Law & Ethics:

A faculty member at University of Arkansas’s law school has published guidelines for disciplining disabled students under an updated federal law.

Terry Seligmann, associate law professor, explains in the July issue of the Arkansas Law Review how school officials could handle disciplinary situations, if children involved were disabled, under the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The act was originally designed to help identify children with disabilities and provide them with access to education “so that children don’t end up excluded rather than served,” Seligmann said.

In recent years, however, school officials have become concerned about discipline—particularly about issues surrounding suspension and expulsion—in the wake of several high-profile acts of school violence.

In light of administrators’ concerns, recent amendments and regulations under IDEA address disciplinary situations.

Under the original regulations, a suspension of more than 10 days or an expulsion was considered a change of placement. And if a parent contested a change of placement for a disabled child, the child had to remain in the pre-disciplinary classroom setting while the dispute was settled, unless school officials went to court to seek an order based on danger to the child or to others.

Under the amended IDEA regulations, schools have more options for disciplining special needs students, Seligmann said.

The modified regulations allow school officials to determine that a child is a danger to himself or to others. If he is violent in the classroom or brings weapons or drugs to school, then school officials can remove the child from that setting.

If the parent contests this decision, school officials can still appeal and prevent a potentially dangerous child from re-entering the classroom, Seligmann said. School systems must provide an alternative setting for suspended or expelled students.

The new regulations remain ambiguous about disciplining disabled children who severely disrupt a classroom without creating any physical danger, Seligmann said.

“If a child misbehaves because he or she cannot control behavior, then discipline is not appropriate,” Seligmann said. A child with Tourrette’s Syndrome, for instance, should not be punished for shouting out inappropriate words because that behavior is caused by the syndrome and cannot be controlled.

Seligmann offers solutions for several theoretical situations:

• A student who throws a book could be disciplined by sending her to the principal’s office, asking to help mend books in the library, or sitting at the front of the room. Her treatment would probably be the same regardless of her disability.

• A student who has repeatedly disrupted the lunch room may receive detention or a short suspension. If he has not been evaluated for a disability, this may be the time to do it. If he is disabled, the same discipline would apply.

• A student who fights and brings a knife to school can be suspended immediately whether or not he has a disability. Under the new rules, the school can also refer such matters to law enforcement officials. n


Terry Jean Seligmann, University of Arkansas School of Law, Waterman Hall 107, Fayetteville, AR 72701; phone (501) 575-6939, eMail, web facultyQ_T/seligmann.html.

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