April 29, 2002
NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, is the leading grassroots advocacy organization representing people with serious brain disorders and their families. NAMI's nationwide grassroots membership consists of 220,000 family members, consumers, and advocates directly affected by severe mental illnesses.
NAMI strongly believes that our schools must be safe and orderly to ensure the best learning environment for all students. NAMI also understands the critical need for school districts to have the authority to discipline students to ensure safe schools and an environment conducive to learning for all students. However, students should not be denied all access to needed education and related services because of behaviors caused by the symptoms of their illnesses.
The prevalence of early-onset mental illness is staggering. One in ten children and adolescents suffer from a mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. Recent evidence compiled by the World Health Organization indicates that by the year 2020, childhood neuropsychiatric disorders will rise proportionately by over 50% internationally. The educational system, along with the other systems charged with addressing the needs of children with mental illnesses, must take responsibility for developing effective and innovative approaches to meeting their basic needs.
The 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) disciplinary provision amendments and ensuing regulations strike the appropriate balance between ensuring that school administrators can appropriately address disciplinary behaviors and protecting students with disabilities from being unfairly excluded from the classroom. There is no need to change these amendments and regulations in any way.
Moreover, the disciplinary provisions' prohibition against complete cessation of services for students with disabilities is essential for meeting the basic education needs of children with mental illnesses. What happens to students with mental illnesses who are unfairly deprived of educational services through school suspensions and expulsion? We violate our commitment to leave no child behind. These children fail and drop out. We deny them the fundamental right to an education and the chance to go on to lead independent and productive lives. Far too often these kids end up in the juvenile justice system, or worse as a suicide statistic - suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.
NAMI recognizes that there are times when it is necessary to exclude a student with a mental illness or other disability from the classroom because of disciplinary violations or to ensure his or her safety and the safety of others. The IDEA disciplinary provisions clearly allow for appropriate disciplinary action in those cases, with the necessary procedural safeguards built in.
Some argue, with anecdotal evidence, that there is a double standard -- students with disabilities are receiving education services after engaging in serious misconduct while students without disabilities engaging in the same conduct are not. Contrary to the anecdotal assertions of a double standard, a GAO report on student discipline under IDEA found the opposite result. 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.
Effective best-practice and positive interventions have been developed for use in schools to improve the classroom environment and increase the capacity for all students to learn. NAMI is pleased that the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs has embraced positive behavioral supports, which have been shown in many classrooms to be an effective approach to discipline and intervention. Schools must continue to establish and implement research-based and effective programs that minimize the chance that children with mental illnesses will be removed from the classroom, prevent disruption by all students and help to address the unique education needs of children with mental illnesses.
Far too few schools are providing teacher training in positive behavioral approaches. Schools must invest in innovative classroom approaches that will help to minimize the need to use disciplinary measures. Moreover, NAMI families tell us that school personnel often fail to understand the basics about early-onset mental illnesses. It is hard to imagine how school personnel can be expected to address the education needs of children with mental illnesses without adequate training. We must invest in school-based training so that teachers can recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness.
We must not forget that when Congress enacted the original special education law -- 1,000,000 children with disabilities were excluded entirely from public schools. These children were simply denied the opportunity to attend school with their peers. Let us not roll back to a time when children with disabilities were excluded from our schools. Our special education law is one of the most important civil rights laws ever written and the protections included in the disciplinary provisions are critically necessary to prevent schools from excluding children with mental illnesses from our classrooms.
NAMI stands with President Bush in his statement that we must ensure that ". . . every child, not just a few children - every single child, regardless of where they live, how they're raised, the income level of their family, every child receive a first-class education in America."