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Are Children with Special Needs More Likely to Commit School Violence?

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Are Children with Special Needs More Likely to Commit School Violence?


Denise (Smith) Skarbek

Denise (Smith) Skarbek worked as a special education teacher for children with mild disabilities before becoming a professor in the department of special education at Indiana University at South Bend. Her interest in special education led her to research the relationship between children with special needs and school violence. In this selection, she explores whether children with certain emotional and cognitive disabilities are at greater risk for committing violent acts in school. As Skarbek writes, there is some evidence that suggests these children may be more likely to act out in aggressive or violent ways. On the other hand, she observes, none of the perpetrators in recent school shootings were identified as children with disabilities. Skarbek concludes that since the research findings are mixed, school personnel should avoid singling out children with disabilities as potential troublemakers.

Source Database: Contemporary Issues Companion: School Violence

Table of Contents: Further Readings | Source Citation

The random acts of targeted school shootings of the past several years have prompted many scholars to search for explanations of why and question who is committing these horrific violent acts and whether additional attacks will occur. In fact, the U.S. Secret Service examined the thinking, planning, and other preattack behaviors engaged by attackers who carried out the school shootings to determine (a) whether the attacks were being planned, and, (b) if yes, what could have been done to prevent further attacks. The major findings reported were as follows:

Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.

Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker's idea or plan to attack.

There is no useful "profile" of students engaged in targeted school violence.

Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.

Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had conspired or attempted suicide.

Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.

Most attackers had access to and had weapons prior to the attack.

In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.

Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.

Other researchers have questioned the role, if any, children with disabilities played in any of the recent school-yard shootings, while others have considered the role special education legislation has played in school violence....

Special Education Legislation and School Violence

Approximately 11 percent of school-age children between the ages of 6 and 17 are identified as receiving special education services in the United States. Public Law 105-17, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), which is the reauthorization of P.L. 94-142 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, protects the educational interests of children with disabilities. Some believe that P.L. 105-17 prevents school violence whereas others believe that it promotes school violence.

According to IDEA, special education is "specifically designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.... This includes instruction conducted in the classroom, home, hospitals and institutions, and in other settings and instruction in physical education." Two major provisions of IDEA include the right to free and appropriate education with nondisabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate or what has been referred to as the least restrictive environment. The key to providing a free and appropriate education is individualized instruction. To ensure that all children identified as having a disability receive individualized instruction, IDEA mandates that an individualized education program (IEP) be developed. In the development of this individualized program, the case conference committee considers the child's current level of educational performance and special needs, the services to be delivered, objectives to be met, timelines for completion, and assessment progress.

Perhaps the most controversial aspects of Public Law 105-17 are the discipline provisions, such as the "stay-put" rule and the cumulative ten-school-day limit on suspensions. Legislation mandates that a child with a disability remain in his or her current educational placement, pending the completion of any due-process proceedings, court proceedings, or appeals. Many argue that the stay-put provision of IDEA promotes school violence because it unfairly protects students with disabilities who are disruptive or violent. They argue that the school's options are limited when there is a legitimate reason to remove a dangerous or extremely disruptive child.

Special Treatment?

Some school administrators and many members of Congress thought that the stay-put provision contributed to the excessive violence that has erupted in the schools during the past several years. For example, Congress was concerned that students with disabilities could bring guns to school and yet would not be expelled as would their nondisabled violent peers. Furthermore, it was believed that IDEA prevented school officials from disciplining and expelling students with disabilities with behavior problems: "even if a student with a disability commits a serious infraction of the rules, such as bringing a gun to school, he or she can only be suspended for 10 days as opposed to the mandatory one year expulsion handed to other students accused of the same crime," [in the words of W.J. Cahir]. According to Cahir "many school officials argue that IDEA creates a dangerous Catch 22. If a student's violent or antisocial behavior stems from a disability, the officials' disciplinary options become limited. Only when a child's education team determines that his misconduct is unrelated to his disability may the school discipline the student as it would others."

Cahir argues that students with a disability charged with



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