Discipline and Disability: Determining When a Child’s Misbehavior in School is Related to Their Disability

    Readers I originally posted this article in October  2007.  I have added some additional content and links to the IDEA Regulations in this  new version.

 As a parent, Maria had a long rope but she was quickly nearing the end of it. The principal had just called and asked her to come to school and pick up her son, Jeremy, because the teacher said he was “out of control.” Jeremy hadn’t finished his work during class time and when the teacher told him he had to stay in during recess he had thrown his book at the chalkboard. Maria knew Jeremy could sometimes be a handful. He was in special education and had some emotional/behavioral issues, but this was the fourth time this fall that she’d been called and Jeremy had now missed ten days of school. This time the principal said he was suspended for another ten days and might be expelled or moved to a different school because his behavior was so disruptive. 

     While Maria knew that Jeremy’s behavior was not acceptable, she believed it was related to his disability, and that there might be better ways to deal with it than withholding recess. Jeremy struggled to sit still through class and recess was a much-needed break. It didn’t seem fair that he might be expelled for “misbehavior” that was not Jeremy’s fault. Hadn’t she heard that students with disabilities could not be punished for behavior that was a manifestation of their disability? Didn’t the law require that, as a child with a disability, Jeremy was entitled to appropriate educational services? 

     The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that all children with disabilities have a right to a free appropriate public education, including children who are suspended or expelled. The IDEA has specific procedures for school administrators to follow when disciplining children with disabilities. These procedures balance the need to keep schools safe with the right of children with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education. There is a process to determine if a student’s misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability, and prevents children from being punished for “misbehavior” that is related to the child’s disability. Unfortunately, the IDEA’s procedures can be confusing. Here are some questions and answers regarding the manifestation determination process that should make the process clearer. 

  • 1. Why are there “special rules for disciplining children with disabilities?

When Congress first enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, it noted that children with disabilities were often suspended, expelled, or otherwise excluded from public education in our country merely because they had behavior problems. School officials had often unilaterally excluded children with disabilities from school without parent input or an opportunity to appeal. Congress wanted to ensure that all children with disabilities had access to a free appropriate public education. Moreover, Congress wanted to protect children with disabilities from the unilateral, speculative, and subjective decisions by school officials that had often caused them to be removed from school for behavior related to their disability. 

  • 2. Who makes the Manifestation Determination?

The manifestation determination is made by a group that includes the child’s parent and the relevant members of the child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) team. The parent and school administrators decide which IEP team members will be included in the meeting. 

  • 3. When must a Manifestation Determination be made?

Whenever school officials make a disciplinary “change in placement” there must be a manifestation determination. A change in placement occurs whenever the school decides to remove or suspend a student with a disability from the student’s educational placement for more than 10 school days. The 10 school days may be consecutively or over the course of a school year.

There must also be a manifestation determination if the student has been subjected to a series of removals that constitute a pattern. A pattern is determined if the (a) the student is removed for more than 10 days in the school year (b) the student’s behavior is substantially similar to his behavior in previous incidents and (c) considering the length of each removal, the total amount of time the student has been removed, and the proximity of the removals to one another, there appears to be a pattern of removing the student. 

  • 4. How does the group decide if the student’s misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability?

First, the group will review all of the relevant information in the student’s file including any information included from the IEP, teacher observations, and information provided by the student’s parents. Based on that review, the group will determine whether:

  • (1) The student’s misconduct was caused by or was directly or substantially related to the student’s disability; or

  • (2) The misconduct was the direct result of the school district not implementing the student’s IEP.

If the group determines that the misconduct was related to the student’s disability or was the direct result of the IEP not being implemented, then the team will determine that the misconduct was a manifestation of the student’s disability. 

  • 5. If the student knows right from wrong and understands it is wrong to violate the student code of conduct, doesn’t that mean their misconduct was not a manifestation of their disability?

No, the student may know their behavior is wrong but the misconduct might still be directly related to their disability. For example, the student’s disability may limit their ability to control the behavior. Or, perhaps IEP services, such as counseling, were never provided, causing the student’s behavior to escalate beyond the student’s control. 

The student’s IEP team will meet and unless there are special circumstances or the IEP team changes the student’s educational placement, the student will return to the school program they were in before the suspension. The IEP team will also conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment and will implement a behavior intervention plan for the student. A Functional Behavior Assessment gathers information about the student’s behavior to determine what function the student’s behavior serves for the student. The behavior intervention plan is the plan to provide support to the student to intervene with the behavior. 

In disciplinary situations involving possession of weapons, illegal drugs, or the student has caused a serious injury; the school may remove the student for up to 45 school days, even if the misconduct is a manifestation of the student’s disability. The student must receive appropriate educational services after the first 10 school days that the student is removed. 

  • 8. What if the group determines that the misconduct is NOT a manifestation of the student’s disability?

If the students misconduct is not a manifestation of the student’s disability then the student may be disciplined the same as a student without a disability. But if expelled, the student is still entitled to receive a free appropriate public education. In many cases the student’s behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the student’s disability. But, parents have the right to appeal a decision that their child’s behavior is not related to their child’s disability. Hearings to resolve disagreements in the disciplinary process are expedited. That means the hearing must be held within 20 school days after it is requested and the decision must be made within 10 school days after the hearing is completed. 

     Some school administrators pride themselves on a no-nonsense zero tolerance approach to discipline in their schools. In such an environment normal childhood mischief can be mistaken for serious misconduct. For children with disabilities, disability related behavior can be confused with misconduct requiring discipline. Being aware and making sure your child’s school is aware of the discipline procedures under the IDEA will ensure your child’s success and happiness in their education.

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6 Responses

  1. Please pass this information on to your readers.

    Families Against Restraint and Seclusion


    National Disability Rights Network Releases Shocking Report 1/13/2009 on Seclusion and Restraint in U.S. Schools
    REPORT : School is Not Supposed to Hurt http://www.napas.org/

    U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) Discusses New Report on Use of Seclusion and Restraint in Schools at 1/13/09 Press Conference in Washington D.C. http://polfeeds.com/item/Dodd-Discusses-New-Report-on-Use-of-Seclusion-and-Restraint-in-Schools

    Awareness video on Restraint and Seclusion that was sent to the National Disability Rights Network on 01/16/2009
    Restraint and Seclusion Behind Closed Doors 1-23-09 http://youtube.com/watch?v=Fkhhv2fUwDg

    U.S. Representative George Miller Asks GAO to Investigate Cases of Abuse and Neglect of School children
    January 27, 2009 2:21 PM
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, today asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to further investigate recent reports of seclusion and restraint of children in public and private schools across the country. Miller’s committee plans to hold a hearing on these practices in the coming months. Earlier this month, the National Disability Rights Network released a report detailing hundreds of cases where abusive uses of seclusion and restraint by school staff injured or traumatized schoolchildren, many with disabilities. The report revealed cases where students were abusively pinned to the floor, handcuffed, locked in closets, and subjected to other acts of violence. In some of the cases, children died.

    As Miller noted in his letter to GAO today, a prior GAO investigation conducted at Miller’s request uncovered thousands of similar cases of abuse at teen residential treatment facilities across the country. GAO’s work laid the groundwork for legislation to address these abuses, the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008 (H.R. 6358), which the House passed in June.

    “Unfortunately, vulnerable children and teens are being abused all too often in other contexts,” Miller wrote. “To assist in the Committee’s ongoing efforts to help protect our children, I specifically request that FSI investigate the use of restraint, seclusion, and harmful aversive handling of children and youth in private and public schools.”


    Report: Kids are restrained, secluded
    THE ASSOCIATED PRESS January 13, 2009


    WASHINGTON — School children across the U.S. have been injured or killed when they were restrained or secluded, a disability rights group says. A House committee announced a hearing on the issue.

    The National Disability Rights Network, in a report Tuesday, identified cases across the country in which children, many of them with disabilities, were traumatized, injured or killed at school.

    For example, 15-year-old Michigan boy with autism died while being restrained by four school employees, the report said.

    In another case, a 13-year-old Georgia boy hanged himself in a locked concrete seclusion room after pleading with teachers not to isolate him for hours at a time.

    The group said its report “is clearly just the tip of the iceberg” because the government doesn’t have any system of collecting data about these abuses.

    Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he would schedule a hearing on the issue.

    “This report raises serious questions about the treatment of school children, the qualifications and training of staff, and what actions have been taken to address these unconscionable practices,” Miller said. “No child should be at risk or in danger while at school, no matter what the circumstances.”

  2. Phyllis,

    Thank you for the information.

  3. You’re welcome.

    I hope parents will read this information and watch the videos.

  4. Thanks for the information, some schools need to read this

  5. Cindy,

    You’re welcome and thanks for the feedback.

  6. […] the relationship between the student’s misconduct and the student’s disabilities (see Discipline and Disability: Determining When a Child’s Misbehavior in School is Related to Their Di…). That process is referred to as a Manifestation Determination (MD) review. The team that conducts […]

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