Student Note on Juvenile Delinquency and the IDEA
New on Westlaw: Moira O'Neill, Note, Delinquent or Disabled? Harmonizing the IDEA's Definition of "Emotional Disturbance" with the Educational Needs of Incarcerated Youth, 57 Hastings L.J. 1189 (2006). From the introduction:
This Note examines the definition of "emotional disturbance," one of the qualifying disabilities under the IDEA. Although research estimates vary, they suggest high numbers of incarcerated juveniles suffer from emotional disturbance. Many special education scholars and professionals have criticized the IDEA definition of "emotional disturbance" as imprecise and inconsistent with mental health constructs of emotional and mental disorders. For the past three decades, the Department of Education regulations have defined "emotional disturbance" to exclude youth diagnosed as "socially maladjusted," even though this exclusionary language does not necessarily correspond well with mental health constructs.
Presently, the Department of Education is in the process of issuing new regulations following the most recent reauthorization of the IDEA. During one of the Department of Education's public input meetings, advocates representing school districts, parents, disability organizations and education agencies requested that the Department of Education eliminate the current definition's reference to "socially maladjusted" youth. Specifically, the Director of Government Affairs for the National Mental Health Association pointed out that the current regulations fail to define the term socially maladjusted, and research does not provide a consistent definition of social maladjustment. Nothing indicates that the Department of Education intends to remove the exclusionary language from its definition of emotional disturbance.
The IDEA's mandate is to provide special education services to disabled youth. The current definition of "emotional disturbance" undermines the IDEA mandate. The language excluding youth identified as "socially maladjusted" eliminates basic educational opportunities for a major segment of the disabled population. Yet, mental health and special education research do not justify the exclusion. The result of not including "socially maladjusted" youth from the category of "emotional disturbance" especially affects incarcerated youth because of the higher prevalence of special needs within this population. It is also in conflict with the primary goals of the state's intervention with these youths: education, rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism. The special education needs of incarcerated youths with a disability seriously impairing their ability to work, live and function within our society must be addressed for these youths to effectively reintegrate into society upon their release. The goals of the IDEA and rehabilitation within juvenile justice should be in harmony. However, the "socially maladjusted" exclusionary language in the definition of "emotional disturbance" frustrates the rehabilitative goals of juvenile justice.