Individualized Education Plan

Do We Have to Call in the National Guard to Protect the Civil Rights of Students With Disabilities?

The question must be asked: What do we have to do to get school districts to follow the law and give students who are disabled the services they are legally entitled to receive?  

I’ll give you an example. Chicago Public Schools was illegally limiting access to special education services in an effort to keep costs down. It was bad enough that the state had to appoint a monitor to ensure the district complied with the law and delivered services to the students who needed them.

After nearly a year of state monitoring, you would think we would see progress, right?


Right now, there is no plan in place to provide families make-up special education for children who were wrongly denied services in the two years Chicago failed to follow the law. More broadly, Chicago parents of children with disabilities are still facing unnecessary hurdles in trying to get their needs met.  

And it’s not like we’re not trying. Here in Chicago, we held protests. We got new laws passed. We sued the district. We pushed the state to appoint the new monitor.

And yet, kids still aren’t getting the services they need and are legally entitled to have.

Though the situation in Chicago provides a current and particularly troubling example, this problem is not unique. Look at New York City, where thousands of parents have filed complaints that the school system is not providing their children needed services. Keep in mind that by the time complaints are filed, children have often been without services for three to five years, or longer.

Look at Texas. In 2004, the state arbitrarily set a cap on the percentage of students who would get special education services, regardless of how many students needed them. This situation went on unchecked until 2016, when the Houston Chronicle broke the story. Since then, the state has pumped an additional $212 million into special education, but experts estimate it would actually take $3.3 billion to ensure all eligible Texas kids receive the services they need.

What Will It Take to Get Districts to Follow the Law?

Maybe it’s time to look back to the civil rights struggles of the past for ideas. After all, the struggle to win civil rights for people with disabilities has a lot in common with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In both cases, people who were denied rights granted to them under the laws of the United States used creative strategies to press the government to follow its own laws.

Maybe this comparison sounds odd to you. Let’s break down what we’re talking about here. Remember that special education can be a misleading term. The word “special” makes many people, me included, think we’re talking about a treat or a gift, something extra. But special education is not a gift or a treat.

Special education covers all the tools necessary for students with disabilities to access the free, public education to which every child in the United States is entitled by law. Whether it’s a wheelchair ramp, the curriculum in Braille or one-to-one assistance in the classroom, those supports are not “special treats”—they are the tools children need to access school and learn.

Denying students with disabilities these tools effectively denies them an education. That’s shameful. It’s illegal. And in districts like Chicago, where 14% of students qualify for those tools, the continuing failure to provide them should outrage us all.

Back in 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus refused to ensure the safety of the Little Rock Nine, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took over the Arkansas National Guard and sent them into Little Rock High School to restore order and uphold civil rights law.

Now think about the rights denied our students with disabilities. Maybe it’s time to send in the National Guard.

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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