At issue in Honig v. Doe (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court’s first and only case on the topic, were the acceptable limits of disciplining students with disabilities under the (then) Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), now the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). In its analysis, the Court addressed three issues. First, the Court agreed that the case was moot for one of the two student plaintiffs because he was no longer eligible under the IDEA. Second, the Court refused to create a dangerousness exception in the IDEA, affirming that its “stay-put” provisions prohibit school officials from unilaterally excluding students with disabilities from school for dangerous or disruptive actions that are manifestations of their disabilities while review proceedings are under way; as modified, the IDEA now includes provisions addressing so-called manifestation determinations. Third, an equally divided Court affirmed that the state official must provide services directly to students with disabilities when local boards fail to do so.
“John Doe” was an emotionally disturbed student who had difficulty controlling his impulses and anger. In November 1980, at the age of 17, Doe explosively responded to the taunts of a peer by choking the student and then kicking out a school window as he was escorted to the principal’s office. Doe was suspended for 5 days. On the fifth day of Doe’s suspension, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Student Placement Committee notified his mother that it was recommending his expulsion and that his suspension would continue indefinitely until the expulsion proceedings were complete.
Doe, who qualified for special educational services under the IDEA, filed suit against the SFUSD and the California Superintendent of Public Instruction, alleging that their disciplinary actions violated the “stayput” provision of the (then) EHA. Under the IDEA “stay-put” provisions, children with disabilities must remain in their existing educational placements pending the completion of any review proceedings unless parents and state or local educational officials agree otherwise. Doe alleged that the pending expulsion proceedings triggered the “stay-put” provision and that educators violated his rights in suspending him indefinitely. As such, a federal trial court granted Doe’s request for a preliminary injunction ordering school officials to return him to his existing educational placement pending a review of his individualized educational program (IEP).
“Jack Smith” was also an emotionally disturbed, IDEA-eligible student in the SFUSD. Smith typically reacted to stress by becoming verbally hostile and aggressive. When he was in middle school, his disruptive behavior escalated; Smith acted out by stealing, extorting money from other students, and making sexual comments to female classmates. In November 1980, Smith was suspended for 5 days for his lewd comments. As with Doe, the SFUSD Student Placement Committee recommended Smith’s expulsion, scheduled an expulsion hearing, and extended the suspension indefinitely until a final disposition of the matter. Having learned of Doe’s case, Smith protested the school’s actions and eventually intervened in Doe’s suit.
After granting Doe’s preliminary injunction, the trial court entered a permanent injunction barring officials of the SFUSD from suspending any students with disabilities from school for more than 5 days when their misconduct was disability related or from making any other changes of placement, pending completion of any review proceedings, without parental consent. Further, the court barred the state from approving any unilateral placements, ordered the state to provide services directly to eligible students if the local educational agency failed to do so, and ordered the state either to create a system for monitoring compliance with the IDEA or to enact guidelines for responding to disability-related misconduct. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed these orders with slight modifications.
The California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Bill Honig, sought review by the Supreme Court, claiming that the Ninth Circuit neglected to consider the decisions of other circuits that acknowledged a “dangerousness exception” to the “stay-put” provision. In addition, he charged that the trial court’s order directing the state to provide direct services when local educational agencies failed to do so imposed an onerous burden on the state.
On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed the earlier judgments except to the extent that the Ninth Circuit suggested that suspensions in excess of 10 days did not constitute changes in placements. Turning to the first of the three issues, the Court began by deciding that the case was moot with regard to Doe because he passed the IDEA’s eligibility age of 21. However, since Smith still was eligible under the IDEA, the Court reviewed the rest of the claim.
At the heart of the case, and in response to Honig’s concerns, the Supreme Court expressly refused to create a “dangerousness exception” to the “stay-put” provision. Reviewing the IDEA’s legislative purpose, the Court found that it is “clear . . . that [in enacting the IDEA] Congress very much meant to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school” (Honig, p. 323, emphasis in original). At the same time, the Court pointed out that educators were not left hamstrung when dealing with potentially dangerous students. For instance, the Court noted that educators may use any of a variety of procedures when responding to dangerous students, such as study carrels, time-outs, detention, restriction of privileges, or suspensions for up to 10 days. The Court indicated that 10-day suspensions are designed to serve as follows:
A “cooling down” period during which officials can initiate IEP review and seek to persuade the child’s parents to agree to an interim placement. And in those cases in which the parents of a truly dangerous child adamantly refuse to permit any change in placement, the ten-day respite gives school officials an opportunity to invoke the aid of the courts . . . to grant any appropriate relief. (p. 327)
Recognizing that the IDEA’s legislative history suggested that Congress sought to prohibit the unilateral exclusion of disabled children by schools and not courts, the Supreme Court reasoned that the “stay-put” provision does not limit the authority of courts to award appropriate relief to either a parent or the local educational agency. Rather, the Court asserted that the “stay-put” provision created a presumption in favor of leaving children in their existing educational placements unless educators could prove that they were likely to harm themselves or others.
The Court thus concluded this part of its opinion by explaining that school officials are entitled to seek injunctive relief to exclude students from school when the interests of maintaining safe learning environments for all outweighs the dangerous child’s right to receive a free and appropriate public education.
As to the third issue, an equally divided Supreme Court affirmed that the state must provide services directly to students with disabilities when local boards fail to make them available.
Amy M. Steketee