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

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

Source Database: Contemporary Issues Companion: School Violence

Table of Contents: Further Readings | Source Citation

The random acts of targeted school shootings of the past several years have prompted many scholars to search for explanations of why and question who is committing these horrific violent acts and whether additional attacks will occur. In fact, the U.S. Secret Service examined the thinking, planning, and other preattack behaviors engaged by attackers who carried out the school shootings to determine (a) whether the attacks were being planned, and, (b) if yes, what could have been done to prevent further attacks. The major findings reported were as follows:
Incidents of targeted violence at school rarely were sudden, impulsive acts.
Prior to most incidents, other people knew about the attacker’s idea or plan to attack.
There is no useful “profile” of students engaged in targeted school violence.
Most attackers engaged in some behavior prior to the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help.

Most attackers had difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Moreover, many had conspired or attempted suicide.
Many attackers felt bullied, persecuted, or injured by others prior to the attack.
Most attackers had access to and had weapons prior to the attack.
In many cases, other students were involved in some capacity.
Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.
Other researchers have questioned the role, if any, children with disabilities played in any of the recent school-yard shootings, while others have considered the role special education legislation has played in school violence….

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

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

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

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

Cahir argues that students with a disability charged with weapons and drug-related offenses can be removed from their school and sent to an alternative placement for a maximum of forty-five calendar days. This, according to Cahir, is in direct contrast to the 1994 federal Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires that any nondisabled child who possesses a gun in school be expelled for at least one year: “Schools can also move a child with a disability to an alternative placement if a hearing officer determines the student poses a threat to himself or others–a litigious, appealable, time-consuming process.”

Moreover, some school administrators and teachers raised concerns about their ability to maintain school safety and order and at the same time instruct students with disabilities. It was argued that when students with disabilities engaged in serious misconduct, they continued to receive educational services in schools because of the protections afforded by IDEA. In contrast, nondisabled students involved in similar misconduct were suspended or expelled without educational services.

The Intent of the Provision
In contrast, others believe that IDEA attempts to strike a balance between the need to provide a safe, orderly environment and the need to protect children with disabilities from unwarranted exclusion through disciplinary proceedings. To appreciate this controversy one must understand the intent of IDEA’s stay-put provision and other provisions provided by special education legislation.

School personnel may suspend children with disabilities for up to ten school days at a time for separate incidents of misconduct to the extent that such action would be applied to nondisabled peers. Change in placement for more than ten consecutive school days constitutes a change in educational placement, which triggers several procedural safeguards. The IEP team must meet immediately to review the relationship between the child’s disability and the behavior subject to disciplinary action. The IEP team takes into consideration several factors such as evaluation and diagnostic results, placement appropriateness, if the disability impaired the child’s ability to understand the consequences of the behavior subject to discipline, and if the child’s disability impaired his ability to control the behavior.

If the behavior was a result of the child’s disability, the IEP team revisits the individualized program to determine what changes need to be implemented to address the child’s behavior. [Z.H. Rudo, V. Robbins, and D. Smith] believe that the IEP is one way to decrease a child’s violent behavior, especially since IDEA requires educators to conduct functional behavioral assessments and to implement behavior intervention plans that include positive behavioral interventions and supports. These mandates are aimed at providing students with disabilities, particularly those who are at risk for or who engage in aggressive and violent behavior, with the necessary skills to handle their anger and aggression in acceptable ways.

On the other hand, if the IEP team determines that the violent behavior was not a manifestation of the child’s disability then disciplinary procedures used for nondisabled peers can be used with the child with a disability. On May 20, 1999, the Senate approved an amendment to Juvenile Justice Bill that changes the IDEA stay-put rule. This revision gives school officials the option of removing for one year a student with a disability who brings a bomb or gun to school. This revision contradicts the assumption that IDEA promotes school violence. In essence, IDEA acknowledges the importance of addressing behavioral problems for children with special needs and requires special educators to address identified behavioral problems.

[In 2001] the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a study to determine how the IDEA amendments of 1997 affected the ability of schools to maintain a safe environment conducive to learning. The results suggest that nondisabled students and students with disabilities are generally disciplined the same; for example, 60 percent to 65 percent of students with or without disabilities who engage in misconduct are given out-of-school suspension. The length of suspension is about the same and less than half of the suspended students with or without disabilities receive educational services during their suspensions. It seems that the argument that IDEA promotes violence is unfounded; in fact, principals interviewed during the GAO study indicated that IDEA plays a limited role in affecting schools’ ability to properly discipline students.

Children with Disabilities and School Violence
Students with disabilities who are considered at potential risk for committing violent acts in school include children with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)….
According to S. Burrel and L. Warboys, “disabilities that are frequently encountered among delinquents include emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, other health impairments (such as ADHD), and speech or language impairment.” The two most common disabilities found in the juvenile justice system are specific learning disabilities and emotional disturbance.
SRI International conducted a National Longitudinal Transition Study from 1987 to 1993 and found that arrest rates increased over time among youth with disabilities, from 19 percent when they had been out of secondary school up to two years to 30 percent three years later. Furthermore, arrest rates were highest and increased most dramatically for youth with serious emotional disturbances. Two years out of high school, 37 percent had been arrested. By the time youth with disabilities had been out of school three to five years, 58 percent had been arrested at some time. Arrest rates also were relatively high for youth with learning disabilities (31 percent had been arrested three to five years after high school). Arrest rates were less than 20 percent for most other disability categories and less than 10 percent for youth with orthopedic and other health impairments and youth who were deaf/blind. The arrest rate three to five years after secondary school was 56 percent among high school dropouts, compared with 16 percent among graduates and 10 percent among those who aged out of school. Among dropouts with serious emotional disturbances, the arrest rate was 73 percent.

Emotional Disturbance and Juvenile Delinquency
The relationship between emotional or behavioral disorders and serious juvenile problems is strong. The potential for serious juvenile problems is clear in young boys and girls.
Problem behaviors are clearly established by ages 4 to 5.
Overt (e.g., bullying) and covert (e.g., stealing) antisocial activities are becoming behavior patterns.
Problems happen across settings (home, school, community).
The child is both overactive and inattentive.
Extreme aggression is frequent.

Of these five characteristics of young children prone to later problems, the single best predictor is aggression. For example, 6th graders referred to special education because of both violent and nonviolent inappropriate behaviors are likely to present chronic discipline problems during their remaining school years. The strong relationship between emotional disturbance and juvenile delinquency has served as a catalyst for some researchers to question the common factors of the school shootings and characteristics of students with emotional disturbance. T.H. Shubert, S. Bressette, J. Deeker, and W.N. Bender examined the school-yard shootings that occurred from October 1997 to May 1998 in Pearl, Mississippi; West Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesborough, Arkansas; Edinboro, Pennsylvania; and Springfield, Oregon, to determine common factors among the violent young perpetrators. One common factor noted was that although no one was identified as having a disability, “each demonstrated some indicators to peers of fairly serious emotional problems.”

After subsequent school-yard shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Conyers, Georgia, Bender, [Shubert, and P.J. McLaughlin] analyzed the shootings to determine common factors of the violent perpetrators. When comparing Shubert et al.’s analysis with Bender et al.’s analysis, similar findings were noted. For example, Bender et al. noted that “each of the students responsible for the shootings demonstrated some type of emotional trouble.”
Learning Disabilities and Delinquency

The link between learning disabilities and delinquency is not clear. Early research studies suggested that students with learning disabilities (LD) were at greater risk for delinquency than their nondisabled peers. In fact, three hypotheses were posed as the causal explanations for the link between LD and delinquency. The first hypothesis, school failure, suggests that students with LD experience academic failure, which leads to the development of a negative self-image, which in turn leads to school dropout and delinquency. A second hypothesis is the differential treatment hypothesis, which postulates that students with LD engage in delinquent acts at the same rates as nondisabled peers but are more likely to be arrested or adjudicated. The third hypothesis, the susceptibility hypothesis, proposes that children with LD frequently have “a variety of troublesome personality characteristics,” [as C.A. Murray writes].

Despite reports that students with learning disabilities are frequently among juvenile delinquents, and a number of professionals have speculated that learning disabilities contribute to the increased risk for delinquent behavior, empirical data supporting a causal relationship does not exist. In fact, recent research suggests that there is no relationship between LD and delinquency. K. Malmgren, R.D. Abbott, and J.D. Hawkins examined longitudinal data from a seven-year prospective study to determine whether the presence of LD increased a youth’s risk for becoming a juvenile delinquent. The results did not confirm a direct relationship between LD and delinquency. The authors also suggest that findings of positive correlation noted in earlier studies may have been due to confounding variables such as LD and age, LD and ethnicity, and LD and socioeconomic status.

Neurological Impairment
Although recent research findings suggest that there is no correlation between LD and delinquency, some researchers have examined the relationship between neurological impairment and violence. Neuroimaging research studies such as positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have been conducted to examine violence and aggression. For example, N.D. Volkow et al. and A. Raine et al. used PET scans to determine that decreased glucose metabolism in the prefrontal and medial temporal cortex was associated with increased aggressive behaviors in adults.

D. Amen conducted brain studies using SPECT and found that adolescents and adults with aggressiveness showed abnormalities of cerebral blood flow in the frontal and temporal lobes. Using fMRI, K. Rubia et al. found abnormal frontal lobe function in adolescents; similar findings were noted in G. Bush et al.’s study of adults with attention deficit disorder. Most recently, V. Matthews found that when children diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder were exposed to media violence, they demonstrated less activation in the frontal lobe. M.C. Brower and B.H. Price examined the link between frontal lobe dysfunction and violent and criminal behavior.

They concluded that clinically significant frontal lobe dysfunction is associated with aggressive behavior, with impulsivity having the strongest relationship. Furthermore, they found that no study had reliably demonstrated a characteristic pattern of frontal network dysfunction predictive of violent crime. However, R.B. Flannery and D. Weinberger postulate that brain development can contribute to school violence. Weinberger believes that “school shootings occur because the prefrontal cortex in a teenage brain is not fully developed.” The prefrontal cortex is part of the brain that enables people to act rationally and resist violent impulses. However, the cortex is not fully functional until adulthood. Consequently, it is believed that adolescents responsible for school shootings are unable to control their impulses and are unaware of the long-range consequences of their actions. Neurodevelopment research has also focused on the possibility that abuse and neglect, particularly during infancy and early childhood, may negatively affect brain development because of either physical injury or neurochemical alterations in response to trauma. Altered neural structures may prevent children from developing impulse control skills.

Other students who are considered at risk for committing delinquent and violent acts are children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, the 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report identified ADHD as a risk factor for violence in youths aged 6-11. According to Burrell and Warboys and J.H. Williams and R.A. Van Dorn, four characteristics of ADHD–hyperactivity, concentration problems, restlessness, and risk-taking behaviors–have been found to be strong predictors of violent behavior. These characteristics, as well as poor social skills and certain beliefs and attitudes, such as seeing the need for retaliation, appear to favor the development of delinquent behavior. In addition, students with ADHD are more likely to display antisocial behavior, which is considered a risk factor for aggression later in adulthood and violent actions. R. Loeber points out that ADHD is also associated with early onset of delinquency and is correlated with persistent disruptive behavior.
Researchers have examined one or more of the ADHD characteristics and its relationship to violence or delinquent behavior.

For example, concentration problems of boys ages 8 to 14 were significant predictors of self-reported violence and official arrests for violent offenses for males between the ages of 10 and 32 in a British study. B. Klinteberg, [T. Andersson, D. Magnusson, and H. Stattin] examined restlessness (for example, difficulty sitting still, talkativeness) as measured by teacher reports and determined that restlessness is associated with later violence in adulthood. Several researchers have found that childhood hyperactivity is related to violence in adulthood. Others have found that restlessness, poor concentration, impulsivity, and risk taking in childhood predict later violence. J.D. Hawkins et al. conducted a meta-analysis and found small positive correlations between childhood/adolescent hyperactivity, concentration problems, restlessness, and impulsivity.

One form of treatment for ADHD is Ritalin. K.P. O’Meara points out that many of the adolescent perpetrators in the high profiled school-yard shootings that occurred between 1996 and 1999 were taking psychotropic drugs, Ritalin, Prozac, and Luvox. She states that these drugs have been known to cause psychotic episodes and violent behavior in some patients and may have played a part in the violent acts. In addition, she believes that although side effects have been recorded, the drugs continue to be prescribed at alarmingly high rates. “There are nearly 6 million children in the United States between the ages 6 and 18 taking mind-altering drugs prescribed for alleged illnesses that increasing numbers of mental health professionals are questioning.” However, no research suggests there is a correlation between the recent cases of violent behavior in school-age children and the widespread use of psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin, Prozac, or Luvox.
The Role of Special Education
Some schools have responded to school violence by placing children in special education, while others are looking at the possibility of children who have disabilities are at risk for committing violent acts. Although special education services are provided to students with special needs and these services help address individual student’s needs such as aggressive behavior, special education should not be considered the solution for violence prevention, especially if the child is not eligible for special education services. Based on the 2002 Secret Service report we know that none of the targeted school shootings were committed by children with special nee

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