When students with disabilities misbehave

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s hard to imagine a kindergartener being suspended twice in the first two months of school. It’s even harder to imagine when that kindergarten student is a child who has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy and mental retardation and receives special education services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Yet, much to his mother’s distress, five-year-old Nasir was given a three-day and then a five-day suspension before mid-November.

One might wonder what horrific acts Nasir committed to cause such drastic measures to be used. Amidst allegations such as indecent exposure and disruption of school, there is some ambiguity about what actually happened, but no evidence that Nasir put himself or his classmates in danger. The real issue in this situation is the school’s response.

According to state regulations, a child with mental retardation can’t be excluded from his program. School personnel can, if they believe the situation requires it, recommend additional or different services for the child, or even a different placement. But they can’t impose those changes without the parent’s involvement, and they can’t keep the child out of school in any event.

Like over a thousand other children with special education needs each year, Nasir left the relatively secure environment of Early Intervention this fall to enter the Philadelphia public school system. Unlike the seamless system to which those who shepherd this process aspire, Nasir’s transition, like that of many other children, encountered blind alleys and closed doors.

Nasir spent much of his Early Intervention years in a preschool with typically developing children, and he received services through the Early Intervention system. Both Nasir and his mom were pleased with his progress and comfortable with the professionals who worked with him.

At the meeting where Nasir’s transition to kindergarten was discussed, his mother clearly expressed her concern over behavior issues that might arise in the classroom. However, school personnel did not note her concerns on her son’s IEP or spell out any plans for preventing behavior problems or dealing with them if they arose.

Had they done so, Nasir’s teachers would have been alerted to the issue, and a system of positive behavioral supports could have been implemented.

This approach would have included developing a “Functional Behavior Analysis” (FBA) for Nasir. The FBA follows a set of procedures set out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and focuses on analyzing antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. The FBA is used to develop a “Behavior Intervention Plan,” which then becomes part of the IEP.

This proactive approach helps create an environment that eliminates triggers to undesired behaviors. The Plan also sets up a system of consequences, which enables both the family and teachers to provide consistent reinforcement to achieve the student’s desired behavioral goals.

The laws on discipline and kids with disabilities can be confusing. One thing, however, is clear: contrary to popular belief, schools aren’t powerless when children with disabilities misbehave. The child can be reevaluated; a new behavior support plan can be developed; and under certain circumstances (not present in Nasir’s case), the child can be suspended or transferred to a different setting.

So what’s next for Nasir?

His mom is choosing a response that will hold the District accountable and provide a positive approach for her son: she is filing a formal complaint with the state’s Bureau of Special Education, demanding that an FBA be immediately conducted, and reconvening Nasir’s IEP team to develop a more comprehensive approach to her son’s education.

If these things are done, Nasir’s academic future will look more promising.

For information on the FBA (functional behavioral assessment) process, and other forms of behavior support, visit the web site of the PA Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) at www.pattan.k12.pa.us, or call PaTTAN at (610) 265-7321.

For more information about the laws in this area, see the Education Law Center’s publication, “School Discipline and Students With Disabilities,” available on the web at www.elc-pa.org/brochures/speddiscipline801.htm or by calling ELC at 215-238-6970.