oversight

Special Education: Clearer Guidance Would Enhance Implementation of Federal Disciplinary Provisions

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-05-20.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States General Accounting Office

GAO          Report to the Ranking Minority
             Member, Committee on Health,
             Education, Labor and Pensions,
             U.S. Senate

May 2003
             SPECIAL
             EDUCATION
             Clearer Guidance
             Would Enhance
             Implementation of
             Federal Disciplinary
             Provisions




GAO-03-550
                                                May 2003


                                                SPECIAL EDUCATION

                                                Clearer Guidance Would Enhance
Highlights of GAO-03-550, a report to the       Implementation of Federal Disciplinary
Ranking Minority Member, Committee on
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions,          Provisions
U.S. Senate




In the 2000-01 school year, more                In the districts and schools in the three states GAO studied, disciplined
than 91,000 special education                   special education students were primarily placed in in-school suspension
students were removed from their                rooms or out-of-school suspensions at home, according to survey
educational settings for                        respondents. These short-term settings were used most frequently because
disciplinary reasons. Under the                 most of the special education students in these schools and districts were
Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), schools are
                                                removed from their regular educational settings for periods of 10 days or
required to provide educational                 less, according to respondents. Special education students who were
services to special education                   removed for longer than 10 days were primarily placed in alternative schools
students who are removed from                   or homebound placements. In addition to considering the length of the
their educational settings for more             student’s removal when deciding where to place disciplined special
than 10 days in a school year.                  education students, school and district officials considered the cost and
                                                availability of placement options and the nature of the student’s offense and
The Committee’s Ranking Minority                corresponding disciplinary action.
Member asked GAO to determine
where disciplined special                       Schools and school district officials in the three states reported that they
education students are placed, the              provided a range of services to disciplined special education students.
extent to which local school
districts continue educational
                                                However, how the schools and school districts provided these services
services for these students, and                varied significantly. For example, some school districts used self-paced
how the U.S. Department of                      instructional packages to provide educational services to disciplined special
Education provides support and                  education students. Other school districts, however, used tutoring by special
oversight for special education                 education instructional personnel to provide educational services for similar
disciplinary placements. To                     students. In addition to educational services, some disciplined special
address these objectives, GAO                   education students had access to other services such as counseling.
conducted a study, using surveys
and site-visits, of special education           The Department of Education provided guidance and oversight to states and
disciplinary placements in three                school districts for special education disciplinary placements by providing
states—Illinois, Maryland, and                  information on federal requirements and reviewing state self-assessments,
North Carolina.
                                                improvement plans, and data and conducting on-site data collection visits in
                                                selected states. However, according to some state and local officials, this
                                                guidance has not been specific enough. In particular, the regulations do not
GAO recommends that the                         provide illustrative examples specifying whether the days of in-school
Secretary of Education issue                    suspension should be counted as days of removal under the 10-day rule. In
supplemental guidance to state and              addition, Education’s IDEA oversight system may not detect possible
local education agencies to assist              noncompliance because it relies on state monitoring efforts, including state
them in implementing IDEA's                     self-assessments and discipline data that have been shown to contain some
disciplinary provisions.                        inaccuracies. Education’s next generation of its oversight system has
                                                recently been approved by the department and will be implemented in
                                                calendar year 2003. This new oversight system includes a component to
                                                validate data used by the system to make federal oversight decisions.



www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-550.

To view the full report, including the scope
and methodology, click on the link above.
For more information, contact Marnie Shaul at
(202) 512-7215 or shaulm@gao.gov.
Contents


Letter                                                                                  1
               Results in Brief                                                         3
               Background                                                               5
               Disciplined Students Were Primarily Placed in In-School
                 Suspension Rooms and Out-of-School Suspensions at Home                 7
               Schools and School Districts Provided a Range of Services to
                 Disciplined Special Education Students                                 9
               Education’s Guidance and Oversight of Disciplinary Placements
                 Has Been Limited                                                     12
               Conclusions                                                            17
               Recommendation for Executive Action                                    18
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                     18

Appendix I     Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                      20
               State Selection                                                        20
               Site Visits                                                            21
               Surveys                                                                21

Appendix II    Comments from the Department of Education                               23



Appendix III   GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments                                  27
               GAO Contact                                                            27
               Staff Acknowledgments                                                  27


Tables
               Table 1: Most Commonly Available Services and Providers by
                        Short- and Long-Term Placement Type in Selected Schools
                        and Districts in Three States                                 11
               Table 2: Local School Districts Selected for Site Visits               21




               Page i                                        GAO-03-550 Special Education
Abbreviations

CIFMS             Continuous Improvement and Focused Monitoring System
CIMP              Continuous Improvement Monitoring Process
IDEA              Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IEP               Individualized Education Program




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Page ii                                                    GAO-03-550 Special Education
United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   May 20, 2003

                                   The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy
                                   Ranking Minority Member
                                   Committee on Health, Education,
                                    Labor and Pensions
                                   United States Senate

                                   Dear Senator Kennedy:

                                   In the 2000-01 school year, education officials removed more than
                                   91,000 special education students, including students with serious
                                   emotional disturbance and specific learning disabilities, from their current
                                   school settings for disciplinary reasons. This was approximately
                                   1.4 percent of all special education students who received public
                                   educational services that year. Little is known, however, about where local
                                   school districts and schools placed these disciplined special education
                                   students or the extent to which these students continued to receive
                                   services during their removal.

                                   Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) enacted in
                                   1990, special education students are entitled to specific rights and
                                   services. In 1997, the Congress amended IDEA to allow the removal of
                                   special education students from their current educational settings for any
                                   violation of school rules, but imposed limitations on how long these
                                   students could be removed without educational services. Specifically,
                                   IDEA requires schools to provide educational services to special education
                                   students who are removed from their current educational settings for
                                   more than 10 cumulative days in a school year. Schools are required to
                                   provide these students with the educational and related services outlined
                                   in the student’s individualized education program (IEP).1 In 1999, the U.S.
                                   Department of Education issued federal regulations that implemented the
                                   new IDEA special education discipline requirements; states and local
                                   school districts have also added their own disciplinary policies.


                                   1
                                    The term “individualized education program” refers to a written statement that is
                                   developed for each student with a disability that specifies the goals and objectives for the
                                   student, describes the services the student will receive, and specifies the extent to which
                                   the student will participate in the regular education settings with nondisabled peers and/or
                                   in the general curriculum adopted for all students.



                                   Page 1                                                      GAO-03-550 Special Education
Because little is known about the disciplinary placements of special
education students, you asked us to determine: (1) where special
education students are placed when they are removed from their
educational settings for disciplinary purposes; (2) to what extent local
school districts in selected states continue educational services for special
education students who are placed in disciplinary settings while they are
disciplined, and what types of services are provided; and (3) how
Education provides support and oversight for disciplinary placements
used for special education students.

Because there were limited national data about where special education
students were placed when they were removed from their educational
settings for disciplinary reasons, we conducted an in-depth study of the
use of disciplinary placements for special education students in the middle
and high school grades in three states—Illinois, Maryland, and
North Carolina. We used national data on the number of students served
under IDEA and the extent to which these students were disciplined to
determine the states, school districts, and schools to be included in our
study. These states were selected because they differed in the number and
percent of special education students who were disciplined and the
number of disciplined special education students who were removed from
their educational settings on a short-term or long-term basis. We collected
data for school year 2001-02, the most current data available. In these
states, we surveyed a total of 36 district special education administrators
and 78 school principals from school districts representing a range of
demographic characteristics. We had response rates of 83 percent
(30 school districts) for our district special education administrators’
survey and 63 percent (49 schools) for our survey of school officials.2
Some respondents to the district and school surveys, however, did not
answer or provide complete information for all of the questions contained
in their respective surveys.

Therefore, for some issues, we report on a subset of the total responses.
Additionally, while we did not verify the reported data, the information
collected during the site visits to selected districts and schools was
consistent with information collected though the surveys. Our results are


2
 School district special education directors, student service directors, and other staff, or a
combination of these district personnel responded to GAO’s survey of school district
special education directors. School principals, assistant principals, special education
coordinators, and other staff, or a combination of these school personnel responded to
GAO’s survey of middle and high school officials.




Page 2                                                        GAO-03-550 Special Education
                   not generalizeable to the population of districts and schools in these
                   three states or nationally. We also reviewed agency documents to
                   determine the federal role in providing oversight and guidance for
                   disciplinary placements and examined agency databases for national data
                   regarding the discipline of special education students. In addition, we
                   interviewed federal officials, national education organizations’
                   representatives, and special education experts concerning disciplinary
                   placements for special education students. We conducted our work
                   between May 2002 and April 2003 in accordance with generally accepted
                   government auditing standards. Appendix I explains our methodology in
                   more detail.


                   In the districts and schools in the three states selected for our study,
Results in Brief   disciplined special education students who were removed from their
                   regular educational settings were primarily placed in two short-term
                   suspension settings: in-school suspension rooms or out-of-school
                   suspensions at home, according to survey respondents. The length of a
                   student’s removal was a key consideration in placement decisions.
                   Because most special education students were removed from their regular
                   educational settings for periods of 10 days or less, in-school suspension
                   rooms or out-of-school suspensions at home—short-term disciplinary
                   settings—were the most frequently used placement settings, according to
                   respondents. Special education students who were removed for longer
                   than 10 days were primarily placed in alternative schools or homebound
                   placements. Several other factors affected placement decisions, including
                   the cumulative number of days a student had been removed during the
                   school year, the cost and availability of placement options, and the nature
                   of the student’s offense and corresponding disciplinary action.

                   School and school district officials in the three states we studied reported
                   providing a variety of services in different settings to disciplined special
                   education students. However, the degree to which the service included
                   active instruction and the qualifications of the service provider varied
                   significantly. For example, some school districts used self-paced
                   instructional packages to provide educational services to disciplined
                   special education students. But, others used more active instruction, such
                   as tutoring by special education instructional personnel. A disciplined
                   special education student may also have access to other services such as
                   counseling, though the availability of these services varied from district to
                   district. School district officials reported that they generally did not
                   provide any services to assist returning special education students in



                   Page 3                                            GAO-03-550 Special Education
acclimating to their regular educational setting after a disciplinary
placement, and the provision of such services is not required by law.

The Department of Education provided guidance and oversight to states
and school districts for disciplinary placements of special education
students by providing information on federal requirements and reviewing
state self-assessments, improvement plans, and data, and conducting
on-site data collection visits in selected states. However, according to
some state and local education officials, this guidance was not specific
enough. In particular, the regulations do not provide illustrative examples
specifying whether the days of in-school suspension should be counted as
days of removal under the 10-day rule. Some state and local education
officials also said that the information contained in the regulations was
difficult to access. In addition, Education’s oversight system, called the
Continuous Improvement Monitoring Process, may not detect possible
noncompliance because it relies on state monitoring efforts, including
state self-assessments and discipline data that contain some inaccuracies.
According to Education, some state monitoring systems were not effective
at identifying compliance issues with federal requirements and the
information that the states subsequently reported to Education may have
contained inaccurate information. States’ discipline data contain some
inaccuracies because of inconsistent data collection, entry, and
verification within and across school districts. Education’s next generation
oversight system, known as the Continuous Improvement and Focused
Monitoring System, has been recently approved by the department and
will be implemented during calendar year 2003, according to Education
officials. This new system was designed to focus the attention of the
department’s monitoring efforts on the states that need the most support
to improve their performance. In addition, Education plans to conduct site
visits to selected states to validate data used by the system to make federal
oversight decisions.

In this report we are recommending that the Secretary of Education issue
supplemental guidance on IDEA’s disciplinary provisions to state and local
education agencies to assist them in implementing the provisions,
particularly on determining whether a day of in-school suspension should
be counted as a day of removal under the 10-day rule. Education indicated
that it provided sufficient guidance and did not see the need for
supplemental guidance. However, some of the school and school district
officials we interviewed indicated that additional guidance on this topic is
needed.




Page 4                                            GAO-03-550 Special Education
             IDEA is the primary federal law that addresses the unique needs of
Background   children with disabilities, including specific learning disabilities, speech
             and language impairments, mental retardation, and serious emotional
             disturbance. The law mandates that a free appropriate public education be
             made available for all eligible children with disabilities, ensures due
             process rights, requires an IEP for each student, and requires the
             placement of children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.
             In school year 2002, more than 6 million children aged 3 through
             21 received education services under the act at a federal cost of
             approximately $8 billion. In addition, state governments provided more
             than $48 billion in additional funding to implement the act’s requirements.

             Under IDEA and the 1999 implementing federal regulations on discipline,
             schools must follow certain procedures to remove a student from his or
             her educational setting for disciplinary purposes. Specifically, schools may
             suspend a special education student for up to 10 school days in a given
             school year without providing educational services.3 Under the
             regulations, school personnel in consultation with the child’s special
             education teacher are required to determine the educational services
             needed to enable the child to appropriately progress in the general
             curriculum and appropriately advance toward achieving the goals set out
             in the child’s IEP.4 In addition, schools may repeatedly suspend a special
             education student on a short-term basis (not more than 10 days) even if
             the suspensions cumulatively total more than 10 school days, so long as
             educational services are provided to the student after the tenth suspension
             day in a given school year. The regulations also allow schools to remove a
             special education student for up to 45 days to an interim alternative
             educational setting if the student commits a weapons or drug violation at
             school or is determined by a hearing officer to be a danger to self or
             others. Additionally, if school officials request an extension, a hearing
             officer may extend this 45-day removal period.




             3
              Where a special education student’s misconduct is not a manifestation of the student’s
             disability, the student is subject to the same disciplinary procedures applicable to children
             without disabilities, including long-term suspensions (more than 10 days) and expulsions.
             However, the school must still provide educational services that enable the child to
             progress appropriately towards the student’s IEP goals.
             4
              It is important to note that for students removed for behavior that is not a manifestation of
             their disability, the IEP team determines the extent to which services are necessary to
             enable the child to appropriately progress in the general curriculum and appropriately
             advance toward achieving the goals set out in the child’s IEP.




             Page 5                                                       GAO-03-550 Special Education
Because school districts are provided considerable leeway in determining
disciplinary placements, they choose many settings to function as
disciplinary placements including, for example, in-school suspension
rooms, alternative schools, out of school suspensions at home, and
homebound placements. The difference between homebound placements
and out-of-school suspensions at home is that homebound placements
were generally used for extended periods and involved service provisions,
while out-of-school suspensions at home were used for short periods of
under 10 days and generally did not include the provision of instructional
services. School personnel and the student’s IEP team5 are responsible for
making decisions regarding the appropriateness of disciplinary settings. A
hearing officer or court may also make the decisions.

In 2001, we studied how IDEA regulations affected the ability of schools to
maintain a safe learning environment and whether regular and special
education students are disciplined in a similar manner.6 We found that
IDEA regulations played only a limited role in affecting schools’ ability to
properly discipline students and that in cases of serious misconduct,
regular and special education students were disciplined in a similar
manner. Although the study briefly touched upon the role alternative
placements play in the disciplinary process for special education students,
a description of the characteristics of these settings and the extent of their
use fell outside of the study’s scope. Moreover, the study focused on
serious student misconduct (drugs, weapons, assault, rape, sexual assault,
and robbery) and did not focus on less serious offenses.




5
 The term “individualized education program team” refers to the group of individuals,
including school administrators, regular and special education teachers, and parents, who
are responsible for developing, reviewing, or revising an individualized education program
for a student with a disability.
6
See U.S. General Accounting Office, Student Discipline: Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act, GAO-01-210 (Washington, D.C.: Jan. 25, 2001).




Page 6                                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
                        Disciplined special education students were primarily placed in one of two
Disciplined Students    short-term disciplinary settings: in-school suspension rooms or out-of
Were Primarily Placed   school suspension at home, according to survey respondents in three
                        selected states. The length of a student’s removal was a key consideration
in In-School            in placement decisions. Because most disciplined special education
Suspension Rooms        students were generally removed for short periods of time, these two
                        short-term disciplinary settings were the most frequently used. Students
and Out-of-School       removed for longer periods (exceeding 10 days) were more likely to be
Suspensions at Home     placed in settings with greater access to service providers, such as
                        alternative schools or homebound placements. Other factors affecting
                        placement decisions included the cumulative number of days a student
                        had been removed, the cost and availability of placement options and the
                        nature of the student offense. Our survey results indicated that the
                        placements of disciplined special education students were similar to those
                        of disciplined regular education students.

                        Of the 32 school officials who responded to our survey and could provide
                        student removal rate data, 31 reported that either in-school suspension
                        rooms or out-of-school suspensions at home were the most frequently
                        used placements for disciplined special education students.7 While district
                        special education administrators and school officials primarily used short-
                        term placements, such as in-school suspension rooms and out-of-school
                        suspensions at home, to discipline special education students, they also
                        reported placing special education students in longer-term disciplinary
                        placements such as alternative schools and homebound placements.8
                        According to survey respondents, about two-thirds of the districts and
                        one-quarter of the schools used these types of placements; they were used
                        much less frequently than short-term settings.

                        In addition to the length of the student’s removal, school and district
                        administrators reported considering several other factors when making
                        placement decisions, including the cumulative number of days the student



                        7
                         Seventeen of the 49 respondents to the survey of middle and high school officials did not
                        provide removal rate data for disciplined special education students. The extent to which
                        districts officials were knowledgeable of schools’ use of in-school suspension settings
                        varied. As a result, we were unable to collect reliable information about the use of in-
                        school suspension rooms from district administrators.
                        8
                         Short-term disciplinary placements refers to those placements that are used to discipline
                        special education students for 10 days or less. Longer-term disciplinary placements refers
                        to those placements that are used to discipline special education students for more than
                        10 days.




                        Page 7                                                      GAO-03-550 Special Education
had been removed during the school year, the cost and availability of
placement options, and the student’s offense. First, because federal law
provides that special education students may not be removed for more
than 10 days in a school year without the provision of services, schools
and districts considered the cumulative number of days a special
education student had previously been removed when making placement
decisions for special education students. If a special education student
was about to exceed or had already exceeded the 10-day limit, schools and
districts generally placed the student in settings with access to service
providers, such as alternative schools or homebound settings with
services.

Second, due to cost and administrative concerns, most schools and
districts in the states we visited only placed disciplined students in those
placements to which they had readily available access. Under special
circumstances, such as unique student needs or court orders, schools
would remove students to placements that they did not normally use such
as residential schools that may be located outside of the school district. If
a placement with greater access to service providers was not available or
was too costly, some school and district officials reported that they
reduced the length of the student’s removal or eliminated the removal all
together. In addition, the schools that we visited in our study sometimes
used the practice of “banking” removal days, or allowing them to be
“saved” and served later, to make sure that the total number of days a
student was removed did not exceed 10 for a given school year. According
to national education organization officials, “banking” removal days is not
an uncommon practice because it allows school officials to ensure that
disciplined students do not reach the 10-day limit early in the school year.

Finally, students’ offenses and required disciplinary actions were also
considerations in placing a disciplined student. The schools districts we
visited operated under a student conduct code that required specific
disciplinary action for various offenses. The student conduct code
therefore often dictated placement decisions. For example, a weapons or
drugs offense might require placement at an alternative school, whereas a
lesser infraction, such as being disruptive, might require an in-school
suspension.

Disciplinary placements of special education students were similar to
those of other students, based on our survey results. In addition, schools
and districts generally used the same criteria in determining where to
place students. However, administrators reported considering cumulative
days that a student had been removed when placing special education


Page 8                                            GAO-03-550 Special Education
                            students but not when making placement decisions for regular education
                            students.


                            In the 2001-2002 school year, schools and school district officials in the
Schools and School          three states that we studied reported providing a range of services to
Districts Provided a        disciplined special education students. However, how schools and school
                            districts provided educational and other services varied significantly.
Range of Services to        School district officials reported that they generally did not provide any
Disciplined Special         services to assist returning special education students in acclimating to
                            their regular educational setting after a disciplinary placement, and the
Education Students          provision of such services is not required by law.


Schools and School          The educational services provided to students in disciplinary settings
Districts Provided          varied considerably by the degree to which the service included active
Educational Services, but   instruction. For example, in one school, educational services for a
                            disciplined student consisted of an academic packet, which was generally
These Services Varied       the material the student would miss when he or she was away from the
Significantly               regular educational setting. When presented with a packet, it was up to the
                            student to work through and complete the packet. In another district,
                            educational services in disciplinary settings included active instruction,
                            such as tutoring by special education instructional personnel. However,
                            the amount of time spent giving the disciplined student this instruction
                            varied considerably. For example, in one district, a special education
                            student in a disciplinary setting received 6 hours of active instruction per
                            day, while in other schools they received no instruction. Further,
                            according to the district officials we surveyed, the qualifications of
                            instructional staff varied widely across placements and disciplinary
                            settings. For example, the survey respondents in our study reported that
                            educators at alternative schools were more likely to be certified, while
                            instructional staff in in-school suspension rooms and homebound
                            placements ranged in qualifications from fully certified to uncertified.




                            Page 9                                           GAO-03-550 Special Education
Services Other Than         Special education students in disciplinary placements may have access to
Educational Services Were   other services in addition to educational services, although the availability
Sometimes Available,        of these services varied. The type of service provided usually depended on
                            the needs of the student as defined in the student’s IEP as well as the
though Their Availability   availability of services9 within the school district. In addition to
Varied by Placement         educational services, other services could be made available during
                            disciplinary placements to meet the requirements of the IEP, according to
                            survey results. These services could include: counseling and other related
                            services.

                            Counseling by a guidance counselor was also commonly made available to
                            disciplined students. Related services such as speech pathology and
                            occupational therapy were less available. The availability of services and
                            providers was in large part determined by where a student was placed
                            while being disciplined. For example, students placed in alternative
                            schools generally had access to most services and providers, whereas
                            disciplined students placed in out-of-school suspensions at home rarely
                            had access to services other than educational services. See table 1 for
                            services and providers by placement type.




                            9
                             We define services as being available when they are available to disciplined special
                            education students 50 percent or more of the time in a given disciplinary placement.




                            Page 10                                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
                             Table 1: Most Commonly Available Services and Providers by Short- and Long-
                             Term Placement Type in Selected Schools and Districts in Three States

                                                                       Services available in majority      Providers available in
                                                                                        a                                         b
                                 Placement type                        of placements                       majority of placements
                                                                            Short-term placements
                                 In-school suspension                  Remediation/tutoring and            Teacher.c
                                                                       counseling.
                                 Out-of-school                         Services other than educational
                                 suspension at home                    rarely available in this setting.
                                                                            Long-term placements
                                 Alternative school                    Remediation/tutoring, counseling,   Teacher, guidance
                                                                       substance abuse counseling,         counselor,
                                                                       related services, and employment    psychologist/psychiatrist,
                                                                       transition services.                related service provider,
                                                                                                           and teacher’s aide.
                                 Homebound placement                   Remediation/tutoring and related    Teacher and related
                                                                       services.                           service provider.
                                 Nonpublic or private                  Remediation/tutoring, counseling,   Teacher, academic
                                 school placement                      related services, and employment    specialist,
                                                                       transition services.                psychologist/psychiatrist,
                                                                                                           related service provider,
                                                                                                           teacher’s aide, one-to-
                                                                                                           one crisis intervention
                                                                                                           specialist, social worker,
                                                                                                           and employment
                                                                                                           transition specialist.
                                 Residential program                   Remediation/tutoring, counseling,   Teacher,
                                                                       related services, and employment    psychologist/psychiatrist,
                                                                       transition services.                related service provider,
                                                                                                           teacher’s aide, social
                                                                                                           worker, and employment
                                                                                                           transition specialist.
                             Source: GAO school and district survey data in three selected states.
                             a
                              We define services as being available when they are available to disciplined special education
                             students 50 percent or more of the time in a given placement. For example, 38 of 49 respondents
                             indicated “in-school” suspensions were used, and 28 of that 49 reported that “related services” were
                             available in that type of placement.
                             b
                              We define providers available as being available to special education students 50 percent or more of
                             the time in a given placement.
                             c
                                 Teacher includes certified regular education or special education teachers.


School Districts Generally   School districts generally did not provide reintegration services for
Did Not Provide Services     disciplined special education students returning from long-term
to Assist Students           placements. Education’s regulations do not require the provision of
                             reintegration services for students with disabilities, and only about one-
Transferring from a          third of school districts we surveyed indicated that they provided them.
Long-Term Disciplinary       While such services are not required, national education organizations’
Placement


                             Page 11                                                                 GAO-03-550 Special Education
                          officials agreed that the provision of reintegration services helps students
                          make a successful transition back to their regular educational setting.

                          When reintegration services were provided, they varied greatly. For
                          example, in one school district, school officials allowed students to
                          transition slowly from their long-term disciplinary setting, gradually
                          increasing the amount of time per day that students spent in their regular
                          educational settings. However, in some instances, reintegration services
                          were limited. For example, in one district, officials said that reintegration
                          services consisted of receiving a folder of information about the students
                          experiences at the alternative school, and in other schools these services
                          consisted of a meeting, prior to the student’s return to the regular
                          educational setting, between the school administrators, the disciplined
                          student, and his or her parents.


                          Education provided guidance and oversight to states and school districts
Education’s Guidance      for disciplinary placements of special education students by providing
and Oversight of          information on federal requirements and reviewing state self-assessments,
                          improvement plans, and data, and conducting on-site data collection visits
Disciplinary              in selected states. However, the guidance on certain aspects of disciplinary
Placements Has Been       placements was limited. In addition, Education’s oversight system may not
                          detect possible noncompliance. The system relies on the results of state
Limited                   monitoring efforts that are not always reliable and discipline data that
                          contain some inaccuracies. Education’s next generation oversight system,
                          known as the Continuous Improvement and Focused Monitoring System,
                          has been recently approved by the department and will be implemented in
                          calendar year 2003, according to Education officials. This new system was
                          designed to focus the attention of the department’s monitoring efforts on
                          the states that need the most support to improve their performance. In
                          addition, Education plans to conduct site visits in selected states to
                          validate data used by the system to make federal oversight decisions.


Education Provided        Under its responsibilities for IDEA implementation, Education provided
General Guidance on       general guidance to state and local education officials on disciplinary
Special Education         placement issues. However, according to some state and local education
                          officials, this guidance was not specific enough. For example, while the
Disciplinary Placements   department provided assistance in the form of information and technical
                          assistance concerning the general implementation the act’s disciplinary
                          requirements, the assistance generally did not include enough details on
                          disciplinary placement questions, such as how to determine whether the
                          days of in-school suspension should be counted as days of removal under


                          Page 12                                            GAO-03-550 Special Education
the 10-day rule. Further, national education organization officials also
cited the limited federal guidance on in-school suspension.

According to some district officials, while Education’s regulations
describe IDEA’s 10-day rule, the guidance is limited because the
regulations do not provide illustrative examples concerning how the
10-day rule could be applied to a range of circumstances at the local level.
Under the 10-day rule, schools can discipline special education students
for up to 10 days in a school year without providing educational or other
services specified in their IEPs. However, some school and district
officials indicated that being provided with examples that illustrate how to
determine whether the days of in-school suspension should be counted as
days of removal under the 10-day rule would assist them in ensuring that
disciplined special education students are not without their IEP services
for more than 10 cumulative days in a school year.

Education officials suggested that state and local education officials who
need clarification of the 10-day rule refer to the disciplinary section of the
preamble to the regulations and the discussion of comments on the act’s
disciplinary requirements. The information that Education identified
concerning in-school suspension as it applies to the 10-day rule is not in
the federal regulations. Rather, the discussion of in-schools suspension
appears only in a 1999 Federal Register notice,10 a document that is less
accessible to the public than departmental regulations. As a result, some
school officials may have been unaware that the Federal Register notice
accompanying the IDEA discipline regulations contained criteria to be
used in determining whether days of in-school suspension should be
counted as days of removal under the 10-day rule. In this notice,
Education provided general criteria for determining whether a day in in-
school suspension should be counted as a day of suspension, but it does
not provide details and examples to assist schools and districts in applying
the criteria.11 Our findings regarding the limited guidance available and




10
 See 64 Fed. Reg. 12619 (1999).
11
  According to Education’s criteria, an in-school suspension would not be considered a day
of suspension as long as the child is afforded the opportunity to continue to appropriately
progress in the general curriculum, continue to receive the services specified on his or her
IEP, and continue to participate with nondisabled children to the extent they would have in
their current placement.




Page 13                                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
                            accessible on in-school suspensions are consistent with the findings of the
                            2002 President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education.12


Education’s Oversight       Education’s oversight system may not detect possible noncompliance
System May Not Have the     because it relies on state-submitted information that may not be reliable.
Necessary Information to    Therefore, Education may be unable to identify the appropriate level of
                            oversight for particular states. According to Education officials,
Determine if Disciplinary   Education’s next generation oversight system—known as the Continuous
Requirements Were Met       Improvement and Focused Monitoring System—was recently approved by
                            the department and will be implemented during calendar year 2003. This
                            new system was designed to focus the attention of the department’s
                            monitoring efforts on the states that need the most support to improve
                            their performance. In addition, Education plans to conduct site visits in
                            selected states to validate data used by the system to make federal
                            oversight decisions.

                            Under IDEA, states have oversight responsibility for monitoring the
                            implementation of a broad set of requirements under the act, including
                            disciplinary placements. States have responsibility for monitoring districts’
                            implementation of IDEA requirements and preparing reports for
                            Education, documenting the results of their oversight efforts. States
                            generally fulfill this responsibility by engaging in activities such as
                            gathering discipline data and by requiring districts to complete reports
                            documenting compliance with requirements.

                            Education has responsibility for overseeing state compliance with IDEA
                            requirements. In 1998, Education implemented an oversight system known
                            as the Continuous Improvement Monitoring Process (CIMP). The
                            oversight system relies on the administrative review of information
                            obtained primarily from two sources: (1) state monitoring efforts and
                            (2) state discipline data. Education uses information obtained from these
                            two sources to determine the appropriate amount of federal oversight that
                            a state will receive, such as whether or not a site visit to the state will be
                            conducted. If the information submitted indicates that the state is in



                            12
                             The President’s Commission found that Education’s regulations implementing IDEA are
                            unreasonably complex and burdensome for state and local agencies to comply with. For
                            more information on the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, see
                            A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families, U.S.
                            Department of Education, President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education,
                            Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (July 2002).




                            Page 14                                                  GAO-03-550 Special Education
compliance with IDEA requirements or has proposed strategies to come
into compliance, Education officials continue to track IDEA
implementation but generally do not visit the state. However, if the
department’s administrative review determines that the state did not
effectively identify areas of noncompliance and other areas needing
improvement, Education officials will conduct one or more site visits to
the state to assess the situation and assist the state in developing
improvement strategies.

Under the CIMP oversight system, states are expected by Education to
undertake a number of monitoring activities to demonstrate their
compliance with IDEA requirements. It is the responsibility of each state
to work with a diverse group of stakeholders, including state and local
education officials, parents, and advocacy groups, to evaluate the state’s
effectiveness in achieving compliance with IDEA. This generally involves
conducting a self-assessment and developing an improvement plan to
correct any deficiencies. According to Education officials, states were
strongly encouraged to document state performance, as part of the self-
assessment process, by submitting an analysis of their monitoring findings
of the school districts. States were also encouraged to document
corrective actions taken by districts to address the findings and any
enforcement activities undertaken by the state to ensure correction.
Education used this information to document state performance and to
determine if states were meeting their general supervisory responsibilities.

According to Education, some state monitoring systems were not effective
at identifying compliance issues with federal requirements, and the
information that the states subsequently reported to Education may have
contained inaccurate information. During the period July 1, 1999 through
February 25, 2003, Education officials conducted federal IDEA monitoring
site visits to 12 states and the District of Columbia. In 6 of these locations,
Education officials noted that the state IDEA monitoring systems were not
effective in identifying and correcting noncompliance with federal
requirements. For example, in a site visit to one state, Education officials
found that despite the fact that psychological services are supposed to be
offered, five school districts that they visited were not providing them
unless they were required to by a due process hearing. However, the state
education officials had identified four of these five districts as compliant.
Further, Education’s 2001 Twenty-third Annual Report to Congress on the




Page 15                                            GAO-03-550 Special Education
Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act13 noted
that many states still do not have effective systems for identifying
noncompliance, or, when they do identify noncompliance with federal
requirements, they do not have effective follow-up or enforcement
strategies to ensure that public agencies correct the noncompliance.

In addition to relying on state monitoring systems, Education also relies
on state-collected discipline data as a source for its administrative review
of states’ compliance with IDEA requirements. However, the discipline
data used by the oversight system contain some inaccuracies, although
according to Education officials, its accuracy is improving. For example,
Education has taken steps to validate the accuracy of the data through the
regular application of data checks by its contractor and by providing
technical assistance to state special education data managers on the
collection of discipline data of the semiannual meeting at the Education
Information Advisory Committee of the Council of Chief State School
Officers. Some reasons for inaccuracies in the data included: unclear
definitions; inconsistent data collection, entry, and verification within and
across school districts; and poor response rates from schools and districts.
The 2002 President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education also
identified data quality issues, including inconsistent reporting and data
formats.14 While Education officials acknowledged that the special
education discipline data contain some inaccuracies, they indicated that
states were taking measures to improve the accuracy of the data. In
addition, Education officials reported that they expect the accuracy of the
discipline data to improve as school officials become more familiar with
the data collection process. At this point, these data are the only discipline
data available, so Education still is relying on them, although the agency
recognizes their limitations.

Education is planning to implement the next generation of its CIMP
oversight system known as the Continuous Improvement and Focused
Monitoring System (CIFMS), which was approved in April 2003. According
to Education officials, the new system will implement an integrated, four-


13
 See To Assure the Free Appropriate Public Education of All Children with Disabilities:
Twenty-third Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act, U.S. Department of Education (Mar. 2002).
14
 For more information on the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education,
see A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families, U.S.
Department of Education, President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education,
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (July 2002).




Page 16                                                  GAO-03-550 Special Education
              part accountability strategy, with an emphasis on targeting those states
              most at risk for being out of compliance. This strategy includes
              (1) verifying the effectiveness and accuracy of states’ monitoring,
              assessment, and data collection systems; (2) focusing more oversight and
              monitoring attention to states at high risk of compliance, financial, and/or
              management failure; (3) supporting states in assessing their performance
              and compliance and in planning, implementing, and evaluating
              improvement strategies; and (4) focusing Education’s intervention on
              states with low ranking performance on critical performance indicators.
              This focused approach is aligned with the recommendations of the
              President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education and was
              designed to focus the department’s monitoring efforts on the states that
              need the most support to improve their performance.15 In addition,
              because Education’s monitoring relies so heavily on state-reported data
              regarding performance and compliance, Education has developed plans to
              ensure the effectiveness of states’ data collection systems. To this end,
              Education officials told us that Education staff would visit 20-30 states in
              the next year to meet with state officials to verify the effectiveness of their
              data collection and monitoring systems.


              Each year, the federal government makes a considerable investment to
Conclusions   ensure that a free appropriate public education is available for children
              with disabilities. In 1997, the Congress amended IDEA to allow the
              removal of special education students from their current educational
              settings for any violation of school rules, but imposed limitations on how
              long these students could be removed without educational services.
              District and school officials in our survey reported that they are providing
              a range of services in different settings to disciplined special education
              students. However, they reported that additional guidance, especially
              more specificity concerning whether the days of in-school suspension
              should be counted as days of removal under the 10-day rule, would be
              helpful. Education’s current guidance concerning how these provisions
              should be implemented is broad, thus leaving local school and school
              district officials flexibility in interpreting how these requirements should
              be implemented. Because state and local school district officials may not
              have the specific information that they need to comply with federal


              15
               For more information on the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education,
              see A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families, U.S.
              Department of Education, President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education,
              Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (July 2002).




              Page 17                                                 GAO-03-550 Special Education
                     requirements, disciplined special education students may not receive
                     timely protections and services.


                     We recommend that the Secretary of Education issue supplemental
Recommendation for   guidance to state and local education agencies on IDEA’s disciplinary
Executive Action     provisions that includes examples to assist states and local education
                     agencies in implementing the provisions in the law related to disciplinary
                     placements. In particular, the guidance should include examples for
                     applying IDEA’s 10-day rule, including illustrations on how to determine
                     whether a day of in-school suspension should be counted as a day of
                     removal.


                     We provided a draft of this report to Education for review and comment.
Agency Comments      Education officials indicated that they provided sufficient guidance on
and Our Evaluation   IDEA’s disciplinary provisions and did not see the need for supplemental
                     guidance. Education cited four existing documents that discuss IDEA
                     discipline issues. In addition, Education officials provided new
                     information in their comments on the draft that indicated that they plan to
                     validate state discipline data as part of their newly approved monitoring
                     system. Consequently, we modified the report to reflect Education’s
                     validation plans. Education officials also provided technical comments
                     that we incorporated into the report where appropriate. Education’s
                     comments are reproduced in appendix II.

                     We continue to believe that additional guidance is needed; however, we
                     modified the report to reflect that clarification of how to count in-school
                     days under IDEA’s 10-day rule was the primary area in which guidance
                     was needed. Education officials also noted that any guidance should be
                     provided after IDEA has been reauthorized. We concur with Education’s
                     proposal to issue any additional guidance after the reauthorization has
                     been completed.

                     Education included in its comments new information concerning the data
                     verification aspect of its IDEA monitoring systems and, as a result, we
                     withdrew a recommendation on data validation. We reviewed the
                     information provided—Office of Special Education Programs
                     Memorandum 03-05, dated April, 8, 2003—as well as technical comments
                     that described Education’s plans to implement a process to verify state
                     monitoring, assessment, and data as part of its focused monitoring system.
                     We acknowledge Education’s efforts in this regard and encourage the




                     Page 18                                           GAO-03-550 Special Education
department to continue to periodically validate the information that is
used by its IDEA monitoring systems.

As agreed with your office, unless you publicly announce the contents of
this report earlier, we plan no further distribution of the report until
30 days from its issue date. At that time, we will send copies of this report
to the Secretary of Education, relevant congressional committees, and
other interested parties. We will also make copies available to others upon
request. In addition, the report will be made available at no charge on
GAO’s Web site at http://www.gao.gov. Please contact me on (202)
512-7215 or Harriet Ganson on (202) 512-7042 if you or your staff have any
questions about this report. Other contacts and major contributors are
listed in appendix III.

Sincerely yours,




Marnie S. Shaul
Director, Education, Workforce,
 and Income Security Issues




Page 19                                           GAO-03-550 Special Education
                  Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
                  Methodology



Methodology

                  The Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Health,
                  Education, Labor and Pensions asked GAO to determine: (1) where special
                  education students are placed when they are removed from their
                  educational settings for disciplinary purposes; (2) to what extent local
                  school districts in selected states continue educational services for special
                  education students who are placed in disciplinary settings while they are
                  disciplined and what types of services are provided; and (3) how
                  Education provides support and oversight for disciplinary placements
                  used for special education students. In our review of disciplinary
                  placements, we focused on middle school and high school students and
                  their placements, but did not include information about disciplinary
                  placements for elementary school students. Elementary school
                  information was excluded because National Center for Education
                  Statistics data indicated that elementary schools experienced fewer
                  disciplinary problems than middle schools or high schools. Our study
                  collected information about disciplinary placements from the
                  2001-2002 school year, the most current full year data available.

                  To respond to this inquiry, we conducted an in-depth review of the use of
                  disciplinary placements for special education students at middle and high
                  schools in three states—Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina. These
                  states were selected because they represented different levels of
                  disciplinary activity, such as the number and percent of special education
                  students who were disciplined and the number of disciplined special
                  education students who were removed from their educational settings on
                  either a short-term (10 days or less) or long-term (more than 10 days)
                  basis. In these states, we surveyed a nonprobability sample of 36 district
                  special education administrators and 78 administrators from school
                  districts of varying characteristics. In addition, we reviewed U.S.
                  Department of Education documents to determine the federal role in
                  providing oversight and guidance for disciplinary placements and
                  examined Education databases for national data regarding the discipline
                  of special education students. We also interviewed federal officials,
                  national education organizations’ representatives, and special education
                  experts concerning disciplinary placements for special education students.


                  We selected three states in which to conduct our study of disciplinary
State Selection   placements based on several criteria. To ensure sufficiency of data to
                  analyze, we identified 19 states that disciplined 1,000 or more special
                  education students during the 1999-2000 school year. These 19 states were
                  divided into three categories, (above average, below average, and average)
                  depending upon the percent of special education students disciplined per


                  Page 20                                           GAO-03-550 Special Education
              Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Methodology




              year, with the national average being 1.12 percent. We then chose
              candidates from each category and spoke with state administrators to
              determine the extent to which these states collected discipline data. On
              the basis of these criteria, we selected Maryland (above average: 1.80
              percent), Illinois (below average: 0.55 percent), and North Carolina
              (average: 0.89 percent) for analysis.


              In each state, we visited two school districts of varying characteristics.
Site Visits   The districts were selected for variance in the number of special education
              students served, their geographic location—urban, suburban, or
              rural—and when possible, their overall rate of free and reduced school
              lunches (with the objective of gathering information from schools and
              districts serving a range of family incomes). During these visits, we met
              with district administrators; high school, middle school, and alternative
              school principals; administrators; and teachers when they were available.
              We also toured disciplinary placements.

              Table 2: Local School Districts Selected for Site Visits

               State                                Local school district                         City
               Illinois                             City of Chicago School District 299           Chicago
               Illinois                             Wesclin Community Unit School District 3      Trenton
               Maryland                             Allegany County Public Schools                Cumberland
               Maryland                             Baltimore City Public School System           Baltimore
               North Carolina                       Guilford County Schools                       Greensboro
               North Carolina                       Wake County Schools                           Raleigh
              Source: GAO analysis of Education’s data.


              Additionally, we visited state Departments of Education and spoke with
              special education directors about their state’s policy and procedures for
              disciplinary placements.


              We distributed 2 survey questionnaires—one to selected school district
Surveys       special education directors and one to middle and high school
              administrators—in Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina. These surveys
              focused on the use of disciplinary placements for special education
              students during school year 2000–2001. The school district survey was sent
              to 12 selected school district special education administrators in each
              state for a total of 36 surveys. The surveyed districts were selected using
              criteria similar to that used in determining the sites to be visited—variance
              in the number of special education students served, their geographic



              Page 21                                                             GAO-03-550 Special Education
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




location—urban, suburban, or rural—and when possible, their overall rate
of free and reduced school lunches. We received 30 responses to the
survey (83 percent). A second survey obtained information concerning
special education disciplinary placements from selected middle and high
school administrators. Using similar selection criteria to the school district
survey, we distributed surveys to 26 middle and high school administrators
in each state for a total of 78 school surveys. We surveyed one middle
school principal and one high school principal from schools located within
the 12 districts selected for the district survey. We also selected an
additional two principals from large, urban districts to address size and
diversity issues. We received 49 responses to the survey (63 percent). This
nonprobability sample review of schools and districts in three states does
not allow us to draw conclusions about all schools and districts covered
by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act authorization.




Page 22                                           GAO-03-550 Special Education
             Appendix II: Comments from the Department
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
             of Education



of Education




             Page 23                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Education




Page 24                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Education




Page 25                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Education




Page 26                                     GAO-03-550 Special Education
                  Appendix III: GAO Contacts and Staff
Appendix III: GAO Contacts and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  Arthur T. Merriam Jr., (617) 788-0541
GAO Contact
                  Tamara Fucile and James Kim made significant contributions to this
Staff             report, in all aspects of the work throughout the assignment. In addition,
Acknowledgments   Katherine Bittinger contributed to the initial design of the assignment,
                  Ronald La Due Lake assisted in the design of the school district and school
                  surveys; Lise Levie assisted in the management of the school survey;
                  George Quinn, Jr., conducted the data analysis for both surveys;
                  Behn Miller provided legal support; and Corinna Nicolaou assisted in the
                  message and report development.




(130155)
                  Page 27                                         GAO-03-550 Special Education
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