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School discipline and the IDEA: unfair to nondisabled students?
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Apr. 4, 2001 -- A report released recently by the General Accounting Office on school discipline practices under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has found that "about 60 to 65 percent of students who engage in serious misconduct, whether they are in regular education or special education programs, are given out-of-school suspensions." In other words, it did not find large variation in treatment between students with disabilities and those without. However the report's small sample size and the fact that it relied on self-reported data makes its usefulness as an indicator of trends in education somewhat limited.

A summary of the report, "Student Discipline Individuals With Disabilities Education Act" (GAO-01-210) can be found at the GAO site at The entire report, in PDF only, will be downloaded by going to (PDF formats are generally inaccessible to older screen readers as they are in graphic format; this one is also large at 312K).

The report is the result of complaints by those who felt the IDEA's 1997 amendments unfairly kept schools from suspending disabled students who misbehaved. The report was requested by the Appropriations Committees of both houses of Congress.

"Anecdotal evidence," says the report, "suggested that students with disabilities, because of the IDEA, were allowed to stay in school whereas nondisabled students engaging in similar misconduct would be "suspended or expelled without services."

"This led to the perception of a double standard."

The GAO found, however, that "The length of suspensions is about equal in the two groups, and less than half of suspended students in each group receive educational services during their suspensions. The same proportion of each group of students who engage in serious misconduct-about one in six-is expelled from school and/or placed in an alternative educational setting as a consequence of the misconduct."

A word of caution is in order: The study was conducted from "self-reported" data provided by school principals."

Although the IDEA 1997 amendments require the Dept. of Education to collect data "on certain disciplinary actions for special education students, at the time we did our work this effort had not progressed sufficiently to provide us with any usable data," said the GAO in its report.

The group surveyed was "a nationally representative sample of about 465 public middle and high school principals."

"We had a response rate of 60 percent for our survey. This response rate is too low to permit us to produce estimates that are nationally representative," said the GAO. "Nevertheless, the size and geographic location of the 272 responding schools were generally similar to the schools in our sample, and we believe the survey data provide information not available from any other source."

"Special education students who are involved in serious misconduct are being disciplined in generally a similar manner to regular education students, based on the information principals reported to us," wrote the GAO. "However, about 27 percent of principals reported that a separate discipline policy for special education students is unfair to the regular student population, and 20 percent reported that the discipline procedures for IDEA are burdensome and time-consuming."

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