Disciplining Students with Disabilities

How to discipline students with disabilities is one of the most challenging and controversial aspects of special education law. Just like other students, students with disabilities can be physically violent, verbally abusive and otherwise difficult to control. They may fight on buses, assault staff and other students, and otherwise disrupt classrooms. School employees do not have to tolerate this behavior from special education students any more than they have to tolerate this behavior from non-special education students. While special education laws impose additional requirements, they do permit districts to take action to ensure the safety of all students and school employees.

School safety and student discipline were two of the primary issues addressed by Congress in the IDEA Amendments of 1997. However, although the Amendments make some changes in procedures, and make clear that students with disabilities who bring weapons or drugs on campus can be disciplined, they primarily codify existing regulations and court cases. This document will identify options available to educators and review the steps the district must take in order to comply with the law and provide a safe school environment.

Disciplinary Options When Behavioral Problems Begin
Short of suspension or expulsion, students with disabilities may be disciplined in the same manner as other students. For example, they may be temporarily assigned to in-school detention (with homework assigned and special education services continued) or denied a privilege like participation in sports. Therefore, for first or minor offenses, the teacher may impose discipline according to classroom or school policy, so long as the discipline does not substantially interfere with the student's special education program. Where the student's misconduct is anticipated and caused by the student's disability, the teacher should also refer to the student's IEP. Ideally, the IEP will contain a behavioral plan, which describes interventions and responses to specific types of misconduct. If the IEP does not address behavioral concerns, then the special education team may need to convene and update the program.

Disciplinary Options for Serious Behavior Problems

When students are violent, or continually disruptive, the district must take steps to ensure a safe school environment. Normally, serious discipline problems result in expulsion or suspension. However, special education laws limit the district's ability to exclude students from their educational program. Districts still have the ability and the responsibility to remove dangerous students.

Tip

Some students with disabilities may require physical restraint or other intervention when they become agitated or angry. However, any physical intervention, other than in an emergency situation, must be included in the student’s IEP. In addition, teachers and educational assistants should insist on being trained in how to perform the physical restraint. By receiving this training and having express authority for physical contact, employees can help avoid charges of inappropriate physical contact.


From Legal Issues in Education, Meeting the Challenge of Inclusion: Strategies & Resources, p 25, 27, 2nd Edition, December 1997, Oregon Education Association