The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was passed to provide a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities. IDEA is constructed from six pillars that ensure educational opportunity for children with all types of disabilities: cognitive; physical, mental and emotional. The six pillars are: zero reject; nondiscriminatory identification and evaluation; least restrictive environment; free and appropriate education; due process safeguards and parent and student participation and shared decision making (Heward 2006).
IDEA was first passed by the Congress in 1975 as PL 94-142, Education for All Handicapped Children and signed into law by President Gerald Ford (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services 2010). Pl 94-142 opened the doors of all public schools to children with disabilities and created funding for special education. PL 101-476 was passed by Congress in 1990 and was called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law was reauthorized in 2004. IDEA provides not only for the education of school aged children but provides for the evaluation and intervention for toddlers and preschool aged children.
The six pillars of IDEA provide protections for children with disabilities and their parents. Zero reject means that all children are entitled to a public school education (Heward 2006).
Nondiscriminatory identification and evaluation provides protection in the process of placing a child in special education that is not based on racial or cultural reasons. This concept also mandates that children are tested in their native language to avoid misdiagnosis (Heward 2006).
The least restrictive environment provides children the opportunity to learn in general education classes alongside of their peers or as close to the general education classroom as possible, Least restrictive environment assumes that placement begins with the general education classroom with supplementary aids and services and only removes the child to a more restrictive environment if the child’s disability warrants removal (Heward 2006). A free and appropriate education means that all children will receive an education with no cost to their parents (Heward 2006). Due process protects children and their parents who may disagree with the educational services their child may be receiving (Heward 2006). Finally parents and students are entitled to participate with teachers and other professionals in developing the Individualized Education Plan (Heward 2006).
Zero reject became a pillar of this special education law because many districts and schools tried to deny services to severely disabled students. Students with medically involved disabilities or extreme emotional behavioral issues were often denied a public education. Many districts also excluded children who had intellectual disabilities that the district deemed too severe. Parents, often with the help of advocates, brought lawsuits against these schools and districts in order to secure a public education for their children.
Historically, several other cases and laws provided the foundation for special education law. Brown v the Board of Education and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title 1) both opened the doors for equal opportunity in education. The laws passed by Congress have both provided the opportunity and the funding necessary for special education. By passing national laws such as these, states are now required to offer and educational opportunity for students with disabilities. PL 94-142 and IDEA have both been interpreted by the judicial system in dozens of cases both at the state and national levels. The Supreme Court has interpreted the law in several cases to help define it more sharply and to ensure that all students are being allowed to access a public education. As students with disabilities become more complex in nature and school systems are trying to cope with educating them, it has been necessary for the courts to step in.
Brown v Board of Education (1954)
Although the Brown case is considered a landmark civil rights decision, it was the basis for later law and court rulings that affected special education. In many states, black students were segregated into separate schools from their white peers. In this case, five cases with the same argument from five different jurisdictions were combined to be presented to the United States Supreme Court. Brown v The Board of Education (Kansas), Briggs v Elliot (South Carolina), Bulah v Gebhart (Delaware), Belton v Gebhart (Delaware) and Bolling v Sharpe (District of Columbia) were all cases where separate but equal education was challenged.
The Supreme Court decided that separate but equal was unconstitutional. This landmark decision not only paved the road to the Civil Rights movement but provided the springboard for similar cases involving disabled students. At the time, millions of disabled students were denied access to public schools or were offered substandard education programs.
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
Although this law passed in 1965 is not special education related, like the Brown case, it opened the doors to equality in the public schools system. Also known as Title I, this program which is still in effect today, provides federal funding to schools that have a population of forty percent or more of students living in poverty. The law also provided the groundwork for later legislation in the equality of education for females, English Language Learners and Native Americans. With the passage of this federal law, education law was being taken out of the hands of state lawmakers and provided equality nationwide. The promise of funding from the federal government to the states was also an important aspect of this law. Although there was now language specific to special education, popular opinion was moving in the direction of equality for all children.
Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971)
In the case of Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971), the impetus for the education of children with special needs was begun. This first law suit brought by PARC which was a forerunner to today’s Association for Retarded Citizens, sought to obtain a free education for all children despite intellectual abilities. Until that point, schools could deny children who did not achieve a mental age of five years old a public education (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania). At the time, some states offered substandard programs or completely denied access to an education to children they felt were intellectually inferior and who they felt would not benefit from an education. This was the state law in Pennsylvania in 1971. This case did not travel to the Supreme Court of the United States, instead it was decided by the District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Many states had similar laws to Pennsylvania’s at the time; it was routine for many intellectually disabled children to be denied a public education. The plaintiffs, PARC argued that all children could benefit from an educational program that would enable them to reach a level of self-care that could not be achieved if denied an education. They also maintained that the sooner children with intellectual disabilities were enrolled in a program in the public schools, the better their chance of learning. PARC also argued that denying intellectually disabled children a public education was detrimental to them. Attorney Thomas Gilhool who represented PARC based his argument on the Brown v Board of Education case. He argued that no child should be denied the right to an education (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania).
The case was settled in 1972. United States District Court Judge Masterson handed down the decision that the state was responsible for providing a public education to student with disabilities throughout the ages of six and twenty-one. The educational program should also be in The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania could no longer deny any disabled child that right to an education (Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania).
Mills v Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972)
In this case, a lawsuit was brought against the School Board which had denied access to an education to seven students who exhibited severe behavioral and emotional problems. These students were suspended for long periods of time or expelled from school. The plaintiffs claimed they had been denied due process by the defendants. The District of Columbia argued that they did not have sufficient funds to provide the educational serviced that these children required. The School Board provided statistics as required by the court and it was discovered that of 22,000 disabled students living in the district, only 3,880 children were receiving a public education (Mead). Mills was a twelve year old African American boy who was a ward of the state. He was expelled from school for behavioral problems and denied the right to due process (Mead). Of the seven plaintiffs, six were boys and one was a girl; all of them were African American.
The argument the defendants employed of not having sufficient funding, and that in order to fully fund special education programs would drain money from regular education programs fell on deaf ears in the court. The district was ordered to prepare a census of all disabled children who were being denied an education, contact them and open programs for their benefit (Mead).
Hendrick Hudson Board of Education v Rowley (1982)
In this case that was argued for the Supreme Court of the United States, Amy Rowley’s parents brought the suit against the Hendrick Hudson Board of Education in New York. Amy was a deaf child who attended elementary school with placement in the general education class. The school prepared for her, installing a teletype machine in the principal’s office, training staff in sign language and providing an FM hearing aid. An appropriate Individualized Education Plan was prepared. Amy also received individualized instruction from a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing as well as speech and language therapy. The parents, however, felt that a sign language interpreted was required by Amy for the entirety of the school day because she was missing vital information (The Supreme Court of the United States 458 U.S. 176).
The District Court and Court of Appeals in New York both supported the school district’s argument that the district had provided the necessary tools and training for Amy to be successful. The Supreme Court found in favor of Amy. In the Court’s decision, the fact that millions of special education students are not enrolled in public schools because parents felt that their children were not receiving the services necessary for a free and appropriate public education. The Court felt that all students should receive services and equipment necessary to participate in public education (The Supreme Court of the United States 458 U.S. 176).
Irving Independent School System v Tatro (1984)
Amber Tatro suffered from spina bifida which resulted in speech impairments, physical impairments and the inability to voluntarily empty her bladder, instead she had to be catheterized every three to four hours. Her parents brought this lawsuit against the school district who refused to provide the catherization services to their child. The procedure is described as a simple procedure that takes only a few minutes and a nonmedical person can be trained in the process in less than hour. The parents maintained that this service was provided for under related services (Irving Independent School District v Henri Tatro).
The Supreme Court found in Tatro’s favor. They stated that the procedure was not excluded from related services as a medical service. The Court also stated that the procedure was a related service which was necessary for Amber to receive her education. Without the service, Amber would not be able to attend school. This ruling better defined what services are considered related to receiving a public education. Many services such as catherization, feeding tubes and other minor procedures are now recognized and performed in school by trained professional whether it is the teacher, an aid or the school nurse. (Irving Independent School District v Henri Tatro).
Honig v Doe (1988)
In this case, a suit was brought against the school district of San Francisco on behalf of an emotionally disturbed student. The student was a seventeen year old male who was a special education student. After being taunted by classmates one day he attempted to choke on of them and when being escorted to the office he kicked out a window. He was suspended for five day. The district contacted his parents and stated that he was to stay home since proceedings for expulsion were initiated (Steketee).
A second student in middle school, was also a plaintiff in the case. This student also received services because he was emotionally disturbed. He responded to stress by becoming verbally hostile, especially towards females among other negative behaviors. He was also suspended for five days for making lewd comments to female students. The district also made him stay home until he could be expelled for his behavior (Steketee).
The Supreme Court upheld IDEA at the time that school officials are prohibited from unilaterally excluding students who exhibit violent or dangerous behaviors. IDEA now mandates that a manifestation determination be completed to determine if the behavior is a product of the student’s disability. Educational services need to be provided until the determination is made and a formal meeting is held with staff and parents. In the context of this case, the Court also upheld the fact that the state must provide services when the local district does not (Steketee).
This particular case has had a major impact on special education practices and procedures, especially in regard to students with emotional problems and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Many districts have routinely suspended students for ridiculously long periods of time or expelled them outright. This practice contradicts the pillar of zero reject. Many districts have created specialized programs for these children with specially trained staff.
Timothy W. v Rochester (1989)
In November of 1989, The Supreme Court decided not to hear the case of Timothy W. v Rochester. The case was based on a suit in which the school district determined that a severely disabled child, Timothy was in need of medical care not education. Although the district court found in favor of the school district, the United States Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit in Boston, Massachusetts overturned the lower court’s decision (Samuels).
In their decision the judges wrote, “Public education is to be provided to all handicapped children, unconditionally and without exception.” (Samuels). Timothy suffered from a complex mix of physical disabilities from being born two months prematurely. Doctors and therapists testified that Timothy would benefit from physical and occupational therapy which are routinely available in the school system as a related service for students. Raymond Yeagley became superintendent after the lawsuit was filed. He stated that, “I told my school board, 'You're going to lose that case.’” (Samuels). Yeagley also commented that the practice of districts trying to exclude severely disabled students is a matter of looking for money to fund the services needed by these students.
The decision in this case also made it clear the disabled students must have access to a meaningful education. The education did not necessarily be the same a normal peers, as long as there was opportunity for the disabled student to reach their fullest potential. IDEA provides funding for special education programs for all disabled students, not just the ones who can read (Ladenson 276).
Several issues can arise with zero reject under due process. The most common that face schools and parents are students with severe behavioral problems. There has been an increase in the number of students identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as students with emotional disorders. These populations often exhibit violent behavior and physical aggression. Before IDEA was reauthorized and manifestation determination was addressed, these student were suspended for long periods of time or expelled from schools. Parents need to be aware of their rights and the rights of their children when behavior is becoming an issue at school. Districts need to quickly assess the behavior to determine if it is caused by the child’s disability and offer alternatives for dealing with the behavior. Many districts now offer special classrooms or school sites with specially trained staff who can deal with outbursts and violent behavior. Counseling is often available for emotionally disturbed students. Many districts are also employing Applied Behavior Analysts who identify causes for violent behavior and develop management plans.
For the most extreme cases, school districts have agreements with residential centers for placement of children that need comprehensive care. This type of placement is employed for children who are a danger to themselves or others. Educational programs are also built into to the residential placements either directly from the district or contracted through a private company.
For decades, students who were medically involved, such as Timothy, schools were closed to them. Again, parents need to be informed of their rights as well as their child’s to obtain an education. The district cannot exclude these children. Services can be delivered at the school site such as tube feeding and staff training for handling seizures. Many districts have nurses on staff or contract out to provide minor medical care for severely physically disabled students. There are students who simply cannot leave their homes because they are too fragile, districts are required to provide teachers to educate the children in their home. This practice is also used for students who are temporarily hospitalized or incapacitated in some way.
Many parents who have severely disabled children have begun to employ an advocate. Advocates are generally lawyers or a professional in the field of special education. They offer their services for a price or pro bono. They will attend Individualized Education Plan meetings and guide parents through difficult situations such as discipline problems.
The intent of IDEA is to provide a public education to all students with disabilities. The categories of disabilities are clearly defined. Disabilities can manifest themselves as physical, emotional and intellectual. Disabilities also occur on a spectrum from minor to severe. Despite a child’s disability, they are protected under federal law so that they may access an appropriate public education. Zero reject, as one of the six pillars of IDEA insures that all children have access to education. Schools and districts are not permitted to refuse an education to any child with a disability. Funding is provided through IDEA to secure the services and materials necessary for these children as well. Today’s federal law has been shaped over the last sixty years through previous laws and several court cases. Repeatedly, the courts have upheld a child’s right to an appropriate education, despite the presence or severity of a disability. It is imperative for parent to know and understand their rights and the right of their child.
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