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The Next Columbine

New law is simply a bad IDEA

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It's a law Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would have loved. The same year the two were planning the Columbine High School massacre that would result in the deaths of 15 people, advocates for students with disabilities were lobbying for changes in federal law that would have a devastating effect on safety in our public schools.

Thanks to their efforts, if the next Harris and Klebold happen to have dyslexia or ADHD, there will be almost nothing we can do to permanently remove them from our schools, even if we're fortunate enough to catch them pre-massacre with guns in hand and suicide notes in their pockets. Thanks to this law, until they manage to kill someone or commit a crime that lands them in jail, our schools must welcome them back after a brief suspension.

This story really starts in 1975, when one in eight children with very real disabilities like autism or mental illness were expelled from school because many schools didn't have special programs to meet their needs and the system couldn't deal with their unruly behavior. So Congress passed a law ordering public schools to teach children with disabilities and, wherever possible, to mainstream them into regular classrooms.

Six years ago, Congress tightened that law by barring schools from expelling these kids. But there was a catch. Over the years, the definition of which kids the law applied to got broader, and now includes just about everything under the sun, including kids with ADHD and depression and kids whose bad behavior actually qualifies as a disorder.

Both Senator Hillary Clinton and President George Bush championed the latest version of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which became law in December. Both political parties even held press conferences to announce how safe schools would now be because of changes they'd made to it. But those "changes" are nothing but a sham that could help make the next Columbine-style massacre possible.

In this new, supposedly improved version of the law, schools are still forbidden to expel students with "disabilities," no matter what they do, but they can now suspend them for up to 10 days. If they bring a gun or drugs to school, they can be placed in an "alternative educational setting" -- like a management school or a boot camp -- but for no more than 45 days. Then, by law, it's back to the school.

That's right. A "disabled" kid who assaults a teacher and threatens to return with a gun and execute the entire classroom has a right to return to that classroom or another one suited to his "needs" within 45 days. The only obstacle potentially standing in the way of his return is a jail sentence, which isn't likely if he's a juvenile.

Under IDEA, even a 10-day suspension for bashing another kid over the head with a brick requires complex bureaucratic gymnastics to achieve. Before an IDEA student can be punished, a team of educators who are required to handle his case must meet to determine whether the kid is capable of understanding that the violent act he committed was wrong or whether some deficiency in the programs that serve him might have led to the behavior. If his violent behavior is deemed to be part of his "disability," it can't be viewed as violation of school rules, and is instead considered to be a "manifestation" of the student's disability. Even if this team decides the behavior isn't part of his disability, expulsion still isn't possible.

At that point, well, everyone just hopes he doesn't get his hands on a gun next time.

Compounding the problem is the fact that IDEA gives permissive school systems like ours cover to keep violent students who don't have disabilities in school, because it's impossible to know how many of the 21 students who brought guns to school last year or the 29 who assaulted school personnel were kids with disabilities. So, as it did last year, the school system simply refuses to expel kids. Question school officials about a violent incident and they'll tell you the law forbids them from expelling the kid responsible for it -- right after they tell you that they can't disclose whether the kid in question has a disability or not.

All of which leaves our frustrated, underpaid teachers staring out into a sea of faces, trying to pick out the ticking time bomb before it explodes. That is, until those teachers decide that it's just not worth it anymore.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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