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Ensuring schools are ‘inclusive’ can backfire in the classroom

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K-12 education policy has not been a mainstay of the 2020 Democratic primary contest, but in the last Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) touted her “plan” to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an act that stipulates how schools should treat students with disabilities to attempt to ensure that they all receive a “free and appropriate education.” 

IDEA has never been fully funded. Indeed, as President Gerald Ford lamented when signing it into law, its architects knew full well that it wouldn’t be. We may never know whether Warren would follow through on this promise, but whoever is president in 2021, higher levels of K-12 education spending seem all but certain. In the next Congress, rather than pretend to desire spending cuts and then rubber stamp spending increases, congressional Republicans should should set a condition for an increase in IDEA expenditures: They should insist on revising the legal status of students with “emotional and behavioral disabilities” (EBD). 

In an effort to ensure that schools are “inclusive,” IDEA requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” possible, and imposes a substantial paperwork burden on meting out discipline, requiring schools to determine whether their persistent misbehavior is rooted in their disability. When it comes to students who are hard-of-hearing or dyslexic, these requirements likely do a great deal of good. 

The problem is that this policy framework also applies to students whose disturbed, violent and even psychotic behavior has earned them a diagnosis of EBD. Schools are pressured to keep these students in traditional classrooms and then tie school staff’s hands when it comes to disciplining them. It’s a straightforward recipe for disruptive, if not outright dangerous, classrooms. 

We saw the worst-case scenario of this law’s excesses in Parkland, Fla. Although at the national level, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was billed as solely a Second Amendment issue, local reporters at the Sun Sentinel eventually earned a Pulitzer for exposing the profound failures of the school system that enabled the tragedy. 

In middle school, the Parkland shooter terrorized his classmates and teachers. He talked about guns incessantly. His behavior grew so disturbing that the school not only required that he be accompanied by a security escort in the hallways, but even asked his mom to come to school to provide the security escort with backup. One teacher wrote, “I feel strongly that [he] is a danger to the students and faculty at this school. … I would like to see him sent to a facility that is more prepared and has the proper setting to deal with this type of child.” 

Everyone knew he did not belong at a normal school. Yet, in part because of the implementation of IDEA’s “least restrictive environment” requirement, students and teachers at Westglades Middle School were terrorized for five full months while administrators filled out all of the requisite paperwork to transfer him. At one point, even he asked, “How am I still at this school?” 

Once at the specialized school, the shooter told staff that he dreamed of killing and being covered in blood, and they took the rare step of writing his private psychiatrist to express concern. But after a few months of better behavior, they decided — in accordance with the “least restrictive environment” stipulation — that he was ready to attend a traditional high school. 

Once back at a traditional school, his misbehavior appears to have been systematically under-recorded. At one point, school administrators prohibited him from wearing a backpack and frisked him every day for fear he’d carry and use a deadly weapon. But he was never arrested, and ultimately it proved too onerous to send him back to a specialized school. He was counseled out the back door with nothing on his record to prevent him from purchasing a firearm. The rest is history. 

Earlier this month, the Sun Sentinel published a striking expose, “Violent Kids Take Over Schools and Have the Law on Their Side,” documenting how powerless teachers feel in the face of extremely disturbing behavior. Students can attack their peers, assault their teachers, and even threaten to shoot up the school with little consequence. One teacher interviewed had to file a restraining order against a student to get him out of her classroom. “Students with violent tendencies have more rights than the students they endanger,” said one teacher. “Just ask [the Parkland shooter].” 

And scarier still, as the Sun Sentinel’s companion piece, “Teenage Time Bombs,” documents, many of these disturbed students have access to firearms — and/or will be able to gain easy access when they turn 18. School should be society’s first-line of defense: spotting, helping, and/or criminally labeling potentially murderous youths. But federal law — and its localized implementation — inhibits the ability of schools to protect students and society.

Teachers interviewed insisted that the time has come to revise the law. “Whoever thought someone would fly a plane into the World Trade Center,” one mused to the Sun Sentinel.  “It’s the same thing with IDEA. Who imagined?” 

Federal law should not lump disturbed, violent and psychotic students into the same category as students who have dyslexia. Schools should not be required to educate EBD students in the “least restrictive environment.” Schools must be required to weigh the rights of well-behaved students when deciding where to educate them. And schools should have a freer, not a more restrained, hand when it comes to disciplining and removing persistently violent and threatening students. 

If congressional Republicans are going to continue their habit of going along with increases in federal spending, the least they can do would be to ask for some concessions to keep students safe.  

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a nonprofit group aimed at supporting limited government.

Tags Elizabeth Warren Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Parkland shooting School discipline Special education

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