Schools Advised To Catch, Treat Disabilities as Early as Possible

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Many behavioral and learning problems of students with disabilities can be prevented if elementary schools focus on special services and discipline in the lower grades, according to a top federal special education official.

More problems arise when disabilities are not caught and treated early, said Thomas Hehir, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of special education programs. He spoke here this month at an annual conference sponsored by the Council for Exceptional Children, a special education advocacy group.

The conference was the first major meeting on special education since the Education Department released its final regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the most controversial of which pertain to student discipline. The IDEA was amended most recently in 1997, but the rules were not published until last month, more than a year behind the department's initial deadline. ("Department Issues IDEA Regulations," March 17, 1999.)

Mr. Hehir said Education Department research--which he admitted had not been widely enough disseminated to schools--shows that many discipline problems take root early, when a child has problems learning.

"Many kids hit the comprehension block in 4th or 5th grade," leading to more learning and behavioral problems, Mr. Hehir said. "The best time to prevent that from happening is through early-childhood programs."

But too often, school officials wait until a child is struggling in a classroom and causing significant disruptions before acting, he said. "You shouldn't wait to provide kids the strong interventions they need until they fail over and over again," Mr. Hehir said.

His office will continue to focus more efforts on helping states create better early-childhood service systems, he added.

Lawsuits Expected

Education Department officials maintain that only a small percentage of students with disabilities cause serious discipline problems for schools.

They point to data showing that about 300,000 students out of the nearly 6 million receiving special education services are suspended one or more days in a school year.

In writing its regulations, the Education Department found itself caught between advocacy groups that were anxious to protect special education students' rights and educators who wanted more power to remove disruptive students from the classroom.

The final document, while giving administrators a little more flexibility, will undoubtedly result in more lawsuits and hearings because the provisions are so vague, one veteran hearing officer predicted at the CEC conference.

"This is heaven for attorneys because the regulations are so flexible," said Qaisar Sultana, a professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University who has worked as an IDEA hearing officer in the eastern part of the state for 17 years. "They have tried to appease everyone, and in the process, left a lot of holes in the regulations."

For instance, Ms. Sultana said, schools can suspend special education students for more than a total of 10 days in a single school year, as long as the suspensions are for separate incidents and do not cause a change in placement. But determining what constitutes "separate" incidents means another bonanza for lawyers, she contended.

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Page 7

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as Schools Advised To Catch, Treat Disabilities as Early as Possible
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Web Resources
  • The Council for Exceptional Children has the full text of the IDEA regulations online.
  • For the latest official information on IDEA '97, read "What's New".
  • For additional information and resources related to special education, see this list of organizations, from Hood College.
  • Read the full text of the "20th Annual Report to Congress," on the implementation of IDEA, from the Department of Education.
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