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Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General: What's WRONG with that IDEA?

Human Rights

By Nancy Hemenway

Human RightsSenator Jeff Sessions (Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III) is the new administration’s top pick to be the highest law enforcement officer in the land -the United States Attorney General. The Attorney General heads the US Department of Justice, which is charged not only with defending but also enforcing federal law, including the Individual Education for Disabilities [Improvement] Act (IDEA/IDEIA). Sessions hails from Alabama, a state that has yet to inact Autism insurance reforms. 
Although a potential appointment of Senator Sessions raises many concerns, the purposes of this article is to spotlight Senator Sessions’ previous remarks about special education in his official Senatorial capacity. 

Attorneys, advocates and parents of children with disabilities are on high alert as a result of based on remarks made by Senator Sessions in his May 2000 speech from the floor of the United States Senate.

On May 8, 2000 Senator Sessions gave a speech on the Senate floor. In his speech he opined, the need for reform of the IDEA. Senator Sessions, a former school teacher from decades gone by, calls the IDEA a “good goal” but he also said --

                                                              “We have created a complex system of federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children and that are a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America. I say that very sincerely.”

This statement by Senator Sessions shows an antiquated notion and degree of ignorance about the make-up of the student population in public schools.  Maligning the federal law and blaming the intended recipients of the strict procedural framework the rights and procedures is disingenuous and misplaced. Senator Sessions could have also discussed the well documented incompetency of some public school special education personnel from coast to coast. Failure in the classroom has little to do with the mandate to educate students with disabilities and more to do with failure of application of the law to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities.  

The IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). (20 U.S.C § 1412 et sec)

 In his speech Senator Sessions directly blames the IDEA for the lack of control in the classroom.

                                    “We have children we cannot control because of this federal law.” 

That statement is preposterous. The lack of instructional control when trying to manage and teach children - and in particular children with disabilities - is attributable to a lack of understanding of the function of their behavior

Everything we as human beings think, do, or feel is behavior. All behaviors are ways to communicate. If one does not understand the function of a behavior there is almost no chance to change, or shape it to an acceptable or new appropriate behavior. Among many, there is a common misconception that inclusion is mainstreaming all students with disabilities into one classroom. Students who are mainstreamed need supports and sometimes adaptations to the curriculum. Without the appropriate supports, they fail, are punished, ostracized, and/or bullied. Special education under the IDEA mandates that school districts provide an education with services and supports that meet their unique educational needs.

Parents have good reason to be concerned for the welfare of their disabled children if Senator Sessions is appointed Attorney General of the United States. His May 8, 2000 speech on the Senate floor has, to my knowledge, not been rescinded or amended by Senator Sessions. Will Sessions support and defend IDEA or will he allow further degradation of a law designed to protect and educate children with disabilities?

Research shows us that children with disabilities are at a greater risk for restraint, seclusion and other abusive and aversive methods of discipline that perpetuate more unacceptable behaviors as unintended consequences of aversive actions and punishment by public schools.

Many of the letters and statements from educators that Senator Sessions discussed originate from teachers or school systems officials that are not evaluating and treating a student’s target behaviors appropriately with “best practice methods” to shape, change and teach appropriate new behaviors. Senator Sessions reaches his conclusions and opinions based not on statistics or data but “anecdotal stories” he received from constituents calling attention and giving him their perception of the problem.

In addition, Senator Sessions provided another anecdotal story line about a case in which two students were caught with weapons that the students said were accidentally left in their vehicles as a result of coming to school grounds from target shooting. One was expelled and never returned to school and the other was a special education student (disability not specified) who was assigned to an alternative school for 45 days before he returned to his school.  According to Senator Sessions,

                                “The second student’s handicap does not prevent him from knowing right from wrong.”

The point is not “right from wrong”. For example, his disability may not deter him from understanding right from wrong - but his executive function may if, for example, he has ADHD. In that situation the student could well have a diminished capacity to organize and also have a disturbance of his memory function. All of which could increase the likelihood that the student might forget his gun was in the car. In that analysis, the student would be punished as a result of his disability.  There is no way to know from this brief anecdotal story what the young man’s disability was. If the student’s executive function and memory issues are at issue his disability absolutely is important in determining how to proceed. Expulsion or other punishment based on an incapacity due to a disability is wrong, illegal and not very productive.

When a behavior of such magnitude occurs and expulsion is an issue, the IDEA mandates that students with a disability have a manifestation hearing to determine if the behavior was a result of the student’s disability.  Behaviors and specific learning and processing difficulties stemming from a disability are neurological or brain based.

Contrary to what Senator Sessions implied in his speech on the Senate floor, it is absurd to punish a student for a disability he may not have control over. It is unfortunate but punitive and coercive discipline is pervasive in schools today.  Punishment, coercion and a lack of positive behavior supports to prevent inappropriate behaviors produces the opposite affect and fallout in the form of more unwanted behaviors.

The solution to problem behaviors is not to weaken or defund the IDEA but instead to strengthen IDEA and training for educators who may not understand how to shape and teach new behaviors while extinguishing inappropriate behaviors. Senator Sessions thinks the government is already too big and that the IDEA and lack of control by educators is to blame for student behavior.  As US Attorney General Sessions he would be in charge of civil rights – including the civil rights of those with a disability. 
For more information about civil rights concerns See these articles from:  NY Times Article,  CNN Politics,  ABC News,  Equal Justice Society,  Special Needs Digest,  The Atlantic,  ACLU: Jeff Sessions the Facts,  Forbes,  
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN),  

Please feel free to leave a comment

Other links of Interest:

10 Supreme Court Cases You Need to Know - Mass Advocates for Children

Since this was posted several weeks ago, the Sessions speech has been removed (like many government documents after the election) from the US Government website. Records of speeches and other government business can be found through the Congressional Record. For your convenience, we have copied the speech (link above in PDF) and HERE in a Word Document.

Another valuable tool to help you evaluate FAKE news sites HERE

Jeff Sessions, gave a speech on the Senate floor in 2000, very critical about the IDEA and even intimating at one point school shootings were a result of allowing disabled students in schools.The speech is and continues to be of concern, Sessions could present a threat to students with disabilities. Since we published this article, his speech has been removed from the website. Sessions has not clarified his views so we can only assume they have not changed. Here are excepts from the speech.

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