Special Education

IDEA Doesn’t Hinder Discipline, Survey Finds

By Lisa Fine — February 07, 2001 4 min read
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Students with disabilities who are involved in violence or other serious incidents at school are being punished in the same way as other students who commit comparable acts, according to a federal report.

About two-thirds of all students who engage in serious misconduct, which includes acts of violence or incidents involving drugs, weapons, or firearms, are given out-of-school suspensions, regardless of whether they are in special education programs or not, says the report released late last month by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

For More Information

The report, “Student Discipline: Individuals With Disabilites Act,” is available from the General Accounting Office.(Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Members of Congress commissioned the report following the sharp debate during the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act over how to ensure fair discipline for students with disabilities. At that time, some members of Congress, school administrators, and teachers complained that amendments to the IDEA would limit their authority to punish students with disabilities and would therefore create a double standard for how students who commit serious infractions are treated.

But the middle and high schools surveyed by the GAO reported that the length of suspensions was equal for both students with and without disabilities, and that fewer than half the students in both groups received educational services during their suspensions.

The proportion of students expelled from school or placed in an alternative setting after serious misconduct was the same in each group, or about one in six, according to the report.

“IDEA plays a limited role in affecting schools’ ability to properly discipline students, according to principals who responded to our survey,” the report says. Of the 465 schools surveyed, 272 middle and high schools responded.

The study was welcomed by special education advocates, who said it showed the new rules did not create a double standard in the treatment of students with disabilities.

“This is positive news for everyone,” said Lynda Van Kuren, the director of the Council for Exceptional Children, a group based in Arlington, Va. “We are pleased at the high percentage of school principals that prove IDEA is workable.”

About 86 percent of the schools responding to the survey operate under their own policies for disciplining special education students in addition to the provisions of the IDEA. Principals generally rated their schools’ special-education-discipline policies, both those under the IDEA and local policies, as having “a positive or neutral effect on school safety and orderliness.”

But 27 percent of principals said that a separate discipline policy for students in special education is unfair to other students. About 20 percent of the administrators believe that discipline procedures under the IDEA are “burdensome and time-consuming.”

Students in special education have a higher rate of misconduct than other students, the study found. For every 1,000 regular education students enrolled in schools replying to the survey, 15 incidents of serious misconduct were reported. For every 1,000 special education students, the schools reported 50 incidents of such misconduct.

Ms. Van Kuren said the number of incidents of misconduct, regardless of whether students with disabilities were involved, shows the need for positive steps to improve student behavior.

Findings Questioned

But Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, whose group pushed against the wording of the current federal rules, said the study’s results were not consistent with what he hears from his group’s members, who primarily are superintendents.

“It must be that none of the principals who were angry responded to the survey,” Mr. Hunter said. “If that is what administrators feel, it is not what I have heard at meetings.”

Still, Mr. Hunter said, he read the study “with great interest.”

“It was the first one like it,” he added. “I’m sure there will be more information on this issue.”

The proposed 1997 IDEA regulations drew so much fire that it took until 1999 to implement a revised version of the rules.

The current rules permit schools to suspend students protected by the IDEA for up to 10 school days in a given school year without providing educational services or placing them in alternative educational settings.

If a school wishes to impose stiffer penalties on a student with a disability, administrators are required to determine whether the student’s misconduct resulted from his or her disability and hold a meeting of the student’s individualized-education-plan team. Students covered by the IDEA may be suspended for more than 10 days or expelled if their infractions are not deemed manifestations of their disabilities.

The current rules expanded the old policy—which allowed schools to remove a student with a disability for up to 45 days to an alternative educational setting if the student carried a firearm to school—to cover incidents involving other weapons, as well as the presence of drugs or other behavior that would harm that student or others.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as IDEA Doesn’t Hinder Discipline, Survey Finds

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