What Are the School's Obligations to a Child with
Severe Emotional & Behavior Problems?
by Pete Wright, Esq.
One of our students is a 15 year old tenth grader who is diagnosed as "seriously emotionally disturbed." Academically, he is functioning on approximately 2nd grade level. His current placement is 23.5 hours a week in a self-contained classroom, with 7.5 hours in general education - this placement is because of behavior problems.
School problem behaviors include: Cursing, threatening to kill teachers, threatening to kill administrators, fighting with peers, jumped out of moving school bus to fight, spitting on peer. Non-compliant. Total disregard for authority figures.
Home behavior includes: Running away, non-compliance, starting fires, threatening adults, threatening to blow up school, etc.
He was placed in residential treatment facility on an emergency basis. Because of insurance issues, he will be released in 48 hours. This placement was done by law enforcement and health agencies after a blow up at home.
School officials have met many times to review placement, goals and needs.
What obligations does the school system have? Must the school continue to provide special education services in the current setting if they believe the student is a danger to himself or others? What if the school has no alternative placement within the system that is appropriate? What about the safety of the other students, teachers, administrators?
A psychological report confirms that the student is a danger, capable of shooting others. This situation is immediate. Please respond.
School's Legal Obligations
Regarding the school's legal obligations, you should read the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Honig v. Doe that was issued in 1988. The facts in Honig v. Doe are similar to the facts you describe. You will also find Honig v. Doe in our book, Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition.
What is Driving Him?
Schools often develop treatment plans (IEPs) without adequately studying the case history and why previous efforts failed or exacerbated the problem. As the kid gets worse, schools (and society) blame the kid, instead of looking at what should have been done and was not done, and what can be done now.
This is why, when I am consulted about a case, I insist on seeing the earliest reports and test data, I read everything in chronological order, pre-school and KG reports first, so I can see how the child evolved and what happened. By the time I get to the end of the very thick file, it all clicks and makes sense. The present situation is absolutely predictable. What to do?
Organize the File
Get the entire file, put it all in chronological order, read through it slowly and carefully. Take all standardized test data, especially subtest data, and make a rough chart of the scores.
you do this, it will help you see what happened. This will take several
hours, but you'll probably have some good answers about what the true
problem is -- but probably not the solution.
Shift to the medical model: Assume that you are a medical doctor. You are treating a patient for a cold. Several weeks have passed but your patient's cold hasn't gotten better. Instead, the patient continues to complain, is listless, the cough has worsened. Now, the patient is wheezing. Do you continue with the same treatment? Do you prescribe more cough medicine? Do you do a more thorough diagnostic workup? Do you think the patient coughing willfully? Do you decide that the patient is "choosing" to cough? Do you blame the patient when the situation spirals out of control?
to Remediate Skills
can middle school and high school kids function with second grade skills?
sector schools like Kildonan and Trident Academy take kids whose skills
are many years delayed and teach basic reading, writing, spelling, and
This youngster probably needs to work with someone who is qualified and trained in Orton-Gillingham and can work with him several hours a day, one on one, to jump start his skills.
schools are inflexible and cannot or will not provide remediation. Others
believe that you cannot remediate an adolescent which is simply not
Has a Functional Behavioral Assessment been completed on this boy?
Read the article by Dr. Steven Starin about Functional Behavioral Assessments.
At this point, you may be tempted to say, "You are a lawyer - what do you know about life in the trenches with these kids?"
Lessons Learned as a Probation Officer
When I was in undergraduate school, I worked as a house parent in a juvenile training school and was assigned to the cottage/unit for the most serious offenders (rapists, murderers, violent offenders). After I graduated from college, I worked a counselor in three juvenile training schools and as a juvenile probation officer in Richmond Virginia.
a probation officer, I secured a federal grant and designed a program
for the most serious offenders. This program was called the "Mobile
Probation and Camping Program" (it received some national publicity
between 1972-1974). The kids were divided into an experimental and a
control group. The control group received the regular probation program.
part of this program, I obtained educational, neurological, psychological
evaluations from the Medical College of Virginia. (As the P.O., I did
the social histories).
IQ's were within average range but their skills in reading, writing,
spelling, and math were very low, averaging around 2nd to 3rd grade.
appropriate tutoring began, the kids' scores in reading, writing, spelling
and arithmetic skills went up quickly. Their grades improved and school
attendance also improved. Their physical appearances improved. Self-concepts
Why do we have to reinvent the wheel again and again?