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Special Education Alert: House Takes Up Amendment To Weaken IDEA Protections For Children With
Mental Illnesses And Other Disabilities


For Immediate Release, April 21, 2000
Contact: Chris Marshall
703-524-7600



The full House of Representatives is poised to once again consider the difficult issue of cessation of education services for children with disabilities who bring a weapon on to school grounds. As in the past, this contentious issue is being brought up in the context of a larger education reauthorization bill - the Education Opportunities To Protect and Invest In Our Nation's Students (Education OPTIONS) Act, HR 4141.

It is expected that when the House takes up HR 4141 later this spring, Representative Charles Norwood (R-GA) will offer an amendment that would allow school districts to strip away all due process protections under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in cases where a child with a disability (including a child with a mental illness or SED) brings a weapon to school. NAMI advocates may recall that last year a similar provision to the Norwood Amendment was added to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act (HR 1501). That amendment, which also dealt with cessation of educational services for children with disabilities who bring guns/weapons to school, is now stalled in a House-Senate Conference Committee.

The Norwood Amendment to HR 4141 reads as follows:

"Each State receiving funds under this Act shall require each local educational agency to have in effect a policy under which school personnel of such agency may discipline (including expel or suspend) a child with a disability who carries or possesses a weapon to or at a school, on school premises, or to or at a school function...in the same manner in which such personnel may discipline a child without a disability...Notwithstanding any other provision of Federal law, a child expelled or suspended shall not be entitled to continue educational services, including a free appropriate public education, required under Federal law during the term of such expulsion or suspension, if a State...does not require a child without a disability to receive educational services after being expelled or suspended."

In NAMI's view, this proposal has the potential to undermine vital protections, including the very right to a free and appropriate public education, provided by the IDEA for children with severe mental illnesses. It allows a school district to cease all educational services to a student with a disability who carries to or possesses a weapon at school, or at a school function, but does not allow for due process to determine whether the act was a result of the symptoms of a disability. In effect, this amendment would weaken IDEA protections and again give room for educators to remove children with disabilities, including those with serious brain disorders, from the classroom.

Under the amendment, a school district would NOT be required to provide a free and appropriate public education to a student with a disability expelled under this provision. This could occur even if a local school district otherwise provides educational services to students who are suspended or expelled (whether or not they have a disability). This provision would effectively undo the carefully negotiated discipline provisions that were contained in the 1997 IDEA reauthorization legislation.

The 1997 IDEA Amendments Protect School Safety

In NAMI's view, the required discipline for students with disabilities should include due process for first determining whether the behavior meriting discipline was a "manifestation" of the disability - as specified in the 1997 law. These carefully negotiated protections do not need to be eroded in order to ensure school safety. Schools are already given ample authority under the 1997 law to maintain environments conducive to learning. For example, a student with a disability who brings a gun to school can be immediately removed from school. Schools can immediately call the police and report crimes committed by students with disabilities. If the behavior of a child is not related to the child's disability, the child can be disciplined in the same manner as non-disabled children. While education services cannot be terminated, a child can be removed from his home school and placed in an alternative setting.

Moreover, law enforcement agencies across the country report that ceasing education services for any child only increases juvenile crime. In fact, research demonstrates that cessation of education services leads to increases in juvenile crime, drop out rates, incarceration and illegal drug use. Rather than releasing troubled children to the streets, a portion of the solution is to require students who are expelled or suspended to continue their education in secure, supervised educational settings.

Families of children with disabilities are concerned about school safety. In fact, these families know that too often their children are the victims of inappropriate conduct. Furthermore, the Norwood Amendment further opens the door to inappropriate and unnecessary removal from school for students with severe mental illnesses and other disabilities who have neither violated, nor threatened to violate any school code of conduct.

ACTION REQUESTED

NAMI encourages child advocates to contact their members of Congress and urge them to oppose the Norwood amendment to the Education OPTIONS Act, H.R. 4141. Urge them to oppose efforts aimed at undermining free and appropriate education for children with severe mental illness and wiping out important due process protections under IDEA. Remind them that the Norwood Amendment will have a devastating impact on IDEA and the education of children with disabilities. The congressional spring recess runs through May 2. Until then, most members of Congress can be reached through their district offices (phone numbers are available through www.congress.org All members of Congress can also be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or by going to the policy page of the NAMI website at http://www.nami.org/policy.htm and click on "Write to Congress."


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