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California and the West

Students Fight Expulsions by Saying Schools Failed Them

January 04, 1998|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fifth-grader slaps his teacher and bites another student. A high school junior steals money from a teacher and is suspected of several other campus thefts. A middle school teenager pulls a prank on a teacher by offering chocolate that is actually a laxative bar.

In all three cases, school officials want the students expelled. But the youngsters' parents are challenging them with this defense: Their children should have been in special education programs long ago, and the failure of school districts to place them there contributed to their behavior.

Bolstered by recent changes in a federal law, an increasing number of students in regular education classes are trying to avoid expulsion by declaring that the system has failed them. School officials, however, say that the rules for assigning students to special education programs are being overused and misapplied.

"The way Congress has written this law has made it very easy for people to abuse it," said Ron Wenkart, an attorney for the Orange County Department of Education. "It creates a gigantic loophole for parents to try to delay the expulsion process or to defeat the expulsion."

Last June, President Clinton signed an updated version of the landmark 1975 legislation that guaranteed public education to children with disabilities. The revised Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, includes provisions that allow able-bodied students to contest disciplinary actions by arguing that an offense committed on campus was related to an emotional or physical condition that went undetected.

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School officials say that the new provisions make schools more vulnerable to unfounded claims and force education systems to spend exorbitant sums to fight them. The state Department of Education spent $2 million in the 1996-97 school year on attorney fees for special education hearings.

On the other hand, parents and special education advocates say that the needs of students with learning and emotional disabilities go undetected too often.

"The majority of kids who get in trouble are those who are not succeeding in school," said Garden Grove educational psychologist Jackie Shohet, who is also a parent advocate in special education disputes.

"This is where we're getting a lot of behavioral problems. Should those children be responsible for their lack of learning? If a person doesn't do well in school, the last thing they need is someone to say they are a problem kid and kick them out."

The disabilities act included a provision called "stay put," which allows special education children facing expulsion to remain in their classrooms until hearings are conducted and the issue is resolved. If the child's actions are proved to have been caused by or related to a disability, that could exonerate him or her.

The recent changes to the disabilities act give all students the opportunity to invoke the "stay put" rule. Under the new provisions, if the school staff had any knowledge that a student in a regular class might suffer from a disability, the special education rules may be applied in the case of disciplinary action.

The school might learn of a disability in several ways: notification by parents of a child's condition, the student's behavior or performance, a parent's request for a special education evaluation or an expression of concern by a teacher or other school staff member to special education officials about a child's behavior or performance.

In the case of the fifth-grader who hit a teacher and bit a classmate, his mother said the boy's condition had been diagnosed in the first grade as attention deficit disorder.

A private physician's report at that time indicated that the boy was "easily frustrated, quite distracted and shows serious explosiveness," she said.

The mother, who asked that she and her son not be identified, said she never knew that his condition might have qualified him for special education testing.

"Since the first grade, he's had outbursts and kept having problems of hyperactivity," she said. "The school kept telling us something was wrong with him instead of saying, 'Something needs to be done to help him.' "

The attack on the teacher and classmate resulted from the frustration of a child whose needs were not being met, she said.

The state official assigned to hear the boy's appeal upheld his expulsion. But a positive result, his mother said, is that the boy is now being evaluated for special education.

"It's been a battle trying to find a place for him to get a proper education," she said. "My hope is that more districts will pay attention to these children."

Wenkart, who argued the school's case at the hearing, said the boy was expelled to ensure safety for other students. Furthermore, he said, exceptions to disciplinary rules should not be made, even for special education students.

"The law reflects the philosophy that no [special education] child should be punished," Wenkart said. "This is a disservice to a lot of kids."

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