- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Many teachers and administrators feel they cannot adequately discipline children with special needs under current federal rules, some senators and educators said during a hearing on the issue yesterday.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, said many special education teachers in his state have left the field because they "were concerned they could not protect themselves and other students" from emotionally disturbed students.
"There's a real problem with [special education] students that are dangerous and disruptive in the classroom," he said. "And teachers need a common-sense way to address it."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, held a hearing on the issue in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The panel is charged this year with reauthorizing the federal special education law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the House, the Republican-led Education and the Workforce Committee has the same duty.
Panel member Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and House Republicans, tried to give teachers more leeway to discipline students with disabilities during debate on the education overhaul law last year. Their proposals were opposed by Senate Democrats and did not make it into the final bill.
But Mr. Sessions said Mr. Kennedy recognizes this is a major concern to many. "He has indicated that this reauthorization period will be the time for us to discuss it honestly and openly, and I think we've begun to do so," Mr. Sessions said.
Under current IDEA rules, special education students may be removed from school for 10 days if they bring weapons or guns to school. After that, school officials can go before a hearing officer and request the student be sent to an alternative educational setting for an additional 45 days. The child must receive educational services at all times.
The same process may be used to remove special education students for other violent behavior or incidents, but only if the school can prove that the student is "substantially likely" to injure himself or others a standard many critics say is difficult to prove. Critics say the expensive and complicated hearing process combined with the threat of litigation from parents unhappy with their child's removal causes many schools to simply allow these students back into the classroom.
"If the parent and their attorney do not agree, the student is back in the classroom in less than 10 days," said Ronnie M. Jackson, superintendent of the Dale County Schools in Alabama.
He said this even applies when the dangerous misbehavior is not related to a student's disability.
"Such immunity for intentional actions does not pass the commonsense test," Mr. Jackson said. "Not only does it undermine local school systems' ability to maintain safe schools, it erodes the credibility of otherwise outstanding legislation."
But Mr. Kennedy said lawmakers must be careful to "address discipline issues with special students while protecting the hard-won civil rights of school children with disabilities."
He said studies have shown that expulsion from school without continuing educational services is far more damaging to disabled students than nondisabled ones. Disabled students in these situations are far less likely to return to school or complete their education and many get arrested.
Democrats yesterday repeated their long-standing demand that the government fulfill its 1975 pledge to pay states 40 percent of the cost of educating disabled students. The pledge so far has not been met despite significant increases in IDEA funding in recent years.
"I hope we remember that we shouldn't punish any child because we have failed to provide adequate resources," said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.
President Bush requested $8.5 billion a $1 billion increase for IDEA in his fiscal 2003 budget. Mr. Bush also convened a commission to examine ways to reform and improve IDEA. Their recommendations are due out by July.

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