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Senate Approves Landmark Education Bill for Disabled

Congress: Measure guarantees access to public schools while giving officials more discipline authority. Clinton is expected to sign it.


WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday completed a congressional rewrite of landmark legislation that would continue to guarantee a public education to children with disabilities while granting school officials enhanced authority to discipline such students who bring weapons or drugs to school.

The bill was approved by the House on Tuesday, also overwhelmingly, and it now goes to a receptive White House for President Clinton's signature.

An updated version of a 1975 law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also would provide for expanded mediation to resolve disputes between school officials and parents of disabled children. And it would afford parents more opportunity to be involved in special-education decisions involving their sons and daughters.

The legislation was generally hailed as a reasonable compromise worthy of the bipartisan leadership support that it commanded.

The bill's passage also had been greased by the extraordinary role played by a congressional staff member--David Hoppe, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Hoppe, father of a child with Down's syndrome, chaired endless meetings in which school officials, parents, lobbyists and other congressional staff members painstakingly hashed out the details of the legislation.

"The process followed in developing this legislation was unprecedented," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Hoppe's efforts led to a landslide vote for the bill in both houses that belied the measure's troubled history. In the 104th Congress, a similar measure died after a prolonged fight over how to discipline children with disabilities, among other issues.

The debate over discipline loomed large in part because of the inexorable rise of violence in schools in the years since the bill's initial enactment. That trend caused school authorities, including teachers, to complain increasingly that the 1975 law was hampering their authority to discipline special education students--even when the students were caught with drugs or weapons other than guns in school.

The new law would permit schools to discipline disabled students for behavior unrelated to their disability in the same fashion as their able-bodied peers. For instance, the measure would allow schools to suspend a disabled student for up to 45 days if caught with drugs or any type of weapon.

The original law was widely hailed for guaranteeing access to free public education for about 5.4 million children with physical, emotional or mental impairments.

The changes, Lott said shortly before the bill's final passage, would ensure that "children with disabilities do have a free and appropriate public education--but with the additional guarantees for all other children and parents and administrators."

Lott's sentiments were echoed by Bruce Hunter, a spokesman for the American Assn. of School Administrators, which represents public school superintendents.

"The bill has pretty broad support" within the organization, even though it "didn't go as far as we wanted to in terms of discipline," he said.

Douglas Forand, a spokesman for the Arc, a national organization for the mentally retarded, also pronounced his group's general satisfaction with the legislative outcome.

"We're very happy that the bill is being reauthorized," he said. "It is the critical civil rights bill for students with disability."

The House approved the measure by a vote of 420-3; the Senate approved it 98-1.

The bill also would require states to offer voluntary mediation procedures so that parents can challenge placement decisions without having to go to court.

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