IEPs Are Not a License for Violent Behavior at School

by Kerry Dougherty

It may be time to rethink the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was signed into law in 1990 by then-President George H. W. Bush.

If the late president had known that some school officials would use a wrinkle in this law to keep psychopaths in the classroom I wonder if he would have signed it.

IDEA entitled students to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. It meant kids with physical, mental and emotional disabilities could get individualized learning plans and ideally have an education tailored to their needs.

It’s a well-intended piece of legislation built on several earlier laws that also attempted to give those with disabilities the same opportunities as other children for a free public education. It appears that IDEA may have been expanded to mean that a child with an IEP has a license to be disruptive and even violent while teachers are powerless to get them out of class. If that’s the case, well, it’s time to narrow the law.

Or scrap it.

The rights of non-disruptive students to an education ought to trump the rights of any budding psychopaths who pose a danger to their fellow students and teachers.

Yes, I’m talking about the shooting of first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner on January 6 at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News by a student with disabilities.

According to news stories, emails between Zwerner and school officials now document the fact that the shooter was a major problem all year, and his teacher begged for help from school officials. In November Zwerner sent an email saying she didn’t feel comfortable having this kid back in class after a one-day suspension.

But back he was.

At some point Richneck school officials are going to be forced to explain why they worried more about coddling one disruptive student than they did about a safe learning environment for every other student in the class. And for the teacher.

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, which is a legal document that attempts to construct a plan to help educate a student with documented disabilities. Schools are obligated to meet each child’s needs in a regular school environment.

And yes, this program is often hard on classroom teachers if they have a student who requires intensive hands-on help. But this program was never intended to be a license for uncontrolled violent behavior.

On behalf of all parents whose children have IEPs, I think it needs to be said that many of these students are great kids who simply learn differently and more slowly than their classmates.

In fact, allowing a student to physically attack classmates and teachers — the Richneck shooter reportedly tried to strangle another teacher and threw one student to the ground — and be practically untouchable, is a bastardization of this program.

How do I know?

My son had an IEP. He had learning disabilities and his IEP meant he left his classroom during the day to get extra help and he received accommodations, such as having extra time to take tests.

As a result of his struggles to learn my son wasn’t at the top of his class, academically. But he never once was a discipline problem.

In fact, his first-grade teacher told me that when she passed out corrected papers she always gave my son his first, because my kid always smiled and said “Thank you.” His politeness was contagious, she told me.

My kid didn’t win a lot of academic awards but he unfailingly won citizenship and courtesy awards year after year. I wouldn’t trade those good behavior certificates for honor roll citations, either. I was proud of my boy.

But turning a program designed to give kids like mine a chance to learn at their own pace into an excuse to put a classroom full of students and a teacher in harm’s way is an abomination.

If that is truly the way IDEA is being interpreted by the courts, it’s time to scrap it.

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.