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Disciplining Students with Disabilities

The legal implications of managing these pupils.

Behavior management can be a key to student, teacher, and district success. When students with disabilities are served, effective behavior management is even more critical. Failure to implement proper discipline with students with disabilities can have financial consequences. For example, a federal judge recently ordered the Waukee Community School District in Iowa to pay $50,000 in attorney fees to the family of a young girl with autism who was inappropriately placed in a time-out room for hours. For students, the emotional toll can be greater, albeit intangible. Given what’s at stake, district administrators must be aware of both the educational and legal issues involved in managing the behavior of students with disabilities by implementing effective districtwide policies and implementing appropriate interventions on a case-bycase basis.

Strategies for All Students

It is well-known that student learning is impacted negatively by poorly managed classrooms and buildings and impacted positively by well-managed classrooms and buildings. Administrators can take several steps to promote a districtwide climate that cultivates well-managed classrooms and buildings. For instance, administrators may do the following:

1. Have all teachers establish and define reasonable classroom norms or rules and communicate them in the appropriate manner to each student. Each norm or rule should be stated in positive terms. And students should understand each rule’s purpose.

2. Obtain a commitment from all staff to teach students appropriate school behavior in the same manner that academic skills are taught and reinforced. Administrators may even encourage teachers and counselors to provide formal lessons on social skills, interpersonal problem solving, and conflict resolution. Various programs are designed to assist schools with this training.

3. Have staff define expectations for various areas of each building. For example, have staff describe to students what respect “looks like” in the classroom, library, lunchroom, and restrooms. At the same time, ensure that norms or rules are consistent throughout the building. A common understanding of expectations will eliminate disagreements among students and staff and reduce anxiety for students.

4. Communicate these behavior expectations and consequences to parents and families. This will encourage support from home and will likely reduce conflicts.

Preventative Strategies

In spite of administrators’ best efforts, some students will not respond to districtwide strategies. For these students, many of whom will have disabilities, other and more individualized strategies will need to be implemented.

To begin with, when students exhibit chronic behavior problems, it is important for administrators to consider the root cause as well as the purpose for the misbehavior before attempting to identify an appropriate replacement behavior, such as deep breathing or exercising.

Administrators should seek training in drafting policies and carrying out disciplinary strategies.

Depending on the age of the student, it may help to include the student in this discussion. It will also be helpful to include the family members in identifying strategies that are tailored to the child’s individual needs.

Where a student has an individualized education program (IEP) or a behavior intervention plan (BIP), these strategies need to be considered by the case conference committee (which consists of the child’s parent[s], general education teacher, special education teacher, and other school officials with specialized knowledge of the child’s needs) and integrated into the IEP and/or BIP. Some of these strategies may include:

  • Designating a support person, such as a counselor, social worker or aide, who will check in regularly with the student or will be available if the student needs a "cool down" period.
  • Adjusting either the timing or content of the student's academic schedule to reduce stress and anxiety. For instance, it may be helpful to schedule physical education between demanding academic classes.
  • Teaching the student various relaxation techniques, such as visualization or deep breathing.
  • Allowing the student to take “timeouts” when needed to settle down, become calm or regroup.
  • Developing a crisis plan that outlines procedures for responding to the student's misbehavior and providing training in nonaversive behavior management, including positive reinforcement and communicative strategies, to all responders.
  • Counseling, mentoring, or intense social skills training.
  • Providing "wraparound" services, in which services and supports are “wrapped around” the student and his family. These may include interagency services provided at school, home, and in the community. There are often multiple agencies involved, and it is important to have a care coordinator to oversee the supports.

These strategies are typically developed after an administrator evaluates the student and conducts a behavior assessment. Because some of these individualized strategies are intensive and may need to be in place over an extended period of time, it is crucial to involve the family in all stages of developing and implementing them.

Post-Misconduct Interventions

While districtwide and individualized preventative strategies can prevent misbehavior and encourage desired behavior, some students will still break rules. When students with disabilities engage in misconduct, administrators should be aware that federal laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (or commonly known as Section 504) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), provide those students with specific procedural safeguards.

Equal Treatment. Section 504 prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating against a student with a disability because of that disability.

“Ten-Day Rule.” For each student who receives special education services via an IEP under IDEA, federal law permits a school to “remove” (i.e., suspend) the student for up to 10 consecutive days for violating the school’s code of conduct (so long as such discipline is consistent with the school’s treatment of students without disabilities who have committed the same violation under analogous conditions). Beyond that, a school must provide the student additional procedures, most notably a manifestation determination. For example, when a bus driver suspends a child for more than 10 consecutive days whose IEP calls for bus transportation, such action could amount to a “change in placement,” triggering the child’s right to a manifestation determination, whether or not the violation was a “manifestation” of the child’s disability, and other procedural rights. If the bus driver is unaware of those rights, and those who are aware of them, such as district administrators and/or officials in the special education department, are unaware of the suspensions, a district can unknowingly violate IDEA. (In some instances, “in-school” or “bus” suspensions can be considered “removal.”)

Interim Alternative Educational Setting. In an exception to the 10-day rule, under IDEA, if a student commits a weapon or drug offense at school, or if the student causes another person serious bodily injury at school, the school may unilaterally place the student in an interim alternative educational setting for up to 45 consecutive school days.

Manifestation Determination. Removing a student from the education program designated in her IEP for more than 10 consecutive days (or a pattern of removals of more than 10 days) constitutes a “change in placement” under IDEA, requiring the school to convene a manifestation determination meeting in which members of the child’s IEP team will consider whether the violation was a manifestation of the disability. If the team determines that it was, the school may not change the student’s placement without parental consent.

Functional Behavior Assessment. If a manifestation determination results in finding that a student’s conduct was a manifestation of disability, or if a school changes the placement of a child with a disability under IDEA by removing him for more than 10 days, the school must conduct a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) to examine the “function” of the behavior, meaning its cause or purpose, and create a BIP aimed at managing the behavior in the future. For example, Billy, a student with ADHD, engaged in a violent and highly disruptive outburst at school one afternoon. To conduct an FBA, Billy’s special education teacher and other relevant school staff gathered all the evidence they could find regarding the outburst. What happened before the outburst? Had it happened before? If so, what interventions or discipline were used? The team isolated the reason for Billy’s behavior. Doing so allowed them to better formulate a BIP that not only suppressed the behavior or minimized its intrusion on the school, but ultimately extinguished that behavior and channeled Billy toward acceptable and productive behaviors in the future.

Post-Expulsion Services. Where a manifestation determination conference results in the finding that a student’s violation of a code of conduct was not a manifestation of disability, the school may discipline the student as it would a student without a disability by changing her placement, such as by expelling her or transferring her to an alternative school. However, the school must still continue to provide the student educational services that permit her to participate in the general education curriculum and to progress toward her IEP goals.

The End Result

The bottom line is that administrators should be well schooled on appropriate districtwide and individualized preventative measures for managing student behavior and on the legal issues relating to the discipline of students with disabilities. Because the law can be intricate and unforgiving to administrators, they should seek good training and counsel from their attorneys, skilled vendors, and/ or professional and school associations in drafting policies and carrying out disciplinary strategies.

Allison Fetter-Harrott and Amy Steketee are attorneys specializing in school law with Baker & Daniels LLP, and Mary Jo Dare is an educational consultant for B & D Consulting in Indiana.