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February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

Special Topic / Preventing Violent Behavior

Flawed legislation and unprepared schools overlook the special education needs of students with evolving personality disorders that can lead to violent behavior.

As a child psychologist, a consultant to public schools, and a parent of two teenagers, I have been deeply troubled by recent episodes of school violence. In struggling to organize my reactions to these tragic events, I have been concerned not so much with the question of How could this happen? but rather Why do we do so little to prevent this from happening?
My most powerful reaction to these events is a profound frustration with schools' disregard for the special needs of students exhibiting developmental delays in the capacity to form and value relationships. Such children are often labeled as socially maladjusted or disaffected.
The variables associated with this disorder are well understood, easily identified, and correctable if we address them early and in a coherent manner. In light of this fact—and the associated costs in both human suffering and dollars linked to a student's lifelong pattern of maladaptive behavior—focused, early, and effective intervention for these students is both pragmatic and morally imperative.

Loopholes and Limitations

Those not familiar with special education policy may wonder why such intervention isn't already taking place. The reason is an unfortunate and confused policy within the initial law that established special education services as a national mandate (PL 94-142). As outlined by Russell Skiba and Ken Grizzel (1991), an exclusionary clause does not allow special education services for children labeled as socially maladjusted or disaffected. This exclusion evolved out of a legislative misunderstanding of these poorly defined terms. Now deeply ingrained in the culture of public education, this policy dramatically undermines how effectively we can address the needs of students with evolving personality and character disorders. This confused policy is exacerbated by three central factors.
School administrators must comply with special education law. The difficult task of determining eligibility for special education services falls upon local public school administrators. Their obligation to operate within the guidelines of special education law ultimately places these administrators, who typically have little background in child psychopathology, in the unenviable—if not impossible—position of making distinctions between those students who qualify for special education services as behaviorally handicapped and those who are excluded as socially maladjusted. This vague distinction often results in public schools refusing to consider necessary special education services for elementary school students with patterns of problematic behavior.
  • Offering too little, too late by sending the student into a specialized treatment program after the developmental window for optimally effective intervention has passed,
  • Passing the buck by sending the student to juvenile justice and corrections institutions, or
  • Discarding the student into society through suspension and expulsion.
Public schools rely on professionals trained in school psychology for clinical insight and guidance. School psychologists are generally trained at the master's degree level to provide school consultation and to conduct behavioral, academic, and cognitive evaluations. Although school psychologists do much good within schools, they generally have limited training in developmental psychopathology and clinical intervention with character-impaired students. As a result, school administrators often rely on consultants who do not have extensive clinical experience or theoretical insight in identifying and treating students with evolving personality or character pathologies.
The cost of providing effective programming is high. Effectively serving these complicated students requires many resources and a considerable financial investment from public education. Programming costs are linked to the need for small teacher-to-student ratios, specialized staff with training in behavior management and therapeutic restraint, social work, psychological and psychiatric consultation services, specialized recreation, and transportation services.
The cost of early intervention, however, cannot compare to the lifelong costs of a student's untreated pathology (including law enforcement, incarceration, violence, and crime). Ideally, the extent and character of the services required for effective intervention with these students would entail dual funding from both special education and mental health sources.
I am not suggesting that school-based intervention for these troubled and troubling students is a simple, straightforward task. But the cost—both in dollars and in human suffering—of not addressing the needs of these students is astronomical. Should our public schools embrace this responsibility, we could help many of these troubled students.


  • Remove the ill-conceived special education exclusion clause disallowing specialized school-based services for students carrying the poorly defined label of socially maladjusted.
  • Provide more extensive and effective training in developmental psychopathology to teachers, administrators, and school psychologists. Our responses to and interventions in student behavior must go beyond punishment and exclusion, both of which have proven to be ineffective.
  • Embrace a model for serving students that focuses on early intervention and offers access to education and mental health clinical models and funding.
These recommendations require a change in the nature of school-based psychological services for emotionally and behaviorally impaired students. One possible approach is providing school psychologists with more extensive clinical training in identifying and treating character and personality disorders. Another method is developing a team approach for school-based psychological services for emotionally and behaviorally impaired children, such as a collaboration between a school psychologist and a clinically trained psychologist to conduct evaluations and to design interventions.
To suggest that the recent horrifying episodes of school violence would not have occurred had special education laws and practices been different is irresponsible. We, however, must learn from these tragedies. Our best means of reducing the likelihood of school violence is through developing public education programs that effectively intervene in the lives of students suffering from significant personality and character developmental delays. Should our schools persevere in a policy that essentially ignores and punishes—and ultimately excludes—these children, we will be embracing hopelessness.
End Notes

1 Skiba, R., & Grizzle, K. (1991). The social maladjustment exclusion: Issues of definition and assessment. School Psychology Review, 20(4), 580–598.

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