- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The landmark No Child Left Behind education bill signed into law by President Bush last January left untouched one of the most troubled federal programs serving the nation's schools: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). With Congress and the administration unable to reach agreement on overhauling IDEA, which serves 6 million children, Mr. Bush created the Commission on Excellence in Special Education, chaired by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. In July, following months of public hearings across the country, the Branstad panel came back with a lengthy report recommending changes to IDEA. Unfortunately, the report like those by earlier panels that attempted to improve the program failed to provide any real guidance on ways to deal with disabled students who are violent and engage in criminal behavior.

IDEA, which took effect in 1975, defines a child with a disability as one with hearing, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, autism, or problems with emotional or social development. The law generally permits the removal of disabled students from the classroom only in cases "when they cannot be educated in that setting with supplemental aids and services." In the real world, this means that schools will do just about anything to avoid the threat of litigation that's bound to occur anytime they attempt to remove a dangerous special-education student from a regular classroom.

There are legions of IDEA horror stories from schools across the country. In Delaware, after a 10-year-old boy set fire to a bathroom and brought a knife to class, the state agreed to send him to an out-of-state private school at an annual cost of $70,000. In Louisiana, two students, one of them disabled, beat another student so severely that she was sent to the hospital. The non-disabled student was expelled, while the disabled student was merely suspended for 10 days.

One special education teacher in Alabama wrote Sen. Jeff Sessions to say that IDEA, "however well-intentioned, has become one of the greatest single obstacles that educators face in our fight to provide children with a quality education delivered in a safe environment."

In 2001, the House and Senate approved legislation that would have given school systems greater authority to remove violent special-ed students from the classroom. But the Bush administration bowed to opposition from disability-rights advocates, and it was dropped from the education bill.

The Bush administration needs to rethink its position on granting school districts the authority to develop reasonable disciplinary standards for disabled children. Leaving violent students free to prey on others is antithetical to the very concept of education reform.

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