Special Treatment

February 01, 1995 9 min read

At the start of his kindergarten year at Circle View Elementary School, Jimmy sometimes ran around the classroom and yelled when his teacher tried to present a lesson. By the winter, Jimmy P., as he is called in court documents, had become violent. Officials at the Ocean View school district in Huntington Beach, Calif., say the 6-year-old, who weighs slightly more than 100 pounds, hit and bit his teacher, threw chairs and desks, struck classmates, and kicked staff members.

Finally, administrators suspended Jimmy for a few days, but when he returned, his behavior worsened, says district superintendent James Tarwater. Concerned that the boy’s actions were endangering his classmates and teachers, district officials decided to remove him from the regular classroom. To their surprise, they found that they couldn’t. Because Jimmy has a communicative disorder, he is protected by a federal law that says students with disabilities cannot be moved from their current classroom placements unless their parents agree. What’s more, Jimmy cannot be suspended for an extended period of time; a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively put a 10-day cap on suspensions of students with disabilities.

Educators like Tarwater say such federal mandates tie their hands when it comes to disciplining disabled students and put their schools at risk for lawsuits from parents of other students who fear for their children’s safety. They argue that the rules create a double standard in which students with disabilities are treated one way and those without another.

The question of how to discipline students with disabilities is an issue linked in many peoples’ minds to the burgeoning “full inclusion’’ movement. Inclusion proponents argue that the best place for students with disabilities is in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools. This kind of integration, they say, offers such students realistic preparation for life while segregation isolates and stigmatizes them.

Still, the practice of including disabled students in the regular classroom has come under increasing fire over the past few years, and, in many cases, the discipline issue has been the lightning rod. Officials at the American Federation of Teachers, a vocal critic of full inclusion, say teachers are being asked to go through too much in the name of what they see as “political correctness.’'

In the Ocean View case, Jimmy P.'s father did not want his son 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’s decision, saying the injuries to others in the class were not serious enough to warrant removing the boy from school. As a result, Jimmy was returned to the classroom last spring while his father and school officials tried to decide where he should go to school.

In the meantime, other parents started pulling their children out of Jimmy’s class, and some even picketed the school. “My son told me, ‘Mommy, I’m scared to go to school,’ '' Janet Edwards, one of the parents, says. “There was no way I was letting him go back there.’'

Superintendent Tarwater says he was “stunned’’ by the federal court’s ruling. District officials, he explains, are “put in a really tight box’’ by the federal mandates.

But Jimmy’s father, James Peters, says his son was not a danger and that the school set him up for failure. “They made him out to be a monster,’' says Peters, who eventually removed Jimmy from the school because he believed the district was not making an effort to accommodate him. Last fall, a special education teacher and speech therapist visited Jimmy at home a few times a week.

Lawmakers in Congress have modified some federal rules over the past year to give educators more leeway in moving students with disabilities out of the classroom. The bill that recently reauthorized most federal K-12 education programs, for example, includes a provision allowing schools to place any disabled student who brings a firearm to school in an interim educational setting for up to 45 days.

But such moves don’t please everyone. Many disability-rights advocates argue that the changes eventually will unravel the web of protections disabled students now enjoy. These advocates charge that school officials are looking for an easy way to get “problem’’ students out of the classroom. They point out that before the 1975 passage of the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one out of every eight disabled children was excluded from public schools.

The real source of the current crisis, they contend, is that teachers are not receiving the training and support they need. “I think that if there were more appropriate interventions, we wouldn’t be seeing the problems we’re seeing now,’' says Judith Heumann, the U.S. Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitation services.

Most observers agree that only a small number of disabled students pose serious problems for districts. “It’s really a tiny proportion of kids, but you only need one,’' says Bruce Hunter, senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Every district has at least one apocryphal story.’'

Still, if the discipline issue is not tackled soon, these observers say, it could stoke a backlash against special education. The issue could be addressed this year if federal lawmakers choose to begin the messy task of reauthorizing the IDEA.

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

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Honig vs. Doe that school officials could not suspend for longer than 10 days students whose behavior problems stemmed from their disabilities. Going beyond 10 days, the court said, would violate the IDEA’s so-called stay-put provision, which mandates that students stay in their educational placement until their parents and school officials agree to change it.

During the suspension period, a team of experts--usually teachers, administrators, and psychologists--meets to determine whether the behavior in question was a manifestation of the student’s disability. Unfortunately, the answer often falls into a gray area. Schools tend to err on the side of connecting the behavior to the disability to avoid legal complications.

If the behavior is found not to be disability related, schools can legally discipline the student as they would a nondisabled student. But, according to the U.S. Education Department, they can never deny the child educational services. They can, however, go to court to seek a temporary injunction to keep children out of the classroom while they seek a more appropriate placement. To win such an injunction, schools have to prove that the students are a danger to themselves or to others--a difficult task, legal experts agree.

The Education Department has proposed alternative disciplinary methods for disabled students--such as using study carrels or “timeouts’’ from class. But according to Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, “It’s just not that easy to put a 210-pound, 6-foot high school student into a carrel. There’s a lot of wonderful theory until you try to carry it out.’'

Like many other school administrators, Connie Rickman, assistant principal at Stadium High School in Tacoma, Wash., says she needs more flexibility in making disciplinary decisions about students in special education. “We’re not giving them any skills to help them deal with their behavior if we treat them with kid gloves,’' says Rickman, who wonders if the courts really take into account how difficult it is to educate some students.

In one year, Stadium High went through four teachers for the same class of students. “It’s getting harder to be creative in terms of finding alternatives to suspensions,’' she says. “I’ve got 1,700 students to think about.’'

Rickman understands that parents want the best for their children. But some students, she says, pose a threat no matter what the school does. “Parents love their kids so much,’' she says, “that sometimes they don’t want to believe the extent of their children’s problems, so they look for something else to blame it on.’'

Judy Evans of Susquehanna, Pa., is a parent who says she understands the extent of her 15-year-old daughter’s problems but still doesn’t think the local district is doing enough. In the fall of 1993, her daughter, who is mildly mentally retarded and has attention-deficit disorder, moved from a special school for disabled students to a regular classroom in her neighborhood school. It’s been a rocky time ever since; the girl was suspended so many times last year that Evans had to quit her job because she was leaving work so often to pick up her daughter.

Evans says that, among other things, her daughter’s teacher wanted her to stop grinding her teeth and shuffling her feet because she found them distracting. “I do expect her to be disciplined,’' the mother says of her daughter, “but not for something she can’t control.’' At times, her daughter lashed out physically in class. But Evans thinks this behavior stemmed from an education program that had not been adapted to meet the girl’s capabilities.

Stephen Griffen, who teaches students with severe behavior disorders at Cleveland’s Paul Revere Elementary School, says suspension is one way he occasionally gets a little “breathing space’’ from a particularly difficult student. Recently, one of his students exposed himself in the school cafeteria, and it took several adults to restrain him. “He can totally destroy a room and turn it upside down,’' Griffen says of the student. “You’re always on the edge; every kid is capable of a sudden explosion.’'

Griffen acknowledges that he at times feels more like a babysitter than a teacher. Some of his colleagues, he says, occasionally ask him why he is unable to do anything with his students. “I say, ‘I am [doing something]. I’m taking them out of your class so that you can teach,’ '' Griffen explains. “They don’t understand what it takes.’'

The federal courts do occasionally side with schools when it comes to disciplining students with disabilities. For example, Hillsborough County school officials in Tampa, Fla., recently persuaded a federal judge to remove an autistic student from Jenna Hodgens’ special education class at Chamberlain High School. Hodgens has spent 11 years working with severely emotionally disturbed students. Her class of 10 is populated by autistic and developmentally disabled students, but this 17-year-old autistic student proved to be an extraordinary challenge, even with a full-time aide. According to officials, the student hit Hodgens and other staff members and punched classmates on several occasions.

“I was scared for myself and my other kids--the whole air of the classroom is so unpredictable,’' Hodgens says. “Nobody goes to a job expecting to be hit. It should never be OK.’'

Back in Huntington Beach, Calif., Janet Edwards is still upset by what happened to her son last year in Jimmy P.'s kindergarten class. When Jimmy first started in the class, Edwards says she welcomed the move; it was an opportunity for her son to learn about diversity. She doesn’t see it that way now.

Still, Edwards says she might be willing to give full inclusion another shot--but only with her 3rd grade daughter, not her son. “My son had his kindergarten year wrecked, and he won’t get it back,’' she says. “What about a fair and safe education for my son?’'
--Lynn Schnaiberg

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Special Treatment