Hastings Law Journal


Moira O'Neill


Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to meet the special education needs of disabled youth. Yet the Department of Education regulations defining "emotional disturbance," one of the qualifying disabilities under the IDEA, have consistently defined the term to exclude youth diagnosed as "socially maladjusted." Special education scholars and professionals have long criticized this definition of emotional disturbance as imprecise and inconsistent with mental health constructs of emotional and behavioral disorders. Incarcerated youth are particularly affected by this definition of "emotional disturbance," as they demonstrate a higher prevalence of special educational needs than does the public school population. Without justification in special education research, the exclusionary language eliminates basic educational opportunities for a major segment of the disabled population. It is inconsistent with the goals of the IDEA and out of harmony with the primary goal of the states' intervention with these youth: education, rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism.

Part I of this Note discusses the development and history of education and rehabilitation within the American juvenile justice system. Part II discusses the role of the IDEA in meeting special education needs and the development and impact of the "socially maladjusted" exclusionary language. Part III demonstrates that the current regulation excluding socially maladjusted youth is inconsistent with the underlying goal of the IDEA and the rehabilitative and educational goals of the juvenile justice system. This Note concludes that the regulation defining emotional disturbance should be more consistent with mental health constructions of emotional and behavior disorders, yet be limited to the impact on the child's education.

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