Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Parents of disabled students have no right to "aversive interventions" under Federal law

Here's an interesting case: parents sued the State of New York because its prohibition against "aversive interventions" to help children with behavioral difficulties violates the student disability laws in denying them a free and appropriate education. An aversive intervention is one "that is intended to induce pain or discomfort to a student for the purpose of eliminating or reducing maladaptive behaviors." The Second Circuit says the state regulation is legal and does not deny the students their rights under federal law.

The case is Bryant v. New York State Education Department, decided on August 20. Yes, the aversive interventions may be unpleasant for the students, but the parents argue that, along with positive interventions (like treats, video games, music and field trips) these interventions are also in their best interest. Since the parents want to send their children to private schools with public funding, unless this regulation is found in violation of federal law, the school districts do not have to pay for this educational placement. So the parents send their children to the JRC school, where the aversive intervention looks harsh:

The types of aversive interventions used by JRC include helmets with safeguards that prevent removal, manual and mechanical restraints, and food-control programs. But, according to the complaint, JRC’s “principal form” of aversive intervention is electric skin shock, in which a 24 low-level electrical current is applied to a small area of the student’s skin (usually an arm or a leg). The shock lasts approximately two seconds, and is administered, on average, less than once a week. The complaint alleges that severe problematic behavior decreases with this regime, thus alleviating an impediment to academic progress. Possible side effects include temporary redness or marking, which clears up within a few minutes (or a few days at most), and a rare occurrence of blistering.
Harsh, but good for them, like Product 19 and Special K. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, disabled children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. If the school district cannot provide that education, it has to pay for a reasonable private placement. In challenging the New York regulation against schools with aversive interventions, the parents argue that aversives are necessary to control the severe behavioral disorders that undermine the childrens' education. The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Wesley and Sullivan [D.J.]) sees it differently and will not second-guess state educational policy in any event (a common refrain in cases that challenge specialized government policies in this area). Here's the crux of the decision:

Even if we assumed that permitting these children to receive aversive interventions would help them fulfill their potential, Plaintiffs’ substantive claim would still fail. The “IDEA does not require states to develop IEPs that ‘maximize the potential of handicapped children.’” The IDEA “guarantees” only that students with disabilities are provided an “‘appropriate’ education, not one that provides everything that might be thought desirable by loving parents.” A state satisfies its obligation to provide a free appropriate public education if it “provide[s] a disabled child with meaningful access to an education” even if the state “cannot guarantee totally successful results.” Defendants provide these students with meaningful access to education opportunities by authorizing and funding their specialized education and behavioral modification treatment at an out-of-state residential facility that has expertise in treating children with severe behavioral disorders. Aversive interventions may help maximize the children’s potential, but the IDEA does not require such measures. 

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