Juvenile-Justice Language Troubles Spec. Ed. Advocates
Special education advocates are raising red flags about proposed amendments to a juvenile-justice law that would give administrators much greater authority to expel students with disabilities who bring weapons to school.
Amendments in both the House and Senate versions of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization would allow administrators to expel any disabled student who brought a gun or other firearm to school, even if the offense was related to the student's disability.
And, if approved, it would mark the first time Congress has chipped away at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's requirement that districts continue to provide educational services to disabled students who have been expelled. The 24-year-old IDEA requires a "free and appropriate public education" for every disabled student.
Special educators, who have vehemently fought any such change in the past, spent last week lobbying members of Congress to remove the provision. But supporters of the amendment say they believe the language will be kept in a compromise bill that members on a House-Senate conference committee planned to release by the end of this month.
Members of the conference committee on the juvenile-justice bill began work on a compromise version of the legislation just before Congress recessed in August, and they were expected to meet again this week. Even aside from the special education language, they will have plenty to talk about.
Progress on the reauthorization has played out against the backdrop of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in April. With amendments in such varied areas as the Ten Commandments and gun control, members tried different strategies for averting future violence.
Passed in June, the House version of the juvenile-justice bill, HR 1501, carries with it a raft of wide-ranging amendments. First off, it would reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. But it would also allow states to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other government buildings. Block grant money would also be made available for character education, and the bill would allow juveniles 14 or older charged with serious, violent felonies or serious drug offenses to be tried as adults in federal court.
Separately, on May 20, the Senate passed the Violent and Repeat Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act or S 254, which also would reauthorize the juvenile-justice law.
But in passing S 254, the Senate also approved a number of gun-control provisions, including language that would mandate background checks at gun shows, as well as a requirement that all new handguns be sold with child-safety devices.
The current IDEA law requires a disabled student's education team to determine whether a weapons-related offense was a manifestation of his or her disability--a sometimes-lengthy process--before expelling the student, then providing alternative education services.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who sponsored the Senate discipline amendment, was a chief architect of the IDEA's 1997 reauthorization, a process during which authority to suspend and expel students fueled lengthy and emotional debate. ("Discipline Again To Top Special Ed. Debate," Jan. 29, 1997.)
"As the law stands, local school authorities have to jump through hoops to remove a dangerous special education student who brings a gun or bomb to school," Sen. Frist said in introducing the amendment.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a member of the conference panel, is proposing language that would give administrators more power to remove dangerous students from their schools. It would also require states to designate a lead agency to coordinate supports and services for such students through interagency agreements.
Disability-rights advocates have repeatedly argued that it is dangerous to allow any student, disabled or not, who brings a weapon to school to be expelled without follow-up services.
"We're concerned about services for any child," said Beth Foley, a policy analyst with the Reston, Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children.
Ms. Foley charged that Sen. Frist was trying to circumvent the usual process of changing the IDEA by amending a bill in the purview of the judiciary committees instead of the education committees.
Vol. 19, Issue 5, Page 25