Virginia Tech Kept in the Dark by Disabilities Laws

The Washington Post reports that the man responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre had mental problems known to his high school, but that the school couldn’t tell Virginia Tech about them because of federal privacy and disability laws. Earlier, I linked to news coverage and legal commentaries about how federal disabilities discrimination and privacy laws make it harder for schools to deal with violent students who may have, or claim to have, mental or behavioral disabilities.

The most onerous law afflicting schools is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which sharply restricts’ schools’ ability to discipline violent troublemakers who claim to have behavioral, emotional, or learning disabilities. For example, during the Clinton Administration, the Justice and Education Departments took the position that even if a violent disabled student is incarcerated for committing murder in a school, he is still entitled to receive an education from that school system, and to have a tutor sent to his prison at the school system’s expense. (I used to work at the Education Department, incidentally).

Other disabilities laws, such as the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, also limit institutions’ ability to respond to potentially violent students with handicaps. The federal privacy law FERPA limits schools’ ability to gather and share information about such students, requiring them to leave parents in the dark about their children’s mental problems.