WASHINGTON ― Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), president-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, once complained about a law that helped mainstream children with disabilities into public school systems.
In May 2000, Sessions took to the senate floor to make a lengthy speech on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, arguing that federal protections for students with disabilities was a reason U.S. public schools were failing.
“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,” Sessions said.
Sessions’ full statement, which can still be found on his website, is another in a series of inflammatory takes on widely accepted social policy that could complicate his nomination for the top law enforcement position in the country. The Alabama Republican once claimed that virtually no one immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic added value to society.
Other controversial comments date largely back to 1986, when he was denied a federal judgeship over the allegations that he’d made racist remarks and had referred to the NAACP as “un-American.” Sessions denies that he’s a racist and several of his current colleagues ― including at least one Democratic Senator ― have said they would support his attorney general bid.
Sessions’ comments about students with disabilities appear to be drawn from his own experience as Alabama’s attorney general. In the mid 1990s, Sessions fought school equality after a judge ruled on behalf of about 30 of the state’s poor school districts that sought reforms. The case continued to languish in the courts while disability advocates worried that the poorest school systems didn’t have enough to fund the bare essentials for special needs students, according to a New York Times account. The case ended in 1997 ― after Sessions won a senate seat.
In his speech before Congress, Sessions referenced letters he had received from educators in his home state to argue that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was preventing teachers from being able to properly discipline troubled or disruptive students. Instead of creating a comforting classroom, he insisted, it was causing disorder and chaos. “We have children we cannot control because of this federal law,” he said.
Sessions added that such federal protections “may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.”
The law, which passed in 1975, was enacted to protect children with disabilities from the school administrators that Sessions cited. It required schools to grant students with disabilities an education in a general classroom when possible, and encouraged the parents of those children to be more intimately involved in their education. The legislation, which has been reformed various times since, is credited with providing millions of children with mainstream public school access and support.
Sessions’ floor statement 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. Parents are often forced to seek remedies in court when schools refuse to comply with the law. Alabama has continued to struggle with adequately teaching all of its students.
Candace Aylor, a veteran parent advocate and appointee to Texas’ health commission’s Behavioral Health Advisory Committee., called Sessions’ comments “heartless and misguided.”
“If he doesn’t recognize the need for schools to be required to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students regardless of disability what kind of society does he intend for us to live in?” she said. “What should we do? Should we put them in asylums again? How far back in history should we go? Are they not worthy? Are they defective in his mind?”
A spokesperson for Trump’s transition team did not return a request for comment. Sessions’ remarks from 2000 may place him far outside the mainstream when it comes to protections for disabled or troubled children. But his nominator, Trump, notoriously mocked a reporter with physical disabilities while running for office.
JM Rieger contributed reporting.