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Disciplining Special-Education Students: A Conundrum

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At the start of his kindergarten year last fall, Jimmy sometimes ran around the classroom and yelled when his teacher tried to present a lesson.

But by the winter, Jimmy P., as he is called in court documents, had become more violent, according to officials at the Ocean View school district in Huntington Beach, Calif.

School officials said the 6-year-old, who weighs slightly more than 100 pounds, hit and bit his teacher, threw chairs and desks, hit his classmates, and kicked staff members at Circle View Elementary School.

They suspended Jimmy for a few days, but when he returned, his behavior worsened, said James R. Tarwater, the district superintendent.

By the end of the school year, Jimmy's teacher and a classroom aide, both citing severe stress, had taken medical leaves.

Concerned that Jimmy's behavior was endangering his classmates and school personnel, district officials wanted to remove Jimmy from the class.

But, under the law, they could not.

Jimmy has a communicative disorder and is protected by a federal law that says students with disabilities cannot be moved from their current classroom placements unless their parents agree.

And Jimmy could not be suspended long term because of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively put a 10-day cap on suspensions of disabled students.

Double Standard?

Educators such as Mr. Tarwater say federal laws are tying their hands on disciplining students with disabilities and putting schools at risk for lawsuits from parents of other students who fear for their children's safety.

At the annual meeting of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Grand Rapids, Mich., this month, a special-education lawyer called on the state directors to "get out a memo on discipline, and get it out damn fast" to school districts. The lawyer, Lynwood E. Beekman, said districts across the country are vulnerable to discipline-related suits.

Educators say the rules create a double standard in the classroom, where students with disabilities are treated one way and students without disabilities another.

Situations such as Jimmy P.'s at Circle View Elementary have brought growing attention to the issue of discipline and students with disabilities--an issue that in many cases is wrapped up in the movement toward "full inclusion" of students with disabilities into regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools.

The American Federation of Teachers, a vocal critic of the full-inclusion movement, points to similar situations across the country. Union officials say teachers are being asked to go through too much in the name of what they see as "political correctness."

Proponents of full inclusion say that more inclusive school environments offer students realistic preparation for life and that segregation stigmatizes and isolates students with disabilities.

In many cases, the discipline issue has become a lightning rod for educators who say they are frustrated by special education's cost, litigiousness, and regulation.

Father Disputes Risk

In the case of Jimmy P., his father did not want the boy moved from his regular classroom, so the district sought an injunction from a state court to override him. The injunction was granted, but a federal judge reversed the state court, saying the injuries to others in the class were not serious enough to warrant removing Jimmy.

Jimmy returned to his classroom this past spring while his father and school officials decided where he should go to school.

Parents such as Janet L. Edwards started pulling their children out of Jimmy's class and eventually picketed the school.

"My son told me, 'Mommy, I'm scared to go to school,"' Ms. Edwards said. "There was no way I was letting him go back there."

Superintendent Tarwater said that he was "stunned" by the federal court's ruling and that officials were "put in a really tight box" by the federal rules.

But Jimmy's father, James D. Peters, said that his son was not a danger and that the school set up Jimmy for failure.

"They made him out to be a monster," Mr. Peters said.

Jimmy had attended preschool in a class with other disabled students at Circle View Elementary School. But district officials had agreed to move Jimmy into a regular classroom for kindergarten.

To prepare for Jimmy's arrival, district officials said they sent his teacher and a full-time aide to workshops on inclusion and behavior-intervention strategies.

After the federal judge's ruling, Mr. Peters removed his son from the school, saying officials were not making an effort to accommodate Jimmy.

For now, a special-education teacher and a speech therapist visit Jimmy at home a few times a week, and he goes to school twice a week for adaptive physical education.

Messy Battle Looms

Lawmakers in Congress have moved over the past year to modify some of the federal rules on students with disabilities to give educators more leeway in moving those students out of the classroom. A provision in the recent bill that reauthorized most federal programs in K-12 education allows schools to place in an interim educational setting for up to 45 days a student with a disability who brings a firearm to school. (See related story)

Many disability-rights advocates criticized such moves, arguing that such changes would unravel the web(See educational protections granted to disabled students.

Many advocates charge that schools are using students with disabilities as scapegoats for the larger problem of school violence.

They say officials are looking for an easy way to get "problem" students out of the classroom--harkening to a time before the landmark 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed, when one in eight children with disabilities was excluded from public schools.

And they wonder whether classroom crises are being exacerbated by a lack of training and supports for special-education teachers.

"I think that if there were more appropriate interventions, we wouldn't be seeing the problems we're seeing now," said Judith E. Heumann, the U.S. Education Department's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services.

But many observers say that if the discipline issue is not tackled soon it could endanger the protections currently afforded such students by stoking a backlash against special education.

And many are looking to resolve the issue in what advocates and policymakers agree promises to be a messy battle when Congress begins work next year on reauthorizing the i.d.e.a.

Meanwhile, parents, teachers, and administrators are navigating the system alone.

Legal Hoops To Jump

Although there are no solid data on how many of the nation's 5.17 million students with disabilities have been violent or have engaged in "life-threatening behavior," Congress has mandated that the department collect exactly such information.

Most observers say that the number of cases that pose serious problems for districts is small.

"It's really a tiny proportion of kids, but you only need one," said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "Every district has at least one apocryphal story."

In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Honig v. Doe that school officials could not suspend for longer than 10 days students whose behavior problems stemmed from their disabilities. Many educators and legal experts, however, have interpreted the ruling to block long-term suspensions for all students with disabilities, regardless of the reason for their behavior.

Going beyond 10 days, the Court said, would violate the i.d.e.a.'s so-called stay-put provision, which mandates that students stay in their educational placement until parents and school officials agree on how to change that placement.

After those 10 days, the student must return to his current placement. During the 10 days, a team of experts, usually teachers, administrators, and psychologists, determines whether the student's behavior is a manifestation of the student's disability. That often falls into such a gray area that schools tend to err on the side of connecting the two to avoid legal complications, legal experts say.

If the behavior is not disability related, the schools can discipline the student as they would a nondisabled student. But, according to the Education Department, they can never deny him educational services--an issue Virginia education officials are battling over with federal officials. (See related story

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