Blocking the School House Door

14 Feb

There’s a student in Maryland named Bill who has a restraining order to keep him out of school. Hat tip to John L. at the Teach Effectively! blog for following this one.

Students with severe disabilities frequently have behavior issues of either aggression or self injury. It is silly and ludicrous to suspend a student who has this level of disability, simply because the school wil not be able to credibly make a case that the behavior is not a manifestation of their disability. IDEA currently requires a manifestation hearing for individuals with disabilities in order to suspend them for more than 10 days. The purpose of this provision is to protect students like Bill and Leroy from a system that is largely ignorant of disabilities. IDEA came into being because of situations like this. Before the 1975 version of IDEA, school systems told parents of students with severe disabilities to keep their students at home. The law helped get them in school, but then school administrators began suspending a disproportionate number of these students for behavior problems, or had them shipped elsewhere. The effect was the same, basically excluding them because of their disability.

IDEA ’92 included a novel provision. Before a student could be suspended in excess of 10 days, the school had to hold a manifestation hearing in order to determine whether or not the behaviors were a function of their disability. This alone did not help a lot, since school officials were still able to put together manifestation committees that would simply vote that it was not a manifestation and they were free move the student out.

IDEA ’97 included a provision that required students going through the manifestation process to have a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) along with a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). However, congress never really said what an FBA should consist of or how it should be done. So this has still left a lot of room for school systems to operate. The primary purpose of the FBA is to determine what communicative function the behavior serves. At the most basic level, all behavior offers either access to or escape from people, objects or circumstances.

John L. correctly identified some concerns about Bill’s case. When the family goes to court, the first thing the judge is going to want to see is the IEP. Every due process proceeding begins and ends with this document. The judge will ask if there is one. Then he/she will ask if it is being properly implemented. Proper implementation would include the FBA and the BIP and all the data accompanied therein.

The Supreme Court recently made a ruling where they decided that the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. In plain language, if Bill’s parents take the school through due process, it is up to them to prove that the IEP is not properly implemented. However, since the school system is the one seeking a restraining order, it seems the burden of proof would be on them. The school would have to prove that they had an FBA that was properly done and that the BIP was properly implemented. There’s the problem.

If the BIP was based on a properly done assessment, it should work IF it is implemented properly. This is where the school ends up in hot water, because implementation requires some properly trained staff to pull it off. Proof of implementation requires some form of data collection. And by the sounds of it, Bill’s school has absolutely no systematic data collection procedure, let alone a way to convey this information to parents.

The frame of mind is one of keeping and maintaining the student in school. His mother actually kept Leroy home after she thought he had a bad day. This meant he missed every other day. I had to convince her to keep sending her son to school so I could work with him. His previous teacher wanted Leroy to stay at home, just like Bill’s school would rather he didn’t show up. It took a lot of work to turn this parent around from some previous bad experiences.

I want to say one more thing about Bill’s case. His family is fighting tooth and nail to keep him in his regular school, while the school is fighting to get him out. It might be beneficial for Bill to go to the special school where there are some better trained staff, a better structured program and hopefully a better experience waiting for him there. Having worked in such a setting, I can say it really is beneficial to have all the staff in the building pulling together in the same direction. Students benefited from having a staff that understood and cared about this population of students. In a regular school setting, there is not usually sufficient support for a student with Bill’s issues. In fact, the school does have its own issues. While Bill’s case may help address these, Bill may better be served in an environment with more competence and compassion.


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