Do Public Schools Have an Obligation to Serve Troubled Children and Youth?

By Nelson, C. Michael; Rutherford, Robert B., Jr. et al. | Exceptional Children, March-April 1991 | Go to article overview

Do Public Schools Have an Obligation to Serve Troubled Children and Youth?


Nelson, C. Michael, Rutherford, Robert B., Jr., Center, David B., Walker, Hill M., Exceptional Children


Do Public Schools Have an Obligation to Serve Troubled Children And Youth?

The responsibility of America's schools for providing special services to socially maladjusted pupils has been debated for many years. Much of this debate has focused on the exclusion of youths considered to be socially maladjusted, antisocial, or conduct disordered from services available to those classified as seriously emotionally disturbed (SED). Public Law (P.L.) 94-142 and its recent amendments (P.L. 99-457) specifically excluded "children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they are seriously emotionally disturbed "(U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1977, p. 42478). However, research, scholarly opinion, and professional practices consistently have indicated that this exclusionary clause is ill founded (Kauffman, 1989). The purpose of this article is to explore problems and issues associated with the exclusion of youth identified as socially maladjusted (SM) from special education programs in the public schools (see Nelson & Rutherford, 1990, for a more extensive discussion).

Although the Eleventh Annual Report to Congress on the Education of the Handicapped Act (U.S. Department of Education, 1989) indicated that 9.1% of handicapped students being served in special education programs are SED, this population continues to be significantly underserved. Federal prevalence estimates of SED pupils have ranged between 1.2% and 2.0% of the school population, but 3%-6% is regarded as a more accurate estimate by authorities (Institute of Medicine, 1989). However, less than 1% of public school students have been identified and served in SED programs (Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990). Aside from the severe shortage of qualified teachers for these pupils, the basis for this serious lack of services appears to be a chain of interrelated circumstances. First, schools are antagonized by an often resist providing services for students whose social behavior deviates considerably from expected norms, especially when their behavior patterns include acts of defiance, aggression or extreme disruption of the school environment. Second, the exclusionary clause in P.L. 94-142 provides a rationale for excluding students from special education whose behavior is aversive, unless they also have other identifiable disabilities. As Bower (1982) observed, part of the motivation behind the SM exclusion may have been to minimize the costs of serving the SED population. Third, the Honig v. Doe (1988) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established that pupils with disabilities may not be suspended for over 10 days or expelled for actions that are related to their disabilities. Furthermore, the burden of proof is on the school district to demonstrate that the student's behavior pattern is not related to his or her disability when such disciplinary actions are considered (Center & McKittrick, 1987; Yell, 1989). However, if the school district does not identify the pupil as having a disability, then suspension and explusion are viable disciplinary options. Thus, given their reluctance to deal positvely with social behavior problems considered aversive to others and the court-imposed restriction on their disciplinary options, it may appear in the schools' best interests not to identify and serve students with antisocial, acting-out behavior patterns.

We contend that this exclusionary clause has the effect of denying needed educational and related services to a group of pupils who are seriously disabled by their behavior. Although there is some evidence that antisocial pupils are more often recipients of special education services than other students (Walker, Shinn, O'Neill, & Ramsey, 1987), these actions are reactive (i.e., a response to behavior patterns that have been manifest for some time and are repugnant to school personnel) rather than proactive (i.e., services aimed at preventing the development of extremely deviant behavior patterns). …

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