Special Education

Trump’s Attorney General Pick Draws Ire of Disability Advocates

By Christina A. Samuels — November 29, 2016 2 min read
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Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and President-elect Donald Trump’s selection for attorney general, said 16 years ago that the regulations around the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were “accelerating the decline in civility in discipline in classrooms all over America.”

Disability advocates are angry about the remarks, which were made on the Senate floor in 2000 and are archived on Sessions’ Senate website. As the top official overseeing the Department of Justice, Sessions would be in charge of enforcing the civil rights laws such as the IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sessions’ remarks are “heartless and misguided,” according to parent advocate Candace Aylor, who was quoted in The Huffington Post’s article Tuesday about Sessions’ remarks.

During his speech, Sessions related several stories from educators in Alabama who said they were unable to control the children in their classrooms because of restrictions placed on them by the special education law. An excerpt:

An experienced educator in Alabama shared these thoughts with me in a letter: "We have a student who is classified emotionally conflicted, learning disabled, and who has attention deficit disorder. While this student has been enrolled, students, teachers, and staff have been verbally threatened with physical harm. Fits of anger, fighting, and outbursts of verbal abuse have been commonplace. Parents and students have expressed concern over the safety of their children due to the behavior of this young man. Teachers have also become extremely apprehensive toward the presence of the student due to his explosive behavior. His misbehavior has escalated to the point that the instructional process of the entire school has been jeopardized." Here is another one: "I have taught for 25 years. I plan to continue teaching, but the problems with discipline are getting out of hand. We are not allowed to discipline certain students. Any student labeled as 'special needs' must be accommodated, not disciplined. A student recently brought a gun to my school. He made threats to students and teachers which he claims were jokes. I was one of those teachers. This student has been disruptive and belligerent since I first encountered him in the 9th grade. Now, he is a senior. After bringing a gun to school, he was given another 'second chance.' He should have been expelled. What is his handicap? He has a problem with mathematics. While this may be an extreme situation, it is not isolated." Still reading from the letter: "Teachers are told to handle discipline in the classroom. The government has taken most of the teachers' rights away; our hands are tied."

Sessions Said IDEA Allows Misbehavior ‘With Impunity’

Sessions said that he did not want to undermine the special education law. “But at the same time, we need to say that a child is not allowed to commit crimes, to disrupt classroom, to curse teachers, principals and students, and abuse them and do so with impunity.”

Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996. He voted in favor of the IDEA reauthorization in 1997 and in 2004, which was the last time that the special education law was reauthorized. He also noted in his statement that the federal government has never paid the 40 percent of “excess costs” of educating students with disabilities, as it is authorized to do under the law.

The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network is among the groups that have condemned Sessions’ nomination, based in part on the 2000 Senate floor remarks.

“Senator Sessions has suggested increasing the segregation of disabled students in public schools, calling the inclusion of students with significant disabilities ‘the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.’ We have grave concerns that under Sessions, the Department of Justice would not protect the rights of disabled people and other marginalized populations,” the organization said in a statement.

Trump Campaign Addresses Inclusion

In an article in Forbes, Milwaukee special education teacher Melissa Patterson said that Sessions should visit her classroom.

“I think he needs to go sit in an actual special ed classroom and see how it works and see the good is happening instead of what he thinks is happening, because he clearly doesn’t know a whole lot of anything,” Patterson said in the article. “He needs to understand that regardless of disability, these kids are kids, and they’re in school to learn. We need to help them do that, and it’s his job to enforce that that is done.”

In October, the Trump campaign responded to an inquiry about enforcing civil rights laws related to inclusion as part of a questionnaire developed by two disability advocacy organizations.

“The federal courts have already found that students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education. To the extent this ruling is not being properly carried out, I will be open to ensuring that it is,” Trump responded via the campaign.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.