Authorities clash over behavior in children with disabilities

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2000

Federal rules for disciplining special education students require schools to anticipate behavior problems and change them through positive ways, rather than punishment.

But advocates say schools still want to punish children they don't understand. Meanwhile, administrators say most inappropriate behavior from special ed kids isn't caused by the disability and should be punished.

``The new law requires schools to be proactive about discipline. Schools traditionally have been very reactive,'' said Tammy Seltzer, an attorney and advocate in Washington, D.C.

Schools can easily suspend special ed students for up to 10 days at a time. Schools also can remove a student for weapons or drug offenses in 45-day segments, regardless of the child's disability. And schools can ask a hearing officer or a judge to remove a dangerous student in 45-day segments.

But for proposed expulsions or long-term suspensions, schools must show the behavior wasn't caused by the disability. If it was, the child can be removed only with a parent's consent.

It's hard to prove a negative, said Bruce Miller, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. His group would like to put the burden on advocates to show the behavior was linked to the disability.

A simple example of linked behavior is a student who swears at a teacher but has Tourette's syndrome, a disorder that causes inappropriate outbursts. Or a mentally retarded student who hits someone and doesn't know it's wrong to do so.

But educators and advocates alike say determining whether the disability caused bad behavior is a big gray area.

School officials are reluctant to recognize some indirect ways that behavior is linked to a disability, said Faye Nieto, executive director of Anchorage-based Parents Inc., which trains parents of children with disabilities.

An example is an autistic child who doesn't like people to get close and threatens a student who touches him. If the student brandishes a sharpened pencil at the time, it could be seen as a weapons violation.

The idea of the law is to not punish students for what they can't help. Instead, it requires schools to anticipate behavior problems and plan how to change them through the student's education program, which is created by a team of parents, teachers, administrators and psychologists.

A lot of inappropriate behavior occurs because the disability isn't taken care of early enough, said Jan Guertin, a Juneau advocate for Parents Inc.

A mentally ill child who hasn't been taught how to deal with the frustration of not being understood may do things to get attention, even negative attention, she said. Teachers and classmates also need to understand how the child's disability affects behavior.

About three-quarters of the special ed students disciplined in Alaska in the 1998-1999 school year had learning disabilities. Few of the disciplined students were emotionally disturbed.

That matches what Michael Melear, an administrator with the Mat-Su Borough School District, sees. The most disturbed students are provided with education programs that consistently deal with their behavior, he said.

The statistics suggest the law is working for those students. The question, advocates say, is whether schools recognize that more learning disabled students need behavior intervention plans as part of their education programs.

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