Current Disciplinary Practices with Handicapped Students: Suspensions and Expulsions

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Current Disciplinary Practices with Handicapped Students: Suspensions and Expulsions

Maintaining discipline in the schools may have been an issue since public education began (Viti, 1987). For 16 of the last 18 years, the U.S. public has ranked discipline as the number one problem in the public schools (Gallup, 1986). Politicians increasingly call for get-tough disciplinary policies as the cure for many of education's and society's problems (Kraig, 1987). Teachers, too, view disciplinary problems as a significant concern: In a recent survey, 49% of the responding teachers stated that school discipline was either a very serious or fairly serious issue (Gallup, 1984). Despite the interest and concern generated by this issue, however, the question remains: What procedures or set of procedures constitute effective discipline?

The question of how to discipline handicapped learners has added to the potentially stressful decisions for general educators in most schools. Since the late 1970s, general education teachers and principals have been expected to implement disciplinary procedures with disruptive handicapped learners, often with little guidance regarding effective practices or the rights of individual students, as mandated by P.L. 94-142 and interpreted in a number of judicial decisions.

Several court cases have helped to clarify the legal perspective for public school instructional and administrative personnel, especially regarding out-of-school suspensions (e.g., Board of Education of Peoria v. Illinois State Board of Education, 1982; Goss v. Lopez, 1975; Stanley v. School Administrative District No. 40, 1980) and expulsions (e.g., Blue v. New Haven Board of Education, 1981; S-1 v. Turlington, 1981; Stuart v. Nappi, 1978). Emerging principles based on these and other cases, described by Leone (1985) and Simon (1984), indicate that handicapped learners may receive an out-of-school suspension for up to 10 days, using the same procedures as those used for nonhandicapped students for either emergency or normal reasons, because these "short-term" suspensions have not been viewed as changing the learner's educational placement.

Out-of-school suspensions for more than 10 days may be implemented if the handicapped student is endangering himself or others, but only after a meeting of a special team charged with determining whether the behavior was related to the learner's handicap and to ensure due process. Handicapped learners may be expelled in appropriate circumstances, if procedural guidelines have been followed, with two restrictions: (a) the learner may not be expelled if the specialized team has determined that the punishable behavior is related to the learner's handicapping condition, and (b) complete termination of educational services is not allowed during the exclusion period. Leone (1985) and Simon (1984) concluded that the learner's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is the most effective instrument for dealing with disciplinary issues, because behaviors related to the learner's handicap should be anticipated and identified in the IEP.

The legal guidelines set forth in the cited and related cases have not been well received by some professionals. They view the requirement of determining whether the behavior was related to the learner's handicap as futile and argue disciplinary practices should be the same for all students (e.g., Dagley, 1982). Others, though not addressing exclusion of handicapped students specifically, have suggested the perceived benefits of these practices, such as reducing the chances of recurrence of the misbehavior for a short time, protecting individuals and property, helping students to understand the seriousness of their misbehavior and thereby helping them to discriminate appropriate from inappropriate behaviors, and serving as a deterrent to other students (Garibaldi, 1979; Neill, 1976). However, the mandates of the protective legislation enacted to protect the rights of handicapped individuals offer persuasive arguments against this line of thought and the historical abuses it recalls. …