Discipline and Disability

Determining when a child’s misbehavior in school is related to a disability.

As a parent, Maria had a long rope but she was nearing the end of it. The principal had just called, asking Maria to come to school and pick up her son Jeremy, whom the teacher had said was “out of control.” Because he hadn’t finished his class work, Jeremy was directed by the teacher to stay in during recess. At that point, Jeremy threw his book at the chalkboard.

Maria knew Jeremy could sometimes be a handful. He was in special education and had some emotional and behavioral issues. This was actually the fourth time that fall that Maria had been called because of her son’s behavior, prompting Jeremy to miss ten days of school. This time, the principal said he was suspending Jeremy for another ten days, and Jeremy might be expelled or moved to a different school due to his continual disruptive behavior.
   
While Maria knew that Jeremy’s behavior was not acceptable, she believed it was related to his disability— and there might be better ways to deal with it than withholding recess and suspending her son. Jeremy struggled to sit still through class, making recess was a much-needed break. It didn’t seem fair that Jeremy might be expelled for misbehavior that was not his fault. Hadn’t Maria heard that a student with special needs could not be punished for behavior that was a manifestation of the child’s disability? Didn’t the law require that, as a child with a disability, Jeremy was entitled to appropriate educational services?
   
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) entitles all children with disabilities a right to a free appropriate public education, including children who are suspended or expelled. The IDEA has specific procedures for school administrators to follow when disciplining children with disabilities. These procedures balance the need to keep schools safe with the right of children with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education. There is a process to determine if a student’s misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability. The process prevents children from being punished for “misbehavior” that is related to the child’s disability. Unfortunately, the IDEA’s procedures can be confusing. To facilitate things, here are some common questions and answers regarding the manifestation determination process.
 
Q: Who makes the manifestation determination?
A: The manifestation determination is made by a group that includes the child’s parent and the relevant members of the child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team. Parents and school administrators decide which IEP team members will be included in the meeting.

Q: When must a manifestation determination be made?
A: Whenever the school decides to remove or suspend a student with a disability from the student’s educational placement for more than ten school days.

Q: How does the group decide if the student’s misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability?
A: First the group reviews all of the relevant information in the student’s file, including any information from the IEP, teacher observations and information provided by the student’s parents. Based on that review, the group determines whether the student’s misconduct was caused by or was directly or substantially related to the student’s disability or if the misconduct was the direct result of the school district not implementing the student’s IEP.
   
If the group determines that the misconduct was related to the student’s disability or was the direct result of the IEP not being implemented, then the team determines that the misconduct was a manifestation of the student’s disability.

Q: If the student knows right from wrong and understands it is wrong to violate the student code of conduct, doesn’t that mean the misconduct was not a manifestation of the disability?
A:  No. While the student may know his or her behavior is wrong, the misconduct might still be directly related to the child’s disability. For example, the student’s disability may limit an ability to control one’s behavior. Or, perhaps IEP services, such as counseling, were never provided, causing the student’s behavior to escalate beyond the student’s control.

Q: What happens if the student’s misconduct is determined to be a manifestation of the student’s disability?
A:  The student’s IEP team meets, and unless special circumstances exist or the IEP team changes the student’s educational placement, the student returns to the school program he or she was in before the suspension. The IEP team also conducts a Functional Behavioral Assessment and implements a behavior intervention plan for the student. A Functional Behavior Assessment gathers information about the student’s behavior to determine what function the student’s behavior serves for the student. The behavior intervention plan aims to support the student in amending problematic behavior.

Q: What are special circumstances?
A:  In disciplinary situations involving the possession of weapons or illegal drugs, or if the student has caused a serious injury, the school may remove the student for up to 45 school days, even if the misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability. The student must receive appropriate educational services after the first ten school days that the student is removed.

Q: What if the group determines that the misconduct is not a manifestation of the student’s disability?   
A:  If the student’s misconduct is not a manifestation of the student’s disability, then the student may be disciplined in the same manner as a student without a disability. However, if the student gets expelled, the student is still entitled to receive a free appropriate public education. In many cases, the student’s behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the student’s disability. But, parents have the right to appeal a decision that their child’s behavior is not related to their child’s disability. Hearings to resolve disagreements in the disciplinary process are expedited. In fact, the hearing must be held within 20 school days after it is requested, and the decision must be made within ten school days after the hearing is completed.

Generally an educational and exciting time for children, school can be a tough period for children with special needs. Behavioral and emotional misbehavior by these children can be confused for traditional childhood mischief. To ensure your child’s educational success and happiness, remain aware of your child’s needs and confirm your child’s school understands the discipline procedures under the IDEA.