Bench Memos

Note to Huffington Post: Jeff Sessions Does Not Hate Disabled Children

Another day, another half-baked attempt at slandering Senator Jeff Sessions, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Attorney General. This time it comes from the Huffington Post’s Jason Cherkis, in a breathless report that Sessions “once complained about a law that helped mainstream disabled children[.]” With the level of nuance typical of such allegations, Cherkis implies that Sessions wanted to scrap the federal law that requires public schools to provide appropriate education to disabled students. In fact, Sessions explicitly offered his support for the law and merely pointed out a limited problem that was widely substantiated by educators and that would have required a minor legal fix to improve education for all children, including those with disabilities.

The Huffington Post article focuses on a floor speech by Sessions on May 8, 2000 discussing the need for limited reform of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Cherkis highlights a few of Sessions’ comments about the complex legal framework created by the law, but in the process, essentially abandons all pretense of objectivity. Let’s take a look.

First, he calls Sessions’ speech one of “a series of inflammatory takes on widely accepted social policy[.]” But Cherkis provides no explanation for why Sessions’ comments were “inflammatory,” and if you read the actual speech (see below), it’s clear why they weren’t viewed as inflammatory at the time. The only people exercised about them are those who, years after the fact, are trying to drudge up reasons to oppose Sessions’ AG nomination.

Second, Cherkis describes Sessions’ comments as being “about disabled students,” insinuating that Sessions was saying nasty things about disabled kids. Had Cherkis bothered to fairly represent the speech, he would have noted that Session’s comments were not about disabled students generally, but about how the law created legal impunity for a small number of students with severe discipline problems.

Third, in Cherkis’s telling, “Sessions’ comments about students with disabilities appear to be drawn from his own experience as Alabama’s attorney general.” But Sessions doesn’t mention a single thing about his tenure as AG. Instead, he cites numerous real-world people from Alabama who wrote him letters calling attention to the problem. In fact, Sessions quotes more people in his speech than Cherkis did in his article.

Fourth, Cherkis asserts that the law “is credited with providing millions of children with mainstream public school access and support.” Had Cherkis been even trying to treat Sessions fairly, he would have noted that Sessions said just that at the beginning of his speech: “That was a good goal, a goal from which we should not retreat. I hope no one interprets what I say today as a retreat from that goal.” But acknowledging Sessions’ own praise of the law doesn’t fit Cherkis’s angle, so he left it out.

Fifth, Cherkis asserts that Sessions “ignored the views of education advocates in his own state and around the country who say they need the protection of federal regulations and the threat of lawsuits to get fair treatment for disabled children.”  He then goes on to quote (wait for it) exactly one advocate who is neither from Alabama nor apparently familiar with Sessions’ actual comments, since she feared he was advocating putting disabled children in asylums.  In contrast to Cherkis’ one advocate, Sessions quoted several local education experts, including school administrators and representatives of the teachers’ union, who agreed that the law should be tweaked.

It’s no wonder that a quick search of news from that time period shows that the speech was received without controversy.

Let’s do what Cherkis didn’t. Let’s quote Senator Sessions in context:

Over 25 years ago, for example, we passed a federal disabilities act. It was designed to mandate to school systems and require that they not shut out disabled kids from the classroom and that they be involved in the classroom. If they have a hearing loss, or a sight loss, or if they have difficulty moving around, in a wheelchair, or whatever, the school system must make accommodations for them. They would be mainstreamed. They would not be treated separately.

That was a good goal, a goal from which we should not retreat. I hope no one interprets what I say today as a retreat from that goal. But in the course of that time, we have created a complex system of Federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children, and that are a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America. I say that very sincerely.

He then went on to explain the basis for his concern:

It was really brought to my attention a little over a year ago when a long-time friend, District Attorney David Whetstone, in Baldwin County, AL, called me about a youngster in the school system classified as having a disability. It is called “emotional conflict.” He was emotionally conflicted. He could not, or would not, behave. An aide would meet him in the morning at his home, get on the bus with him, and go to school, sit through the class all day, and ride home on the school bus with him. This student was known to curse principals and teachers openly in the classroom. Because he was a disabled student, he could not be disciplined in the normal way. The maximum 10-day suspension rule-and 45 days is the maximum a child can be disciplined under this Federal law and then they are back in the classroom. One day, he attacked the school bus driver on the way home. The aide tried to restrain him. He then attacked the aide. District Attorney Whetstone told me, “I was never more stunned when I talked to school officials and they told me this is common in our county.”

We have children we cannot control because of this Federal law. He came to Washington, and we sat up in the gallery and talked about it. I respect David Whetstone and his views. He said this cannot be. I began to ask around, is this true? As a matter of fact, this very incident was focused on in Time magazine. There was a full-page story about it called “The Meanest Kid in Alabama,” and “60 Minutes” did a story about it because it is, unfortunately, so common around the country.

What can we do about it? I began to ask leaders in education around the State. The State superintendent: “Absolutely, it is one of the biggest problems we have.” I talked to Paul Hubbard, head of the teachers union in Alabama: “Absolutely, it is a big problem.” “I am tired,” he said in the newspaper recently, “of children cursing my teachers in the classroom and nothing being done about it.”

Then we began to talk to teachers, principals, and school board superintendents. They talked about the lawyers and the complicated regulations with which they deal. It is really unacceptable. Teachers who have been trained with masters’ degrees in special education to deal with these children have also overwhelmingly told me this is not a healthy thing, that we are telling special children with physical disabilities, or disabilities as defined by the Federal law, that they don’t have to adhere to the same standards other children do. Right in the classroom, we create, by Federal law, two separate standards for American citizens. You can say to one child: You can’t do this, you are out of school. But we can say to another children: You can do it, and you are only out 10 days, or maybe 45 days, and then you are back in the classroom. That is not defensible.

When you read the comments in context, Sessions comes off as a thoughtful legislator who wants to help fix our education system in ways that benefit all students, including the disabled.  Those interested in understanding the real Jeff Sessions should go directly to the source rather than relying on one-sided hit pieces by agenda-driven journalists.  

Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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