Toolbox Tuesday: The importance of the word “unilateral.”

In the Toolbox Training we spend a full day reviewing the ten “tools” that school administrators can use when dealing with students with disabilities who engage in disruptive or violent behavior. The school has the legal duty to continue to serve that student, while maintaining a safe and orderly campus for the benefit of all. It’s a tough assignment.

In the Toolbox Training we emphasize the word “unilateral.” That’s because in the one and only SCOTUS case involving special education discipline, the Court emphatically told us that Congress had “stripped” school officials of the “unilateral” power they had historically enjoyed. Background: school officials had “unilaterally” ordered the immediate removal of two high school students because they were dangerous to others. When the parents challenged the removal with a due process hearing, the parents claimed that the “stay put” rule mandated that the students remain in school while that hearing was pending. California school officials disagreed with that.

SCOTUS sided with the parents, noting that principals and superintendents no longer had the “unilateral” authority they used to have. The law no longer permitted a superintendent to order a student’s removal—at least not when the “stay put” rule applied. Instead, the superintendent could seek an order from a hearing officer or court to override the “stay put” rule.

So one of the goals of the Toolbox Training is to make sure that principals know when they can act unilaterally, and when they need some help from someone else. The SCOTUS case was in 1988, and even back then, not all “unilateral” powers were stripped away. For example, the principal could order a three-day suspension from school. In fact, the principal could do this three times before needing help from someone else. We call this Tool #7—the FAPE-Free Zone. But any removal of the student beyond the ten days of the FAPE-Free Zone was beyond the “unilateral” power of the campus administrator, or the superintendent.

After the 1988 SCOTUS case, Congress restored some of the “unilateral” authority of campus administrators. Using what we call Tool #5, the principal can “unilaterally” order a removal of up to 45 school days if the removal is based on a “special circumstances” offense: drugs, weapons, or the infliction of serious bodily injury.

The Toolbox is designed to empower school administrators to carry out their legal duties properly. One important part of that is understanding when power can be exercised “unilaterally” and when it cannot. If you are interested in knowing more about the Toolbox, please let me know.


Tomorrow: You may now resume boycotting Israel.