On Thursday, April 25, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) held a hearing on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law. The focus of the hearing was on behavioral supports in schools and included the issue of discipline.
Earlier this year, President Bushed signed the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001." During debate on this bill, school discipline was among one of the most contentious issues; however no amendments were included in the final version of that bill approved by Congress. Further debate is expected this year within the reauthorization of IDEA.
Ceasing educational and other services for students as a means of disciplining them violates the principle of "leaving no child behind." NAMI believes that Congress should not amend the existing IDEA discipline provisions. IDEA must continue to provide the safeguards necessary to ensure that children and adolescents with mental illnesses are not unfairly targeted and excluded from the educational system. Instead, school-based resources should be dedicated to properly identifying and providing appropriate special education services to these students, which has been shown to produce positive educational outcomes.
The Senate hearing allowed witnesses to discuss the outcomes possible under IDEA and the benefits to providing and implementing positive intervention strategies. Sarah Flanagan, a parent, testified first at the hearing. She spoke of her son's positive experience with the special education system and the importance of early intervention and access to services. Ms. Flanagan was able to secure services for her son, under IDEA, based on the eligibility category for ADHD. The school provided the necessary accommodations and services for ADHD as well as his other health impairments. Her testimony was a good example of how effective IDEA can be when schools have the proper resources and implement the law as written, something that does not happen often enough. Also on the panel was Kathleen Boundy, J.D, Co-Director of the Center for Law and Education. Ms. Boundy testified to the great importance of IDEA as a civil rights law and the need for the safeguards that IDEA has the potential to provide for children with disabilities.
Dr. George Sugai, Co-Director of the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, testified about the need for implementing evidence-based approaches in our schools. He stressed the need to build a continuum of positive behavioral interventions and supports for all kids in schools, not just youth served under IDEA. NAMI strongly supports the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports and is pleased that the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs has embraced this effective, proven and positive approach to discipline and intervention. Also testifying on the panel was Marsha Weissman, Executive Director of the Center for Community Alternatives, an alternative school program in New York, and Dr. Ronnie Jackson, an Alabama school Superintendent who presented testimony on the need to amend the current discipline protections under IDEA.
In January 2001, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on School Discipline (Report 01-210). The report summarizes information gathered from a survey of 272 middle and high school principals and finds that special education students who are involved in serious misconduct are being disciplined in generally a similar manner as regular education students. Also, a substantial majority of respondents believe that the existing IDEA discipline provisions have either a positive or neutral effect on school safety and orderliness. For more information on the GAO report visit www.gao.gov (report 01-210).