Don't Take Us Back to the Days When Our Children With Disabilities Could Be Denied an Education

Dec 2, 2019 12:00:00 AM


We barely survived my son Jonah’s adolescence. One evening in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station he pushed me so hard I fell to the ground and a woman leaned over and whispered in my ear, “that child has the devil in him.” When my husband took our four kids to a minor league baseball game, Jonah started stomping and yelling so angrily that park officials called security. One day in upstate New York where we rent a house for a week of family time, Jonah (who looked like a man, at 5′11″ and 180 pounds) collapsed on the sidewalk, shouting, “I quit you all!” as I tried to calm him while worrying someone would call the police. 

School was a challenge—yet, per his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Jonah successfully completed our local district high school with support and accommodations, his days divided among self-contained classes, general education classes with a one-on-one instructional aide, and speech and occupational therapy. 

Yet in “When Disruptive Students Are Coddled, the Whole Class Suffers,” Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that students with behaviors similar to or worse than Jonah’s should be subject to “restraint and seclusion” and segregated from neuro-typical peers because of the growing prevalence of “room clears,” where teachers “surrender the room to a single [disabled] student.” Eden believes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into federal law 44 years ago last week, goes too far because it doesn’t “adequately account for the rights and interests of general-education students.” 

Let’s think this through. IDEA is built on two pillars: Students with disabilities have the right to a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). 

This wasn’t always the case; [pullquote]if Jonah came of school-age before 1975 when IDEA was signed into law, he could have been denied any education at all.[/pullquote] Yet Eden says the LRE pillar is hurting non-disabled students, particularly when students classified with an emotional or behavioral disability learn alongside their peers. (Jonah, by the way, is classified as “Other Health Impaired” and plenty of students with non-behavioral/emotional labels exhibit troubling behaviors. Don’t mistake a label for a person.) Eden writes:

“In the past, as a student’s misbehavior escalated, a teacher might ask the student to leave the room, put a hand on a student’s shoulder to try to get him to calm down, or—if need be—direct him by the arm away from a tense situation and possibly call security to remove him from the classroom area. But as policymakers take these options off the table, teachers have little recourse but to remove every single other student from the classroom before someone gets hurt.”

Is Eden right? Is IDEA’s LRE pillar an educational impediment for neuro-typical students? Are teachers “powerless to enforce order and ensure the safety of their students”? Are new rules intended to address the disproportionate number of suspensions for children of color and children with disabilities mere “fashionable education-policy trends designed to protect the rights of troubled students, often with little regard for the rights of their classmates”? Should we, like Eden, be applauding U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ rescission of the Obama administration’s “war on suspensions” for students with disabilities and students of color who are disproportionately disciplined? Are these regulations so “misguided” that “a single agitated student has the power to seize control of any classroom he pleases”?

No, Eden is wrong. Let us count the ways.

First, [pullquote]school districts aren’t “powerless.” They’re just letting money take precedence over student need.[/pullquote] Students like the ones Eden describes—whose “misbehavior edges towards violence”—don’t need seclusion or restraint; they need a one-on-one aide who, when necessary, can escort the student from the classroom to a calming space and, if necessary, call upon the services of a therapist or social worker. Schools need to pony up for one-on-one aides and adequate special education staff members. 

Second, Eden exaggerates school policies regarding LRE. Students who misbehave aren’t “physically untouchable.” Many districts train aides and special education teachers in strategies like “Handle With Care,” which (according to this New Jersey policy manual) uses “physical restraint to control a student’s behavior to protect the student and/or a member of the school community from imminent serious physical harm.” 

Third, Eden says that “policymakers” have taken options “off the table,” such as asking a student to leave the room, putting a hand on a student’s shoulder to get him to calm down, or calling security. That’s simply not true. While it would be inappropriate for a teacher to tell a child with behavioral and emotional disabilities to simply “leave the room,” that child’s one-on-one aide could take the child elsewhere. Also, teachers are neither barred from putting their hand on a student’s shoulder nor calling security. (Trust me on this.)

Fourth, Eden says that the Obama administration was dead wrong that students with disabilities were more likely to be disciplined than general-education peers. He writes, “by the time Donald Trump took office, it had become clear that [Obama’s] Department of Education’s concerns were unfounded.” Eden continues, “[m]inority students were actually substantially under-represented in special education compared to similarly situated white students.”

Sorry. It’s not that simple. While Black children are under-classified with autism and dyslexia compared to White children, that’s because these have become “rich kid” labels: Parents with resources know that these classifications come packaged with more expensive services. 

On the other hand, Black children are over-classified with “poor kid” disorders, like intellectual impairment and emotional disturbance. In fact, Black children are 5 times more likely to be misdiagnosed with “conduct disorders”—often because they’re frustrated from an undiagnosed learning disability (like dyslexia). And those labels lower the bar for their academic growth. Overall, [pullquote]Black children ages 6 to 21 are 41% more likely to be identified with disabilities than their peers.[/pullquote]

I get Eden’s concern with “room clears,” but he draws the wrong conclusion. 

He closes his piece by citing “the close of last month’s NBC Nightly News segment” as proof of his thesis. So I took a look. In a short video, the reporter interviews a former Des Moines teacher who says that a 7-year-old stabbed her with a pencil, among other transgressions. The superintendent confirms that “room clears” have become more common because of lower school funding and higher enrollment. A local expert says, “You need to figure out why the kid is acting out. It’s a communications issue.” The reporter, appropriately, concludes that the solution to classroom disruption by students with behavioral challenges is smaller class sizes, more teacher training, additional mental health staff and higher funding. 

Unlike that reporter, or the people on the ground in Des Moines, [pullquote position="right"]Eden leans far too heavily on unsubstantiated evidence to make sweeping claims about the overreach of IDEA.[/pullquote] Worse, there’s a sense of nostalgia in his piece, as if he’s yearning for some “good old days,” when children like my Jonah were denied a fair public education and integration with non-disabled students. 

Note from a mom on the ground: Those were the bad old days. 

There are extreme cases—a student with truly violent tendencies, for example—when segregation is appropriate. But the vast majority of students with behavioral and emotional challenges can be educated in largely inclusive environments without restraint and seclusion. If that’s not working, don’t blame the child or his/her label; blame the system for failing to provide the necessary support so that teachers can teach and students can learn.

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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