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Justices Reject Peril Exception To P.L. 94-142

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Washington--The federal special-education law requires public-school officials to keep disruptive or violent handicapped students in their current classrooms pending the completion of hearings on their behavior, the U.S. Supreme Court held last week.

In a 6 to 2 decision, the Court upheld lower-court rulings that San Francisco officials violated the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, in 1980 when they indefinitely suspended and then attempted to expel two emotionally disturbed students who the officials claimed were dangerous. One of the students had choked a fellow student and broken a window, and the other had a record of stealing, extortion, and making sexual advances to female classmates.

"We think it clear ... that Congress very much meant to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school," wrote Associate Justice William J. Brennan for the majority in Honig v. Doe (Case No. 86-728).

He said the law authorized officials to suspend dangerous handicapped children for a maximum of 10 days. Longer suspensions or expulsions, Justice Brennan continued, are permissible only if the child's parents consent to the move or if the officials can convince a federal district judge that the child poses a danger to himself or to others.

The Justices, however, split 4 to 4 on the question of whether the state of California can be required to provide direct services to handicapped children when local officials refuse or are unable to do so. The tie vote on that issue upheld the lower courts' ruling that the state must provide the services, but it set no nationwide precedent.

Groups' Reactions

Advocacy groups for the handicapped hailed the decision, saying it would force districts to come to grips with the problems of the emotionally disturbed, rather than exclude them from schools.

But Bill Honig, California's school chief and the primary defendant in the case, and the National School Boards Association, which backed Mr. Honig, predicted that many local officials will now attempt to keep such children out of "mainstreamed" classrooms if there is any indication that they would present discipline problems.

The U.S. Justice Department, which offered arguments in the case on Mr. Honig's behalf, had no comment on the decision. Nor did Secre4tary of Education William J. Bennett, whose agency administers the special-education program and who has spoken repeatedly on the need for stronger school discipline.

The Honig case began eight years ago when the two handicapped students, identified in court records as John Doe and Jack Smith, filed suit in federal district court alleging that their rights under P.L. 94-142 had been violated.

A primary issue in the case was whether the San Francisco district had broken the federal law's "stay-put" provision, which states that a handicapped student "shall remain in [his or her] then current educational placement" pending the completion of administrative and judicial proceedings.

A federal district judge ruled in the boys' favor in 1984, holding that the district had violated the provision.

She enjoined the district from suspending handicapped students for more than five days if their misbehavior stemmed from their disability; prohibited it from making changes in students' placements without parental consent; barred the state from permitting other districts to make such changes; and ordered the state to provide direct services to handicapped students when districts refuse or are unable to do so.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit substantially upheld the lower court's ruling in July 1986. However, it held that in some circumstances, a handicapped child could be suspended for up to 30 days.

The San Francisco district dropped out of the case following the appellate court's ruling, but the state appealed to the High Court.

The language of the federal law's stay-put requirement "is unequivocal," wrote Justice Brennan for the majority, which included Chief Justice William J. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Byron H. White, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens.

"Faced with this clear directive," he continued, "[the state] asks us to read a 'dangerousness' exception into [the provision.] ... [W]e decline [the state's] invitation to rewrite the statute."

Justice Brennan termed the absence of "any emergency exception for dangerous students" in the stay-put provision "conspicuous." When combined wih the act's legislative history, he said, "we can only conclude that the omission was intentional; we are therefore not at liberty to engraft onto the statute anexception Congress chose not to create."

The Justice said that although it was clear that, in passing the law, the Congress intended to strip officials of their "former right to 'self-help"' in deciding whether to exclude handicapped children from schools, it did not leave them "hamstrung" and "powerless to deal with dangerous students."

He noted that under Education Department regulations, disruptive handicapped students can be pun4ished through the use of "study carrels, timeouts, detentions, or the restriction of privileges."

In addition, he said, the regulations permit suspensions of up to 10 days when a student poses a threat to himself or others. "[I]n those cases in which the parents of a truly dangerous child adamantly refuse to permit any change in placement," the Justice continued, officials could use the 10-day period to "invoke the aid of the courts."

Justice Brennan noted that normally, judicial proceedings in such cases cannot begin until administrative hearings are completed. But he noted that in prior cases, the Court has permitted parents of handicapped children to bypass the administrative route and proceed directly to the federal courts if they can prove that the preliminary hearings "would be futile or inadequate."

"[W]e have no reason to believe that Congress" meant to grant this alternative to parents alone and not schools, he said.

In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor said the case should have been declared moot because one of the students is 24 and no longer eligible for services under the law, and although the other remains eligible he is now out of school and there is no evidence that he intends to re-enroll.

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