Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1350, the "Improving Education Results for Children with Disabilities Act of 2003", by a vote of 251 to 171. NAMI strongly opposes HR 1350, which reauthorizes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), providing special education services to over 6.5 million children with disabilities, because it erodes critically important special education protections and threatens the fundamental
rights of students with mental illnesses to receive an appropriate education.
House members considered 14 amendments to H.R. 1350 before the final vote on the bill. NAMI joined with other advocacy groups yesterday in expressing outrage at 2 of those amendments that would likely result in fewer students with mental illnesses receiving appropriate educational services. The 2 amendments reinforce the stigma and stereotypes that too many children and adults with mental illnesses and their families are forced to live with.
The first amendment, offered by Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) suggests that children are over-identified in the emotional disturbance eligibility category which includes students with mental illnesses -- and they can be better served with positive discipline and classroom management. This implies that childhood mental illnesses are not real illnesses and flies in the face of extensive scientific developments and years of research on mental illnesses. The amendment also expresses the sense of Congress that students should be diagnosed by a physician or person certified by a state health board to receive special education services. There is currently a national crisis in the profound shortage of children's mental health professionals and this requirement will therefore erect a barrier that would prevent many students with mental illnesses, who would otherwise qualify for special education services, from receiving those services. Despite strong advocacy efforts by NAMI and other groups throughout the day this amendment passed by a voice vote.
NAMI and other advocacy groups also worked hard to strongly oppose another amendment offered by Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-CO). The amendment would have dramatically narrowed the definition of specific learning disabilities to disorders due to a medically detectable and diagnosable condition. Our advocacy work paid off and the amendment failed by a recorded vote of 54 to 367.
The focus now shifts to the Senate. Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) have been working on a bipartisan IDEA reauthorization bill that is expected to be introduced before the Memorial Day recess. NAMI will continue to closely monitor developments and will advocate strongly to ensure that the critically important protections that currently exist in IDEA remain intact.
We urge NAMI members and advocates across the country to contact their Senators and express concern over the provisions included in HR 1350. NAMI members should express opposition to including provisions in the Senate bill that are similar to those included in H.R. 1350 including the following:
The existing law contains important protections that prohibit schools from suspending or expelling students with disabilities without meeting well-defined procedural and substantive mandates. The existing IDEA discipline protections were added in 1997 because school districts were routinely inappropriately removing students with disabilities from the classroom, many times for manifesting behaviors consistent with their disability. H.R. 1350 strips away those protections and allows school districts to unilaterally remove students with disabilities from school for any violation of a school's "code of conduct" - which could include violating dress code, kicking lockers, or chewing gum. It is fundamentally unfair to roll back the IDEA discipline protections and return to the days when students with disabilities were routinely excluded from our nation's classrooms.
Existing law requires that an annual individualized education program (IEP) be developed for students who qualify for special education services -- complete with benchmarks and short-term objectives. H.R. 1350 eliminates the requirement for benchmarks and short-term IEP objectives and allows IEPs to be renewed every 3 years instead of every year. Parents and caregivers of students with mental illnesses require information about their child's progress in meeting short-term objectives and benchmarks and should not be forced to wait three years to determine whether their child is receiving an appropriate education.
The House bill allows states and local school districts to divert funds away from direct special education services for students with disabilities for several other programs and purposes. Under this legislation, the fiscal crisis at the state and local levels of government will likely lead to funds being freely diverted away from special education services and students with disabilities - including those with mental illnesses.
The House bill fails to ensure that the federal government will provide full funding for IDEA through the reauthorization or the 40% of federal funds that the Administration and House Republicans promised last year and that Congress promised when the special education law was written. To date, the federal government has only covered up to 18% of the cost of special education.
Teachers and school professionals are often the first to notice the early warning signs of a mental illness. Federal law should encourage, not discourage school personnel to openly communicate with parents and caregivers about legitimate mental health and other health concerns.
Children and adolescents with mental or emotional disorders must be identified and guaranteed a free and appropriate public education. Far too many children and adolescents with these disorders who qualify for special education services under IDEA are not being identified as eligible for services. Schools should be required to develop a screening, assessment and identification process to ensure that children with mental or emotional disorders are properly identified in the early school years, just as schools identify children with hearing and vision needs.
All members of Congress can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard toll free at 1-800-839-5276 or at 202-224-3121 District and Washington office numbers can be found in your local phone book or through http://www.congress.org/.
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