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Suspensions Are a Necessary Policy

If students constitute a clear and present danger either to themselves and/or to others, school officials have a duty to take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to address the threat ("Mom says son's 45-day suspension from Success Academy is unjust," New York Daily News, Apr. 12).  In today's litigious society, I say it's better to err on the side of caution.

I have reference now to events at Success Academy Prospect Heights in Brooklyn N.Y.  A first-grader with a blood disorder called beta thalassemia was suspended for 45 days after he allegedly threw a stool at the assistant principal and dragged her down the hall by her hair.  It was the culmination of dangerous behavior on his part since he started school in October.  For example, the boy is said to have hit other staffers, hurled objects at other children, and hit and bit safety agents.

It's unclear if the matter would have made the news had the suspension not been that long and if the boy had not been battling a disability.  But I maintain that the safety of all students must always be job No. 1.  In this particular case, the school had provided the boy with two hours of daily one-on-one instruction with a tutor.  It also provided psychological support for months. What more could it have done?

I ask this question because of another case involving special education students in the Novi Community School District in Michigan ("When your child isn't safe at school," The Detroit News, Apr. 13).  It also pertained to a student with a long record of abusive and disruptive behavior at school.  The district is being sued for failing to take swift and decisive action.

Some will say that parents with special-needs children who are disaffected with neighborhood public schools can use vouchers to enroll them in private schools.  But when they do, they lose most of the rights they have under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act ("Special Ed School Vouchers May Come With Hidden Costs," The New York Times, Apr. 12).

Despite efforts made by Success Academy Prospect Heights, the boy's behavior did not improve.  When his mother and her lawyer took the matter to an independent Education Department hearing officer, he concluded that the boy's misbehavior was not severe enough to justify the school's punishment and ordered the school to take him back, saying: "These allegations do not rise to the level of serious bodily injury.  Rather, I agree with the parent that such conduct even if true, which I doubt, could not create a substantial risk."

I'd like to know what conduct would meet that standard.  Does the school have to wait until a child loses an eye from a thrown object or a child suffers a concussion from being thrown to the floor? Do teachers have to be severely injured?  If children were in any way physically hurt, the school would rightly be sued by other parents for not taking proper action in light of the boy's history.

Although I question the length of the suspension, I believe the school acted responsibly.  I'd like to know the reasons the hearing officer said he doubted the behavior as described by the school. Is there more to this story than initially appears?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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