Contemplating Manifestation Determinations

Special education law has granted expansive educational opportunities to students with disabilities. Efforts to protect the educational rights of these students sometimes create scenarios that perplex rational people. Manifestation determinations present such a scenario. Explaining this process can leave one with as many questions as answers.

Discipline for students with special needs often gets misunderstood. Many school employees believe they are powerless to discipline students with IEPs. This isn’t true. School officials can discipline these students. However, a process exists to protect them from being disciplined for behavior resulting from their disabilities, or from having their educational programs disrupted by disciplinary measures. The fear of legal backlash over disciplining students with IEPs makes some school officials hesitant. This can create a culture in which discipline is unlikely, thus feeding the notion that it isn’t an option.

The point of a manifestation determination is to ascertain the fairness of potential discipline for a student with an IEP. After an incident that normally would warrant discipline, the IEP team reviews the student’s behavior and disability to decide whether or not the behavior results from (or is a manifestation of) the student’s disability. Disciplining a student because of their disability would be considered a civil rights violation. Although important exceptions exist, if a student commits an infraction because of his or her disability, the school must respond with something other than discipline. Typically, the team will revise the IEP to include some increased or different level of support.

Critics rightly question the merit of student discipline, especially for students with IEPs. Suspensions are a questionably effective manner of dealing with infractions. Altering the IEP has more potential to create a change in behavior. With students who have intense behavior disorders, IEP interventions aren’t likely to extinguish behaviors. However, the IEP team can adjust conditions that lead to disruptive behaviors. It also can standardize staff response. In these ways, manifestation determinations can lead to a more functional method of coping with student behavior than removal via suspension.

This all seems positive so far. What gets confusing is the nature of what manifestation determinations imply through their existence. By not permitting schools to discipline students for disruptive behaviors resulting from their disabilities, special education law suggests that schools must accommodate these disruptive and even dangerous behaviors. At the same time, it expects schools to work to diminish disruptive behaviors, thereby acknowledging that these behaviors really are negative for all involved.

Few people consider assault, verbal outbursts, or destruction of property to be acceptable behaviors. Our society grants law enforcement and the judicial system the authority to address such acts. Special education law tests the limits of tolerance by suggesting students can’t be denied the right to an education even if they are disrupting the rights of others. Rational people might be leery of the law’s protection of a student who assaults a teacher due to that student’s inability to control him or herself. Are students with such limitations safe to be in the general public? Should others have to accept that a person might trash a convenience store because of their disability? What is the limit to this acceptance?

A rational person might ask such questions. To counter these questions, one must remember that these behaviors might not be a student’s fault. Less intrusive behaviors like repetitive hand washing aren’t necessarily a person’s fault, either. The same would be true for urges to pick scabs, repeat what others say, or curse. Such benign behaviors don’t usually interfere with anyone else’s rights. An uncontrollable urge to masturbate in public is something different. Even if a behavior isn’t a student’s fault, that behavior might create a serious problem for others.

An unsavory aspect of special education law and of many civil rights laws is that they cast such a wide net of protection. When the law calls behavior disorders a disability (and it does so rightly—these are mental illnesses, if nothing else) and forbids discrimination based on disability, it protects students who have an array of toxic behaviors. These students often commit behaviors without reprimand, which can undermine the school community through example and pure disruption. As mentioned, reprimands might not be especially effective with some students with disabilities. Programmed attempts to redirect behaviors might prove more beneficial to the students themselves, but the matter of the safety for other students remains. Removal often has as much to do with safety as it does with discipline.

For all of the progress in special education, issues involving student discipline remain muddy. Students shouldn’t be reprimanded because of their disabilities, but if their disabilities create dangerous situations for others, schools must be able to protect everyone involved. Manifestation determinations help clarify many issues, but the existence of such protections can make protecting other students more complicated. Most aspects of special education end up making something more complicated for someone.

Contemplating Manifestation Determinations

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