By Brian Hughes and Michael Polak
You receive a text or maybe a call from your child’s school district. There was an incident at your child’s school involving inappropriate graffiti in a locker room.
The administration did not detail what was written, but you learned from others that it was racist, vulgar, vile, and directed towards specific students. No violence was threatened, but the message was disturbing.
The next day, you hear a rumor and learn that the author was a well-known troublemaker at the school. “Sounds about right,” you think. The student is out of class, everyone is safe, and life goes on.
A few days later, the student is back in class. You don’t understand how that could happen and question why the school hasn’t taken this matter more seriously.
Finding the Appropriate Path
Sometimes, suspension or traditional punishments are not the correct reaction to the issue. Many children have cognitive or other disabilities that manifest in these ways. For such students, the issue for a school is finding the appropriate path to help a child with these unique challenges while keeping all other students safe.
Discipline, or consideration of other strategies to remediate the situation, is guided by federal and state law as well as interventions by various school professionals including school psychologists, social workers, special educators and others.
These interventions are often invisible to parents because of confidentiality rules.
In most cases, a school must conduct a “manifestation determination” within ten days of the disciplinary decision for students with disabilities.
Under federal law, educational professionals are required to examine the circumstances behind a child’s behavior to determine whether that behavior is linked to his/her disability or whether the child’s behavior indicates a disability. This does not mean that the school can’t take action; to the contrary, districts have a variety of tools at its disposal to address the challenging behavior. In extreme cases, these tools can include an out-of-district placement.
The key is that any action taken must be thoughtful and appropriately address a child’s disability.
A Delicate Balance
Most educators understand that disciplinary problems can be more than just a child acting out and are related to a disability. Also, they appreciate their responsibility to keep all children safe. Often, this is a delicate balancing act. Today’s society presents both parents and schools with a host of worries never before seen.
If you believe that your child is not being served by his/her school, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult with a lawyer experienced in education law. Early intervention may lead to a quick resolution of the issue and improve your child’s educational experience.
Our Education Law team at BRCSM focuses on serving the needs of school districts throughout Rhode Island and representing parents of students with special needs in Massachusetts. If you need more information on the rights of disabled children or how MA schools accommodate those rights, contact Brian Hughes or Michael Polak. Or, learn more about our Education Law practice here.