On Tuesdays around here we highlight the Toolbox—a full day training program focusing on disciplinary options in dealing with students with disabilities. Today: a case from Massachusetts involving a very bright student who showed promise as a cartoonist. The problem in the eyes of the school administrators was that so many of the cartoons depicted violence aimed at the school.
The case ended up in litigation involving several issues. The parents eventually put the student in a private, sectarian school that did not provide special education services at all. The parents were quite happy with this placement, and even declared to the school that the student “did not need special education at all.” This was surprising in light of the fact that the high school student had been receiving special education services since first grade. Even more surprising, the parents sought tuition reimbursement. Hmmm. They want to be reimbursed for special education services at a school that did not provide such services and for a student that no longer needed them. Sharp readers (recent surveys show this term applies to 97.1% of Daily Dawg subscribers) will quickly surmise that the parents are not going to succeed with that argument. And they did not. The court held that the public school did not have to pay for the private placement.
That part of the case is a routine tuition reimbursement case. But the parents raised other arguments, and that’s’ what makes this case Dawg-worthy. The parents alleged that by “seizing” the boy’s notebook against his will to inspect his drawings, the school officials violated the 4th Amendment. They further alleged that by punishing the student for the content of some of the cartoons, the school officials violated the 1st Amendment guarantee of free speech.
Thus this case begins with a very routine incident in the school—i.e., an administrator tells the student to hand over that notebook that he’s been drawing in at school. The student does so, reluctantly. The administrator is alarmed by what she sees. Disciplinary action follows. Sometime later a lawyer alleges that this was an unconstitutional “seizure” and the school officials should be held personally liable.
The court rejected that argument, applying the familiar notion that searches in the school setting are judged by overall reasonableness. Here, the court held that the school officials acted reasonably. They had a reason to want to see what the student was drawing; they handled the situation without an undue incursion into the student’s privacy. As far as the 1st Amendment, the court said this:
In light of [the student’s] behavioral history and his essay, the drawings were, to say the least, concerning. They portray an “epic” battle involving guns against teachers at [the school], where the “final battle” was “win or die.” It was perfectly reasonable for [the principal] and [special education director] to conclude that [the student’s] drawings, whether they were explicitly shared with another student or not, would cause disruption in the school.
In the Toolbox training, we emphasize that the special protections that students with disabilities enjoy come on top of the due process and other constitutional protections enjoyed by all students. The first step toward taking disciplinary action that comports with the special education laws is to make sure you comply with the general laws, such as the Constitution. In the case of E.T. v. Bureau of Special Education Appeals, the school officials did just that. The case was decided by the federal court for Massachusetts on March 11, 2016. We found it at 67 IDELR 118.
If you are interested in Toolbox training, let me know!
DAWG BONE: A ROUTINE INCIDENT IN SCHOOL CAN END UP AS A BATTLE OVER THE CONSTITUTION.
File this one under: SPECIAL EDUCATION DISCIPLINE
TOMORROW: CAN I GET A WHOLE YEAR OFF AS A “REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION”?