Discipline of Students with Disabilities

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Consider the following:

  • As many as 70% of the youth involved in the juvenile justice system have disabilities. (National average from The National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice. www.edjj.org)
  • Learning disabled youth are 200% more likely to be arrested than non-disabled youth for comparable activity, are more likely to be adjudicated, and spend longer periods of time locked or on probation.
  • Only 35% of students identified as Emotionally Disturbed graduate with a regular high school diploma.
  • The overrepresentation of students with disabilities in the juvenile justice system is exacerbated by the fact that many school districts have adopted zero tolerance policies and do not consider mitigating circumstances for special-needs students.
  • Juvenile crime dropped during the last half of the 1990's, but the number of cases involving juveniles -- mostly non-violent -- increased, along with the number of youths held in secure facilities for non-violent offenses.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides specific mandates for disciplining students with disabilities. These mandates are intended to protect special education students from inappropriate disciplinary treatment. Violations of law can lead to "push out" of students with disabilities. Major IDEA provisions as they relate to school discipline of special education students are outlined below. (Note: IDEA requires that an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, be developed for all students who are placed in special education. The IEP must be developed with the student's guardian/s and, among other things, provides for the types of services the child will receive.)

Manifestation Determination Review (MDR): A MDR is a legally-required consideration of whether a student's disability caused a certain behavior. The student's IEP team makes this determination after the misbehavior occurs and before a severe punishment is given. If the behavior was caused by or was in direct and substantial relationship to the child's disability, or, if it was a direct result of the school's failure to implement the IEP, the school cannot impose a suspension beyond ten days or expel the student.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP): If the behavior of a child with a disability impedes his learning or the learning of others, the IEP team must develop strategies, including positive behavioral interventions and supports, to address that behavior. As with any element of the IEP, the BIP must be based on proven practices that school personnel are trained and equipped to carry out. Before developing the BIP, the IEP team must find the cause for the behavior or its function (what the behavior helps the child accomplish; for example, avoid a test). This process is called a functional behavioral assessment and is also required by IDEA.

Response to Intervention (RTI): A newer provision of IDEA, the RTI allows schools to try to improve a student's performance before assessing her for special education. RTI simply means changing instructional methods to try to meet the needs of students who are struggling and administering short tests often to determine progress. This method can substitute for performance on IQ assessments as a means to identify students with learning disabilities earlier. The RTI is meant to respond to struggling students before they fail and to reduce the over-identification of students into special education. Unfortunately, some schools may use RTI as a delay tactic to keep from assessing students who very clearly need special education. More training and guidance is becoming available from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources to help schools implement this IDEA provision.

Appropriate Transition Plans: Beginning at age 14, a student's IEP team must begin discussing and documenting what is needed to make sure the student will transition successfully into post-school life. By age 16, the IEP must be specific about what the student's transition goals are, what services will be needed, and who will provide them. Other agencies such as residential facilities or vocational rehabilitation centers may be needed, and their representatives must be involved in the IEP process as soon as possible. The most important participant in these discussions is the student, and he or she should be included in decision-making and planning as much as possible. By participating in the process, students can better maintain a sense of hope for their future and stay connected to and in school.

Related Services: A full assessment of a child with a disability may reveal a need for other supports such as social work, counseling, or mental health services to ensure that he can benefit from special education. For some students, related services may be needed medical supports, such as glucose testing or administration of asthma medication. For others, related services may be developmental supports such as speech or occupational therapy. Related services may even include artistic or cultural programs, such as art, music or dance therapy. The school is responsible for coordinating these services, and can involve other agencies to provide them. Schools can also access public insurance (Medicaid) or private insurance to help pay for related services. Providing related services can be a particular challenge in isolated or high-poverty rural communities far from service providers.

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): An important right for students with disabilities is the right to be educated in the "least restrictive environment," which means that students with disabilities must be educated and allowed to interact with their non-disabled peers as much as possible. However, some schools approach this in the reverse by placing students inappropriately in self-contained classrooms, serving them meals separately, or restricting them from afterschool activities and requiring special education students to "earn" the right to be in the LRE. This practice is a clear violation of IDEA, but is nevertheless frequently applied to students who have been identified as "emotionally disturbed."

Change of Placement: IDEA provides strict rules governing changes to the educational placement (type of classroom and services) of a student with disabilities. Schools cannot suspend special education students for more than 10 days without holding an IEP team meeting or conducting an MDR. Schools violate federal law when they give special education students "rest of the year" or "cooling off" suspensions that last longer than 10 days. Even placing students in the hallway away from instruction is a change of placement if it means the student's cumulative time out of class totals more than 10 days.

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Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.