Using Special Education Law to Fight Capital Punishment

In an earlier post, I discussed how I used special education law to disrupt the school to prison pipeline by serving as a special education law expert in a juvenile delinquency case.  My testimony in that case resulted in the court throwing out the competency evaluation conducted by a psychologist who refused to review the child’s special education records.  The next evaluator reviewed those records and determined that the child was not competent to stand trial.

After that case, I received an unexpected request to serve as an expert in a capital punishment case outside of Wisconsin (as Wisconsin does not have capital punishment). The defendant has disabilities and received special education while in school. The defense attorney believed that the defendant may have been denied his rights under special education law, and requested that I review 9 years of educational records and write a report if I found that his rights were violated.

I have now completed my analysis of this case and found a large number of violations of special education rights which may have resulted in him making a very bad choice after he was out of school.  These violations included:

  • Failure to evaluate the child for possible emotional disabilities even though the school psychologist and other staff mentioned that he needed counseling due to the tragic death of his mother as a young child, and his abandonment by his father;
  • Failure to provide him the counseling that he needed;
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) which repeatedly used vague, non-measurable goals, resulting in his continuing to fall further and further behind academically;
  • Failure to provide any transition to adulthood services;
  • When he began experiencing an increased number of discipline problems, no effort was made to examine whether these problems were due to special education needs, and the only result was unlawful lengthy suspensions;
  • Despite failing to graduate high school, he was not afforded the opportunity to continue his education through age 21, as special education law requires.

While it is impossible to know if the tragic events leading to his death sentence could have been avoided if he had received all of his special education rights, if one believes that education in general, and special education in particular, has any value at all, one must at least seriously consider the possibility that the outcome for him and the victims of his crime, would have been much better had he received counseling in school, an appropriate education, and remained in school until he earned his high school diploma, with appropriate transition services to lead to a successful transition to adulthood.

This is clearly unique work.  I have found nothing else written about connecting the lack of appropriate special education to mitigating a death sentence.  The defense attorney is pleased enough with the work I have done thus far in this first capital punishment case that she just sent me a contract for a second case.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


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