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Zero Tolerance Policies & Special Education

Instructor: Frank Clint

Frank has been an educator for over 10 years. He has a doctorate degree in education with a concentration in curriculum and instruction.

Do you remember hearing a principal or teacher utter the phrase zero tolerance? This lesson discusses zero tolerance policies and the protections that exist for students with special needs in relationship to these policies.

Zero Tolerance Policies and Special Needs Students

Imagine that a student with no history of behavior problems steals something and is suspended for 4 days. To make matters worse, after receiving his consequence, he proceeds to become violent and threaten his teacher and other school personnel. The principal adds 10 more days on to his suspension for a total of 14 days, in line with the code of conduct, which boasts a zero tolerance policy. Now, consider that this student is learning disabled and gets a few hours of special education services each day. Because of his placement, school personnel must be careful to protect his rights and avoid violating the law that protects special needs children.

Zero Tolerance

A school that suspends or expels students for a predetermined list of a variety of major or minor offenses has a zero tolerance policy in place. Some offenses that are commonly included are small things such as disruptive behavior to more serious things such as bringing weapons or alcohol to school, fighting, being insubordinate, and being disrespectful to school personnel. The problem with many of these policies is that they have the potential to violate the rights of special needs students.

Zero tolerance policies were popular in the 1990s and have since lost popularity due to research. Research shows that suspending students is more likely to cause them to drop out or end up in trouble with the law.

An art installation in support of ending zero tolerance policies. According to research, suspending students is more likely to cause them to end up in the juvenile justice system.
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Special Needs Students

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 states that if a behavior acted upon by a special education student is not a direct manifestation of or caused by the student's disability, then this student can receive the same consequences as any other student. When you change a student's placement for more than 10 days in a row, there are steps designed to protect the student:

  • Contact parents and members of the Individual Education Plan (IEP) team immediately.
  • The IEP team meets and picks an interim alternative educational setting (IAES).
  • A manifestation determination meeting happens within 10 days to determine if the behavior was caused by the disability.
  • The student continues to get services during removal to IAES.
  • The student continues to get access to the general education curriculum.
  • Teachers continue to work on IEP goals with the student.
  • The student gets a functional behavioral assessment to keep behavior from happening again.

The manifestation determination meeting is where the IEP committee decides if his behavior was because of his learning disability or not. If it was not, the student is held accountable to the student code of conduct. If the parents do not agree, they can dispute the decision and try to work with the committee to decide on another placement.

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