Students Law Questioned
Christine MacDonald, The Detroit News, July 5, 2005
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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
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
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
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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