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Article of Interest - Disabilities

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Disabled Students Law Questioned
Christine MacDonald, The Detroit News, July 5, 2005
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Special education advocates are worried that recent changes in a federal act designed to guarantee students with disabilities access to school will instead make it easier for schools to kick those kids out through expulsion and suspension.

They say that even before the changes in the law, schools were too quick to expel disabled students because of zero-tolerance policies, a lack of resources to prevent bad behavior and pressure to improve test scores. They fear those children who have been "pushed out" are left without even a basic education.

"We are so worried about test scores ... we aren't seeing these kids falling through the cracks," said Carolyn Gammicchia of Shelby Township, who has a 14-year-old autistic son in the Utica school district.

The issue pits parents worried about losing services for their children against school administrators who are concerned about the safety of their classrooms.

"We believe school districts ... ought to have the ability to protect the safety of everyone," said Reggie Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. "If the student remains in the classroom ... we haven't created a safe environment."

On July 1, numerous changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) went into effect, including changes to discipline policies.

Parents -- not districts -- now will have the burden of proof when they fight a student's suspension or expulsion. That will mean parents will have to prove that their child's actions were caused by the disability to successfully contest a suspension that is longer than 10 days. And school districts could have more latitude to keep disruptive kids out of a classroom while parents appeal the expulsion, according to those familiar with the law.

Parents and advocates say they are concerned about safety just like school administrators but say they believe the change gives districts too much discretion.

"A lot of parents don't have the time to educate themselves on special education law," Gammicchia said.

"Parents don't have the financial resources to bring in experts."

If a student's action, such as hitting a teacher or making a threat, is proven to be caused by his or her disability, the school can't suspend the student for more than 10 days, unless it involves a weapon, drugs or serious injury.

If the disability wasn't a factor, the student can be suspended for longer. But the district still has to provide some services to the student.

There is no state data that tracks the suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities.

But Mark McWilliams, who works for a group that advocates for those with disabilities, said he believes schools are pushing more kids out of school through those policies. And the law change will make it worse, he said.

"All the ingredients are there to make it easier and more likely kids will be pushed out," said McWilliams, director of education advocacy for the Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service in Lansing. "It is a failure of our system in general. An expulsion is not a success."

Some groups, such as the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan in Ann Arbor, say these suspension and expulsion policies contribute to Michigan's high dropout problem. The state doesn't keep dropout rates for disabled students.

A Detroit News analysis in May found that school districts underestimate the number of dropouts.

"It is a lot harder to get kids back in school when you push them out," McWilliams said.

Bob Lusk, an attorney who represents about 50 districts in Metro Detroit, said the change won't cause a "mass expulsion of kids" and that districts still must provide services to those suspended students at another location, such as an alternative school or at home.

He said school districts are acting responsibly when they choose to suspend disabled students.

"(The change) is sort of a vote of confidence that districts will do the right thing," Lusk said.


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