Ed. Dept. Clarifies Policy on Special Ed. Suspension

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The Department of Education will not require schools to offer special education services to disabled students who are suspended for less than 10 days, and school officials will not have to review those students' individualized education plans before such a suspension.

In a much-anticipated memo sent to chief state school officers to clarify the recently amended Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the department spells out schools' obligations for short-term suspensions under the new law. Essentially, department officials say, the amended law maintains existing IDEA requirements related to discipline. The news came as a relief to school administrators who had been awaiting departmental guidance since President Clinton signed the amended IDEA in June.

The revised IDEA continues to require that schools provide free, appropriate educational services to disabled students who have been suspended or expelled for more than 10 days. ("House, Senate Easily Approve Spec. Ed. Bill," May 21, 1997.)

Judith E. Heumann

But "the department does not believe that it was the intent of Congress to require that a free and appropriate education be provided when a child is removed for 10 school days or less during a given school year," write Judith E. Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Thomas Hehir, the director of the office of special education programs, in a letter mailed to the chief state school officers on Sept. 19.

However, there is nothing in the new law that would prohibit schools from offering those services, they add.

The Education Department plans to publish proposed regulations for the amended IDEA in the Federal Register early this month, said spokesman Jim Bradshaw. Among the issues that the regulations will likely cover are new provisions on mediating disputes between schools and students with disabilities.

No Disability Link

The policy letter says the department also will not require schools to determine whether the action that led to a student's suspension was related to his or her disability, a move that means less paperwork for administrators.

Special education administrators said they were pleased with the letter's contents.

Having guidance is "going to be a major help," said Myrna R. Mandlawitz, the special assistant for government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va. "Clearly, the guidance follows the intent of the law, laid out in the committee report."

The reauthorization was unclear on whether school officials would have to hold meetings with students' individualized-education-plan teams on every suspension, she added. Such teams, made up of teachers, parents, and administrators, plot out the education of students with disabilities.

Stevan J. Kukic, Utah's director of special education services, said he was pleased with the guidelines, as well as the Education Department's prompt response to the IDEA's amendment.

"The guidance, I think, is functional, in line with what I believe was the original intent of the law," Mr. Kukic said. He was pleased that the letter clarified that a student could only be suspended for a total of 10 days in the school year without receiving free education services. He also applauded a provision in the amended law that will require a student's IEP team to consider whether the student is receiving the proper services in the best environment during a short-term suspension, he added.

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