House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill
Even as changes in the nation's main special education law headed to President Clinton last week, some educators worried that the bill was too watered down to resolve difficult discipline problems.
Groups representing principals and teachers complained that the legislation does not go far enough in allowing administrators to remove violent and disruptive disabled children from classrooms.
What's more, they said, a last-minute change may have further weakened administrators' powers.
"The legislation offers no language to let schools immediately remove a seriously disruptive student who is disabled," said Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Several groups predicted that the discipline issue would have to be revisited soon.
Other educators and advocates for the disabled, meanwhile, hailed the changes to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which has long been the focus of debate and emotion.
"I can feel the tension oozing out of me," said Joe Ballard, the policy director for the Council for Exceptional Children. "This is a remarkable achievement."
Last week's quick passage of identical bills in the House and the Senate to reauthorize the 1975 law came after months of debate and late-night meetings and compromises. Congressional aides had spent two months rewriting the bill to find a compromise acceptable to all sides. ("IDEA Reauthorization Speeds Through Committees," May 14, 1997.)
The House voted overwhelmingly, 420-3, to pass its bill without any additional amendments. But the Senate first debated several contentious issues, including proposed broader powers for educators to discipline disabled students and limits on federal funding for special education, before passing the bill 98-1.
President Clinton said he was pleased with the final bill and looked forward to signing it into law.
"It strikes the appropriate balance and serves the needs of disabled and nondisabled students," said Judith E. Heumann, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.
The bill would give administrators more power to suspend violent disabled students for up to 10 days, or up to 45 days for violations involving weapons, drugs, or controlled substances.
A hearing officer could order a change in educational placement for up to 45 days if a student is deemed to be harmful to himself or herself, or to others. It would allow students who are disciplined for offenses unrelated to their disabilities to receive the same punishment as nondisabled students, except that their education services could not be cut off.
And, in a provision designed to cut down on costly legal battles between parents and school districts, the bill would require states to set up voluntary mediation systems to handle disputes over special education.
Despite those changes, administrators still need greater power to remove students who endanger school employees or other students, said Stephen R. Yurik, the general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Just because a student is not carrying a weapon does not mean he or she may not be dangerous, he said.
The legislation "makes a step forward," Mr. Yurik added. "But we're concerned that it really didn't address the issue that it needed to."
What has some administrators worried is a last-minute technical amendment passed in the House and Senate education committees. It would require that a school prove beyond a "preponderance of evidence" to a special education hearing officer that a student could injure himself, other students, or school officials before suspending the child for more than 10 days.
Sally McConnell, the legislative director for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said the requirement could hold schools to an unduly high legal standard and hinder their ability to remove violent students.
John Richardson, the principal of Sunnyslope Elementary School in Port Orchard, Wash., said the bill would not adequately protect other students, including other disabled students, who are often the ones harmed by violently disruptive disabled peers.
"We still have our hands tied," he said. "One of the things we need help with is this behavior that is so disruptive, and I don't think the bill adequately deals with that."
But Stevan Kukic, Utah's special education director, said the changes might not have such a dramatic effect. "This is really a pretty good compromise" between parents' concerns and those of schools, he said.
Healing Old Wounds
Healing past wounds between parents and school officials is another hurdle in the IDEA's future, said Michael Resnick, the associate executive director of the National School Boards Association.
"Attorneys will have to recognize that the world has changed and that the mediation process is beneficial," he said. "Unfortunately, [the IDEA] has become a first resort to go to lawyers and litigate."
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., introduced but later withdrew an amendment that would have mandated increasing IDEA appropriations by about $1 billion each year until the federal government pays 40 percent of the share of state's special education costs, as many believe the original law intended.
Districts do need more federal money to set up alternative programs for violent disabled students, Mr. Kukic, the Utah official, said.
The reauthorization would effectively quell high-profile battles with the education departments in two states, California and Virginia. In each case, the department threatened to withhold the state's IDEA allocation because the state was deemed to be violating the special education law.
California would win its battle over its refusal to provide special education services to inmates incarcerated in adult correctional facilities for violent crimes.
The bill would not require states to provide services to inmates who were not previously identified as disabled. And it would allow states to hand over authority for inmate education services to the correctional agency. ("Issue of Spec. Ed. in Prisons Pits Calif., ED," April 30, 1997.)
But Virginia would see its victory earlier this year in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit stripped away. In Virginia v. Riley, the state convinced the court that the IDEA did not bar states from halting educational services to disabled students who have been expelled from school for crimes involving weapons or drugs. ("Court Rejects ED Stance in Spec. Ed. Discipline Case," Feb. 12, 1997.)
Gov. George Allen, a Republican, was quick to voice his displeasure.
"Once it has been determined that the misconduct is unrelated to the disability, it is absolutely ludicrous to mandate that Virginia and its localities cannot discipline a student with disabilities in the same manner as a student without disabilities," he said in a statement. "A learning disability or hearing impairment is not an excuse for beating up a teacher, selling drugs, or carrying a gun in school."
Staff Writer Jessica L. Sandham contributed to this report.