Law aiming to protect teachers could harm students with disabilities, opponents claim

Advocates say that the law will provide protections and support for teachers.

(Kyle Green | Associated Press file photo) Teacher Abi Hawker leads preschoolers in learning activities at Hillcrest Developmental Preschool in American Falls, Idaho, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. A grassroots effort to support children and families led the town to rally around a simple mantra — “read, talk, play.” The town has seen improvements in preschool access and kindergarten readiness.

Parents and disability rights advocates say they fear an incoming law will further isolate students with disabilities from their classmates, and possibly violates current federal policy.

But lawmakers and education leaders who support the new law say it will help better protect teachers in the classroom.

Known as HB347 during the 2024 legislative session, the law would require schools and local education agencies — such as school districts — to provide a safe, learning environment for teachers, staff and students.

Such an environment, the law states, should be free of predictable threats of “serious bodily injury.” The environment should also be a place where students’ education is not “disrupted by a pattern of behavior” that interferes with classroom instruction. And it should be an environment “free from repeated verbal or physical sexual harassment or sexual assault.”

Under this part of the law, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, students found to have violated those policies could potentially be removed from classrooms.

In March, the Disability Law Center sent a letter to Gov. Spencer Cox, urging him to veto HB347, arguing that it would further isolate students with disabilities from their peers “by suggesting they present a danger to others and/or are more disruptive than other students.”

The letter also argued the bill would make it difficult for schools to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which could “lead to unnecessary litigation.”

“HB347 seems to require unilateral placement changes for students who are disruptive, among other things, in direct conflict with provisions of the IDEA,” the letter stated, “because it requires schools to provide an ‘education to all students ... in the least restrictive environment possible that does not result in a pattern of behavior that interferes substantially and materially with the instruction of other students in the classroom.’”

Opponents question the bill’s purpose

Nate Crippes, public affairs supervising attorney for the Disability Law Center, said he is concerned about the law’s language, specifically where it states that classrooms would have to be free from disruptions.

He questioned what would happen to a student who had Tourette’s Syndrome, or who is stimming — repeatedly making the same movements or sounds — in situations where their classmates may not mind it as much.

“Once we start to segregate and separate people with disabilities, I think it perpetuates that stigma, that cycle of discrimination,” Crippes said. “If we start doing it at such a young age, we’re keeping that stigma and that cycle alive.”

Crippes added that he wonders what would happen to a child who is disruptive in a self-contained classroom with other students with disabilities.

“If you are too disruptive, where are they going to send them? Home? Are we just going to say students that leave can’t come to school anymore? Because that’s what would be the end result,” Crippes said.

North Ogden parent Kim Garrett told lawmakers in February that she has a son with Down syndrome and autism, and that the then-bill would hinder his right to “learn alongside neighbors and friends.”

Those are “kids that know how much he loves Chick-Fil-A and all things Disney,” Garrett said. “He deserves to go to the same school as his little sister and best friend.”

Crippes also questioned the new law’s purpose, due to federal regulations already in place for students with disabilities that may be disruptive in classrooms.

According to federal law, school personnel can remove a child with a disability from a classroom “who violates a code of student conduct from their current placement to an appropriate interim alternative educational setting, another setting, or suspension, for not more than 10 school days.”

“Why wouldn’t we just follow the processes available that we are aware of?” Crippes said.

Advocates say it will give rights for teachers and students

On the other hand, HB347′s original sponsor, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, said that the bill is meant to provide protections and rights for teachers and the other students in a classroom.

Ward made the hypothetical argument that when “unhappy” parents of a student with disabilities take a school district to court, a teacher who may have been injured “has no legal right” to say they’ve been attacked, since school districts have governmental immunity — that they can’t be sued for damages incurred at school.

Additionally, Ward said, if a student, for example, is being sexually harassed by another student with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the district “will correctly say” that it’s doing the best it can.

The teachers and parents are told “you will just need to submit to this cause, because this party can and has sued and you can’t sue,” Ward said.

“I believe in that federal right. I’m not against that right. I believe that that’s important for those [students with disabilities],” he said. “I was just trying to define some basic rights for the other groups, and to ask the school district to honor them.”

While he said he supports the federal regulations for students with disabilities, Ward also referenced a conversation he had with a father, who said his daughter had class canceled multiple times because a student who was throwing things around the classroom.

“The principal couldn’t help him, because his daughter doesn’t have a right to not have her class canceled over and over again,” he said. “One student in that class has been granted rights, … but no one else has the right to say, ‘Don’t I have a right to an education if the class is canceled two times every week?’”

Ward said the bill, while it is “a pretty weak protection,” asks school districts to prevent those situations from happening in the first place.

And those protections are what teachers have been seeking, Utah Education Association policy and research director Jay Blain told lawmakers in February.

Blain said the union surveyed over 3,000 teachers before the legislative session. Their top priority: Wanting more resources to deal with disruptive behavior in classrooms, which has become “a very serious concern for educators,” he said.

“Teachers care deeply about their students, they care deeply about how to manage behaviors in their classrooms,” Blain said. “But when they’re being physically assaulted or hit, punched, bitten, other things like that, it’s a serious issue.”

Blain said in February that for anyone to say the incoming state law would violate federal law, “I don’t think anybody really can predict what may happen.”

More resources for special education

In place of the law, Crippes said he would rather see “more resources being put into schools to say, ‘How can we better support students with disabilities?”

The DLC’s letter stated such support could include increasing pay for paraeducators and funding “co-teaching models” — where a general education teacher works alongside a special education teacher in a classroom.

Ward said he would and has been in favor of those resources, but that they would not be “a solution to the problem.”

Crippes said the new law isn’t a solution, either.

“What they’re pushing is more segregation,” Crippes said, “and more pushing students with disabilities out of the classroom and trying to say that somehow they’re the problem.”