Toolbox Tuesday: the importance of the word “unilateral”

In our firm’s Toolbox Training we emphasize the Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress intentionally “stripped” school administrators of “unilateral” power. Decisions that in the past had been made by a campus principal or superintendent would now be made by 1) the ARD Committee; or 2) a special education hearing officer; or 3) a local district judge. The context was the placement of students who might engage in behavior that was seriously disruptive or violent.

However, there are things that a principal can do “unilaterally.” Of the ten tools in the Toolbox, there are three that can be used by the principal without approval of anyone else. They are:

Tool #5: Special Circumstances Removal. This option did not exist when SCOTUS made its observation of how the unilateral powers of campus administrators had been stripped away. That was in the 1988 case of Honig v. Doe. After that, Congress changed the law, providing three situations in which campus administrators can order the immediate removal of a student from the IEP placement. They involve drugs, weapons, or the infliction of serious bodily injuries. The removal can be done even if the behavior was caused by the student’s disability, and can be for as long as 45 school days.

We should probably refer to this as only “quasi-unilateral.” It’s true that the principal can order a removal, but the principal cannot determine where the student will be served. That requires an ARD meeting. After determining that the student has committed a “special circumstances” offense, the principal can order removal to an “Interim Alternative Educational Setting” (IAES) but must call for an ARD meeting so that the members of the ARD can determine what that IAES will be.

Tool #7: Removal within the FAPE-Free Zone. In the Honig case SCOTUS gave its approval to the administrative regulation that allows principals to remove a student from the IEP placement for up to ten school days in the school year. These short-term removals are “FAPE-Free” only for ten days. Anything beyond that is complicated, requires services to the student, and is definitely not something that can be done “unilaterally.”

Tool #10: Calling in law enforcement. This is typically the principal’s decision and does not require ARD approval. School policy or directives from central office may restrict the authority of the principal, but IDEA does not.

All of these tools should be used carefully. Just because the principal can do something does not mean it’s a good idea. In the Toolbox Training we try to emphasize behavior plans and other focused efforts to address inappropriate student behavior. The idea behind IDEA is to ensure an appropriate education for each child in a safe school setting.

If you are interested in Toolbox Training, let me know.


Got a question or comment for the Dawg? Let me hear from you at

Tomorrow: got some rookie teachers? Subs?