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Consider the whole child when disciplining students with disabilities at school

Children with disabilities may get into trouble every now and again, just like other children. When it comes to the discipline of students who have disabilities, public schools have a special obligation to consider the possible role of the child’s disability. There are federal and state laws that provide guidance in this area.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits any program that receives any federal funds from discriminating against an “otherwise qualified” individual based on their disability, when it comes to accessing, participating in, or benefiting from that program. If a student is punished for a behavior that is caused by his disability, that could be considered discrimination.  In order to be sure that such discrimination does not happen, schools should take a look at any possible connection between the behavior in question and the student’s disability when making decisions about discipline. Many school systems use a process that is similar to Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) that is described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA ’04). Each school system must develop its own Section 504 policy so you would need to check with your local school system to learn the details about how the discipline of students with disabilities is handled.

IDEA ’04 and state special education laws, allow school officials to consider the discipline of students who receive special education services on a case-by-case basis. This allows them to consider things like the nature of the child’s disability, the functioning level of the child, the intent of the behavior and other relevant factors. This flexibility is there to help make sure that schools respond to violations of the code of student conduct in an appropriate way, especially when a change in placement is being considered.

If a decision is made to change the placement of a child with a disability (as defined by IDEA), the school must hold an MDR meeting to determine whether the behavior in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s disability. The group, which includes the parent,  a representative of the school district, and relevant members of the child’s IEP team, will also consider whether the behavior or violation was the direct result of a failure to properly implement the child’s IEP.  If the answer to either of these questions is “yes”, then the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability and the child is returned to his or her previous placement and provided with appropriate positive behavior intervention and supports.

Sometimes the team that conducts the MDR looks too narrowly at the child’s disability.  They may only consider the child’s category of eligibility for special education services.  Instead, the team should review all relevant information in the child’s special education record, including the child’s IEP, along with teacher observations and any relevant information provided by the parents. As an example, a child’s category of eligibility could be specific learning disability, but consideration of the child’s “disability” should also include possible impacts of  ADHD and anxiety disorder diagnoses. The team should look at the whole child as they make a decision about whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability, just as they should consider the whole child when determining eligibility for special education, or when developing the IEP.

Look beyond the school building for resources

We often have to remind parents of children who receive special education services that it is the school district as a whole that is responsible for providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for their child. They are not limited to the resources within their child’s specific school building. This would seem like a no-brainer, but it is surprising how often that detail is missed when an IEP team or other school staff are trying to address the needs of a student who has a disability.

School staff will sometimes only think about the personnel that is currently assigned to that school when they are considering instructional strategies, adult-to-child support, equipment and assistive technology, behavioral interventions and supports, etc. Sometimes good ideas are dismissed because “we don’t have the resources for that.” Lack of resources is not a legitimate reason to fail to meet a child’s educational needs, but it is also a reality that resources are not unlimited.

One of the qualifications to serve as the LEA Representative on an IEP team, is for that individual to have knowledge of the resources of the entire school district or Local Education Agency (LEA). The LEA Representaive should be able to tell the team about LEA staff with special expertise who can be brought in as consultants who can provide ideas, training or help create a plan of action. Behavior Specialists and Psychologists can lead the functional behavior assessment (FBA) process and help develop positive behavior support plans. Reading specialist can help identify which reading program might be a better fit for a particular student. Specialists can also help staff better understand a particular disability, how it may impact the child in question, and offer research-based interventions and strategies that have been proven to be effective. Many school systems have staff who can conduct assistive technology assessments and help identify devices or equipment that might be appropriate for a specific child. Other specialist have much to contribute as well.  Somebody just needs to invite them in!

There may also be specialized programs offered within a school system that not everyone knows about. In a worst-case example of that, there was child who received only very limited home bound services for months due to his behavior. The school had told the parent that they had tried “everything” before removing the child from the school.  After the parent sought help from the Parent Training and Information Center, an IEP meeting was held with several Exceptional Children’s Department central office staff members present.  It turned out that the school district had three different alternative education programs that could have provided this child with a full-time education in a less restrictive setting. These programs were not considered because the people in the school building were not aware of them.

Many state education agencies also offer consultants who can be called on for help, often at no cost to the school district. There may be centralized funds that can be used to meet a student’s disability-related needs. There may also be clinicians and programs available within the local community that can help either during or outside of school hours.

The bottom line is that school teams should keep looking and asking questions until they find something that will work for the child.  When they have tried everything in the school building tool box without success, they should go out and get more tools. Giving up or settling for anything less than true FAPE is not an option.

When to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation

african-american woman starring off with look of concern on her faceThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents of children with disabilities several rights and protections.  One of these is the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school system’s expense if they disagree with an evaluation that was conducted by their public school system.  The IEE is intended to provide a “second opinion”, and would be limited to the same areas of focus that were included in the school evaluation.  For example, if the school evaluation included psychological, educational and speech/language assessments, the IEE would only include psychological, educational and/or speech/language evaluations.  The parent would not be able to add an occupational therapy evaluation and have the school system cover that cost as part of the IEE.

Most of the time, there is no need for an IEE. A properly planned and conducted school evaluation will typically give the IEP team the information that is needed to make decisions regarding a child’s eligibility for special education services, and to develop an appropriate individualized educational program (IEP) to meet that child’s specific needs.  However, there are other times when a parent may want to consider the option of requesting an IEE.

If a child is found to be not eligible for special education services based on a school system evaluation, an IEE may provide additional information for the team to consider and perhaps change the eligibility decision. Sometimes the test scores will be higher or lower, or they may show a larger gap between the child’s general ability and his functioning in an area where there are concerns.  The independent evaluator may use different tests or assessment methods that provide additional insight into the nature of the child’s difficulties and the pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  This new information may tip the balance, and convince the team that the child does meet the eligibility requirements for special education services.

In some cases the school’s evaluation has resulted in scores that meet the eligibility criteria, but the team feels that there is not enough evidence that the student requires “specially designed instruction.” Team members may cite an acceptable level of performance, or a belief that factors other than a disability (e.g. excessive absences or a lack of appropriate instruction), may be responsible for the child’s weaknesses.  In this situation, a second round of testing is not likely to change the eligibility decision.

For a child who gets, or already has, an IEP, there may be other decisions that are influenced by initial or re-evaluation results.  The need for related services, certain accommodations or supports may be based, in part, on information gathered during a school evaluation.  Inaccurate evaluation results may result in low expectations, disability issues that go unrecognized (and unaddressed) or even placements in more restrictive settings.  The IEE could provide data that could prove to be a “game changer.”

The school system may provide a list of local clinicians who are qualified to conduct the requested evaluations, in an effort to assist parents in obtaining the IEE.  However, parents are not limited to the persons on the list.  They can select any professionals who are qualified to conduct the evaluation(s).  The school system cannot establish an arbitrary dollar limit on the cost of the evaluation.  The school system also cannot require the independent evaluators to only use certain assessment tools.   Typically, billing arrangements are set up before the actual evaluation is scheduled, and the school system will receive a copy of the evaluation report.  Note: When parents pay the cost of a private evaluation themselves, they can control whether or not that information is shared with the school.

If you feel that the school’s evaluation does not paint an accurate picture of your child and his or her needs, then an IEE may offer one of the best chances of obtaining the information needed to possibly change the outcome when the IEP team reconsiders important decisions.