WASHINGTON Many schools are ill-equipped to deal with teens with learning or behavioral problems, so a disproportionate number of those children end up in juvenile court, a government report says.
The study by the National Council on Disability, a federal board with 15 members appointed by the president, said the government must enforce a law requiring school districts to provide services to children with disabilities.
Experts say teenagers who go to juvenile court are likely to later appear before adult courts.
For a lot of the kids we're talking about, it's almost a life sentence of criminality,'' said Tammy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a nonprofit civil rights law firm focusing on the rights of people with mental disabilities.
The findings in the report, released Thursday, come as Con-gress prepares to renew the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which promises education for children with physical or emotional problems. Around 6.3 million children receive special education.
Many youths who wind up in jail or juvenile centers are entitled to help under the act but do not receive it, the report said.
School officials say they don't have enough money or staff to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
Those teachers just burn out,'' said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director for public policy of the American Association of School Admin-istrators. They decide for the same money they can be a third grade teacher or teach chemistry and they move.''
The council recommended that the Education Department enforce existing laws, and that schools make it a priority to help students with disabilities who otherwise could become disruptive and wind up in the juvenile justice system.
Education Department officials had no immediate comment.
Minority or poor students with disabilities are more likely to be expelled than others because their parents do not know their rights under the education law or can't afford to hire lawyers to challenge the orders, the report said.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that schools tend to want to deal with problems by removing kids,'' said Martin Gould, senior research specialist for the national disabilities council.
Another factor is that many schools now have police officers on campus and they are more likely to refer cases to local prosecutors, said Greg Hubbard, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Kitsap County, Wash., west of Seattle.
With the increased presence of law enforcement, you're going to get more referrals to your local prosecutors,'' Hubbard said. I don't think there's any singling out of special ed kids.''
Even if a criminal charges are brought, prosecutors may not go ahead with the case.
Michael Edmondson, a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County, Fla., district attorney's office, said the decision on whether to prosecute students with disabilities is partially based on how severe the alleged crime is. Stealing money from a fellow student is not in the same league as beating up a teacher, he said. Generally, we're going to err on the side of protecting the teacher or the fellow student,'' Edmond-son said.
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