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What Are the School's Obligations to a Child with
Severe Emotional & Behavior Problems?

by Pete Wright, Esq.

The Question

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.

Pete's Answer

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.

But What is Driving Him?

You need to know what is driving this kid to act the way he does. Did he pop out of the womb as an angry vicious young man? Or, did his anger develop slowly over time?

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.

If 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.

Good Diagnostics Before Solutions

Coming up with the correct solution may require additional testing to narrow down, diagnose, and set up a treatment plan. It is hard work, but this is what it takes to change a child, not just pass the child on to someone else so he becomes their problem.

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?

Need to Remediate Skills

Why is this kid functioning at the second grade level after roughly 10 years of education?

How can middle school and high school kids function with second grade skills?

Why are schools are content with this?

Why are we surprised when kids erupt after years of frustration and failure?

Who failed?

Private sector schools like Kildonan and Trident Academy take kids whose skills are many years delayed and teach basic reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic skills.

If this kid masters these basic skills, he will be able to learn other things through life.

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.

Many schools are inflexible and cannot or will not provide remediation. Others believe that you cannot remediate an adolescent which is simply not true.

So another lost angry kid is thrust out into society, takes out his frustrations on others, and is incarcerated.

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.

As 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.

We wanted kids who had already acted out and were destined to commit more major offenses soon, but who had not yet been incarcerated. All kids who were involved in this program had been convicted of several felonies (crimes against persons or property, not drug offenses.) The kids averaged 5.5 prior felony convictions. Their average age was 15.5 years.

As 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).

Of the 15 kids in the experimental group, 13 had documented neurological problems related to LD issues, processing problems, etc. The two who did not have neurological issues had severe child abuse in early years (cigarette scars from burns inflicted by parents, etc.)

Their IQ's were within average range but their skills in reading, writing, spelling, and math were very low, averaging around 2nd to 3rd grade.

We used a wilderness camping model known as the "Campbell Loughmiller" approach (from Texas) that was based on William Glasser's Reality Therapy. We arranged for special ed graduate students to provide one-on-one tutoring for each kid. The tutors focused primarily on teaching these teenagers how to read.

After 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 improved too.

After a year or so, there was such an astounding difference that the program was written up as a model project under the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).

Why do we have to reinvent the wheel again and again?

By the way, the book Reality Therapy, by William Glasser, is a classic.

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