In addition to typical-student discipline rights, students with disabilities are protected from being disciplined for expressions of their disability. With typical student discipline, extra discipline steps are not required unless the district seeks 11 or more consecutive days of discipline. For students eligible for IEPs, extra protections arise once the school district has imposed a total of 10 days of out-of-school suspension, regardless of whether the days were consecutive.*
Once the right to protection from discipline is triggered, the IEP team must convene for a special type of meeting generally called a manifestation meeting. As the name suggests, the team is required to determine if the student's school-rule violations arose out of the student's disability, aka were a manifestation of the disability.
There are two ways a student’s misconduct can be classified as a manifestation. The first way is if the student’s conduct was a "direct result of failure to implement the IEP." For example, a student’s IEP may require that two staff be present with the student at all times. If one of the staff leaves the room to attend to some other issue and the student acts out, that misconduct likely would be a result of the failure to have two staff in the room.
The second and more common way that misconduct is classified as a manifestation is when the student’s behavior "has a direct and substantial relationship to the student’s disability." Be careful that the school district does not try to answer this question by considering whether the student knew what they did was wrong or violated the rules.** A cognitively impaired student who throws a chair across the room probably knows that they were not supposed to do that – it’s pretty likely the student committed that act instead of some other because the student understood the rules and what they were doing. Yet that is clearly a manifestation.
If the student’s conduct is determined to be a manifestation of the disability, then the school district cannot implement the long-term suspension or expulsion. In addition, the school district must conduct a behavioral evaluation and write a behavior plan to address how similar behavior will be addressed and prevented in the future. There is a statutory preference to maintain the student in the same placement as where the misconduct occurred.***
For punishment before accumulating ten total days of out-of-school suspension, most metro Atlanta school districts take the position that punishment is solely at the discretion of the principle or designee. I do not always agree.
Time can be tight, because the manifestation meeting is an additional step in the discipline timeline - even without considering special education issues, state law sets a timeline that discipline violation and appropriate punishment must be concluded within 10 days of the beginning of the suspension.
For most students served by IEPs, it is essential to focus on the manifestation meeting. If the team at this meeting concludes that a student's conduct is not a manifestation, school discipline law does not require further consideration of the student's disability. As a practical matter, most tribunal hearing officers will not consider a student's disability as mitigation of punishment. If you need help with the manifestation process, contact me to schedule an initial consultation.
Fn * Students eligible for 504 plans have similar legal protections, but defined by case law, not statute.
Fn ** S1 v. Turlington, 635 F.2d 342, 346 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981)
Fn *** 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(1)(F)(iii)
The Georgia Department of Education is conducting a survey of students with disabilities served by IEPs.