiana focusing on the needs of children and youth with disabilities from minority and rural communities in that state. At that hearing, Council members were told that 60 percent of youth with serious emotional disturbances drop out of school between grades 9 and 12. One child advocate talked about the backlash against violence in the schools as having a disproportionate impact on students who have disabilities with behavioral manifestations. Likewise, studies have shown that discipline disproportionately is applied to students with disabilities who are members of minority groups.

Another Louisiana advocate talked about the problem of schools removing students with and without disabilities for extended periods of time: "Particularly in large urban districts, many such students are ignored and are never referred for services they need in order to learn. Not surprisingly, this contributes to behavior problems, which are then solved by expelling the students, or encouraging them to drop out, thus depriving them of education opportunities that will prepare them for life."

In April of 1996, NCD held a national summit on disability policy in Dallas, Texas, where a diverse group of over 300 disability leaders from around the country participated. The summit produced recommendations for policy in eleven areas, including education, which were published in Achieving Independence: The Challenge for the 21st Century. The education working group at the summit expressed a high level of frustration from parents and students across the country who face continued barriers to full participation in education and effective instruction. Lack of accountability for schools, poor enforcement of federal laws, and systemic barriers have robbed too many students of their educational rights and opportunities. Two of the recommendations made by NCD following the summit were for the Congress and the Administration to ensure that current due process protections for students under IDEA not be weakened and be fully enforced; and that schools be held accountable for the appropriate education of all students. NCD continues to stand behind these recommendations.

Many children with and without disabilities who pose serious behavior problems end up in the juvenile justice system, where the problems are often exacerbated. NCD is concerned that some school officials are once again using their influence to rid themselves of the "problem" kids, thereby turning the clock back for children with disabilities by facilitating their discriminatory exclusion. If those children happen to be from otherwise disenfranchised groups within the district, such as low-income racial or ethnic minority groups, the odds of them being subject to discipline and discriminatory exclusion will only increase.

It is time that leaders in Congress and the education community recognize that our nation cannot afford to write off the "problem" students with the excuse of restoring "order" in the classroom. With the design and implementation of appropriate individualized education programs which include the necessary special education and related services that may include behavioral intervention strategies, the vast majority of children with disabilities have few, if any, discipline problems. Often, it is an inappropriate placement or ineffective method of instruction that is prompting problem behaviors in students.

Until there is recognition that the "problem" kids can succeed with appropriate interventions and that they have a right to a free and appropriate public education, this country is headed back to the days where children were written off because of their disabilities. And if the nation lets this happen, all of its children and grandchildren are at risk. Any child can fall off her bike and hit her head on a tree, or develop schizophrenia as a young adult. Should schools be permitted to let these kids sink or swim in the education system, or should teachers be trained to find ways to educate all children, notwithstanding whatever challenges are posed by their disabilities?

In the coming weeks, as proposals to amend IDEA surface on the Senate floor and in Congressional offices, NCD encourages the elected officials to talk about the discipline issue as if it is their child who is the target of the increased flexibility schools seek to enforce discipline. Do you want to make it easier for the local school to turn its back on your child?