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Busting some special education myths

Discipline and the IEP: the rules may not be what you think

By Valle Dwight

Tara Kennedy-Kline’s 10-year-old son was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and given an IEP. The diagnosis came after years of “behavior issues” in the classroom, particularly when it came to transitions or his insistence on things staying exactly the same every day (if a child sat in the “wrong” spot, for instance, her son would act out).

In first grade he was put on a student support program for his behavioral issues, he was working with an OT assigned by the school district, he was in a special program with the guidance counselor and his parents went to quarterly "learning intervention team" meetings with the school psychologist, principal and other support staff.

“Even so, Alex served several in school suspensions for behaviors directly related to his "issues". He was also threatened with being held back because his grades were so poor due to refusal to cooperate in class. (his IQ is above 140),” said Kennedy-Kline.

“Everyday, literally every day it was something,” she said. This year they had him transferred to a school with an autism support program. During the first week in the new school, he was shocked to find that kids “get recess here.” What his parents didn't know was that for an entire school year, he had been denied recess so often that he thought recess stopped in third grade.

"People would tell me that if he had an IEP, he'd have protection from punishment, but I didn't know what his rights were," said Kennedy-Kline.

The confusion about discipline and special education goes back more than a decade.

Back in 2001 when the Senate was debating the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the issue of discipline and special education was a hot topic.

Some legislators thought that kids in special education had too much protection, and stories saying that kids in special education could never be thrown out of school made the rounds and had parents up in arms.

“It’s nonsense,” says Wayne Steedmen, a special education lawyer in Baltimore.

The law does protect students from being punished for behaviors that are related to their disability (a student with Turette’s who swears in class, for instance), but it doesn’t mean that special education students get a pass on all discipline.

If a child on an IEP is removed from school for more than 10 days, the law requires that the school have to have a meeting of the child’s team to decide if the behavior is part of the disability.

If a child has an emotional disability, for instance, and has goals in his IEP that call for learning to control anger, and gets into several fights at school, the IEP team has to meet to decide if that behavior is part of the disability. In this case, it’s clearly related to the disability, and the student could not be removed for more than 10 days.

Take the same situation, but the child on the IEP has dyslexia and has no behavior issues associated with it. The team may decide that the behavior was not related to the disability and he could be suspended.

The purpose of the law, says Steedman, is to protect kids on IEPs from losing access to the curriculum. Even if a student is suspended, the school is obligated to continue to implement the IEP and work on the goals.

Even if your child is not on an IEP, but is in the process of being evaluated for special education, they have the same protections as if they were on an IEP, Steedman adds. If the parents or teacher has put in writing their concerns about a child’s learning issues, or if the child is on a 504 plan (through the ADA), they are protected from being removed from school for more than 10 days (if the behavior is a manifestation of their disability).

For bigger issues, kids in special education may face placement in a different setting for as long as 45 days. For students caught with drugs, or who bring weapons to school, or who cause bodily harm to others, the 45-day suspension kicks in.

Where schools and parents often clash, says Steedman, is on the question of whether the behavior is a manifestation of the disability. If the school is recommending that their child be suspended for a long time (a full semester, for example), Steedman recommends that parents file for due process and ask for new evaluations to see if the behavior is a part of the disability.

“It’s confusing to a lot of people,” he says. “But it’s the manifestation determination that is key.”

In his new school, Kennedy-Kline's son is back to getting straight A's and has had no suspensions -- in school or otherwise for months.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"Dear Tara, I would like to encourage you to consider homeschooling your child, and work to have him more rigorously diagnosed. It is possible that he has Sensory Processing Disorder. Google Dr. Lucy Jane Miller on the computor, and see if her dicription of Sensory Processing Disoder doesn't also fit your son's differences in behavior. What the school system has done to your child is abusive. If you were to innapropriately dicsipline him in this way, DYFS would accuse you of abuse. He needs to be accomodate, and have his school day modified.The IEP's are not being followed through with, and in many cases it is out right impossible to implement them in a school setting. School teachers have admitted this to me.If your son is on the Autism spectrum, and potentially has Sensory Processing Diorder, not letting him have recess is the worst thing you could do to a child like that. They need movement, and they need it all day long! Please stand up for your son. Consider homeschooling! him if at all possible.His special needs need your special protection, and advocacy. Don't let those who don't love hm, mis treat him any longer! "
"..yeah, I have an IEP, and I don't get special tretment. Heck, teachers seem to pick on me."
"People do think that IEP's give kids passes on behavior.I will tell you that this is incorrect.My son is a prime example.He is in special ed and have IEP's.When punishment for his actions are handed out he serves it.(He behavior is from his issues.)I only protest when the protest when the punishment is excessive for the behavior.I want him to know that just because he is in special classes doesn't mean that he can do what ever he wants and get away with it."
"Thank you for writing this article. It is challenging getting information and support. I found this strengthening."
"Tourette's Syndrome, not 'Turette's' as stated on page 2."
"I had some problems early on with the schools only telling me the 'bad or wrong' things my child was doing. I called for an IEP meeting and made it imperative that if they were documenting behavior that they must include at least one good thing they did that day. When the staff knew that they had to look for good things and document those along with the bad, their attitude toward my child changed since they realized my child did have many good qualities too. I needed to know about that good thing too since they were so focused on the bad, it was affecting my relationship with my child but he couldn't tell me at the time he was doing anything good because the school wasn't telling him about the good thongs he was doing. When the IEP changed the focus to include good behavior, my child's life at school improved."
"Do our Grandchildren have rights Please advise.Our Grandson was just tested and the school states he has a learning disability Rights what are Rights These Children at this school do not have rights PLEASE ADVISE Loving Grandparent From Ga Our Children and Grandchildren Are Priceless"
"Thank you for this article. It sheds light on others who may not know about disablities and behaviors associated with them. I know as a mother of an autistic child, but some may not know if they are not personally involved with this situation."
"Though I am a high school art teacher,mother and grandmother, there has always been a common thread of truly understanding a special needs child's whole personna when working with school districts who seem to ignore obvious signs of behavior outbursts with a special needs child or young adult. IEP's and a child's rights to an education based on their individual needs are so related to finding and achieving goals for both parent and child working with administration and staff in schools! I have observed my own two daughter's with a disability, struggle to receive needed help in their educational programs and I learned my rights and stood my ground! Thank you for your article which was both informational and timely . "
"'This year they had him transferred to a school with an autism support program.' This seems to be the answer, but with many states and school districts deeply in debt, there is no money to staff special schools with the trained staff to deal with these kinds of children. So, the other children continue to get ignored, while the teachers are desperately trying to manage the classroom disruptions."