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The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act entitled children with disabilities, including those with mental, physical and emotional disabilities, to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) provided in the least-restrictive environment possible. The act was amended in 1990 and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). The law was further amended in 1997 to entitle students with disabilities access to participation and progress within the general education curriculum.

Protections under IDEA state that qualified students don't forfeit their right to a free and public education even if they have been suspended or expelled. IDEA specifically prohibits suspensions or expulsions that result in cessation of services for suspensions of more than 10 days. Alternative programs must be provided to allow the student to progress appropriately toward achieving the goals of his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP).

In addition to federal safeguards, many districts have policies that provide protection to students with disabilities beyond those found in IDEA. Balancing the legal obligations to educate special education students with the need to keep schools safe for all students is a challenge for educators and policymakers.


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