It’s Toolbox Tuesday!!

Regular readers of the Daily Dawg know that Tuesdays are Toolbox Tuesdays here.  I know that many of you have been to one of my Toolbox workshops, but others have not. Today, just a brief reminder of why we need a “toolbox” to deal with the discipline of students with disabilities.

So let’s take the Wayback Machine back to 1975, when Congress first enacted the federal law that we now know as IDEA.

The first version of the law did not directly address student discipline. But it did create a dilemma for school administrators by requiring that schools do two things that are hard to do at the same time. On the one hand, the law required schools to provide a safe and orderly environment, conducive to learning for all students.  On the other hand, it required schools to serve all students appropriately, including those with disabilities who commit serious or violent offenses at the school.  Not only did the law require schools to serve all such students, it also required that services must be provided in the “Least Restrictive Environment” (LRE).

These two duties bump into each other.

This dilemma was squarely presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in Honig v. Doe, the only case involving special education discipline ever decided by the High Court.  In that case, California school officials argued that safety was the overriding concern. Therefore, the argument went, the “stay put” rule did not apply when school officials deemed a student to be dangerous.  The argument was that principals and superintendents should be allowed to order the removal, or expulsion of a student who is dangerous.

The Supreme Court flatly rejected that:

We think it clear, however, that Congress very much meant to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school. In so doing. Congress did not leave school administrators powerless to deal with dangerous students; it did, however, deny school officials their former right to “self-help,” and directed that in the future the removal of disabled students could be accomplished only with the permission of the parents, or, as a last resort, the courts. (Emphasis added).

That certainly put it clearly.  Congress “very much meant to strip schools” of the authority they historically enjoyed.  The Court did not think that its decision was leaving school officials powerless.  If the principal believed that a student was dangerous, she could suspend the student for up to 10 school days.  The “stay-put” rule did not apply to such short-term actions.  If a principal believed that a suspension of more than 10 days was called for, he could seek relief from a court.

That was 1988.  Much has happened since then, but the basic tension between two competing duties remains.  Schools must simultaneously maintain a safe and orderly school, while appropriately serving students who may present a risk of danger.

For the most part, this tension is resolved on a case-by-case basis by each student’s IEP Team (ARDC).  The law emphasizes individualized decision making by a group of educators working in collaboration with the parents—the ARD Committee.  The ARDC ultimately has the duty of determining, case-by-case, how to balance the duty to serve in the LRE with the duty to maintain safety.  If educators believe that a student is placed in the wrong setting, they should call for an ARDC meeting and seek a change.  If parents believe that a student is placed in the wrong setting, they should do likewise.

Thus most of the time, this tension will be addressed and resolved through ARDC action.  But in addition, there are things that an individual school administrator—usually the principal of the school—can do to address this tension.

That’s what the Toolbox is all about--ten tools educators can use to simultaneously provide a safe school and a proper placement for each student.

If you are interested in bringing the Toolbox to your district, or your ESC, please let me hear from you!


Tomorrow: A tragic accident in South Texas…