The Tremendous Impact of School Districts’ Lack of Special Education Programming on the Juvenile Justice System
By Heather M. Hulse, JD, MA, MS
Many students with special education needs have been diagnosed with severe neurospychological disorders that have a direct impact on their ability to behave appropriately. School districts have a legal responsibility to address the behavior needs of these students, but unfortunately, many neglect this obligation. As a result, many of these students continue to engage in inappropriate behaviors, leading to involvement in the juvenile justice system. Sometimes, after failing to provide proper services, the school district itself refers misbehaving students to the delinquency system. Unfortunately, the juvenile justice system does not always consider the special education and/or mental health needs of the child, which continue to go unmet.
School districts are required to address all of a student’s special education needs through an appropriate Individualized Education Program (“IEP”). This includes the student’s academic, social, emotional, behavioral, developmental, and physical needs. Indeed, the IDEA specifically requires school districts to provide supportive services to special education students, including psychological services, counseling services, and social work services in schools. It is important to further note that the IDEA provides that social work services in schools include “group and individual counseling with the child and family” and “working in partnership with the parents and others on those problems in a child’s living situation (home, school, and community) that affect the child’s adjustment in school.” Thus, the student’s IEP must include all of the services necessary to the student’s social, emotional, and behavioral growth.
Chapter 14 of the Pennsylvania Code further requires school districts to implement Positive Behavior Support programs that include research-based practices and techniques. This means that the practices and techniques utilized for behavior programming must have been scientifically proven to be effective in increasing positive behavior and decreasing problematic behavior. They must include methods that utilize positive reinforcement and other positive techniques to shape a student’s behavior, including, but not limited to, the use of positive verbal statements, preferred activities, homework passes, and specific tangible rewards.
A Positive Behavior Support plan must be developed for any student with a disability whose behaviors interfere with learning. Such a behavior plan must be developed by the student’s IEP team, based on a functional behavioral assessment (“FBA”), and become part of the student’s IEP. An FBA involves several observations over a period of time, in various settings, by a qualified professional in order to assess the student’s “function,” or reason, of the problematic behavior(s). These reasons can include a variety of factors, including environmental and social factors.
Sadly, many students’ disabilities cause them to behave inappropriate, leading to involvement in the juvenile delinquency system. School districts can prevent this end by fulfilling their legal obligation to provide appropriate education programs for such students, including supportive services and Positive Behavior Support plans. In doing so, far fewer students would find themselves in the juvenile delinquency system, resulting in better outcomes for children and society as a whole.