Special Education

Let’s Stop With the Handcuffs and Train Teachers to Deal With Special Needs

I couldn’t watch the video of the  Florida child being handcuffed in the principal’s office. As a writer and a policy wonk, I am not supposed to confess that. I shared it, I thanked people for sharing it. I contemplated the deeper issues behind it, considered the relative importance of policy and activist responses at the district, state and national levels. Should we prioritize training teachers, increasing special ed resources, or educating police departments? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to do a deep dive into history and theories of child development, and bring to light the outdated origins of the idea that handcuffing any 10 year old in the presence of his parents could ever possibly be a good idea? Then the video would pop up some new place on my social media feeds. And I’d feel waves of nausea all over, have to push back my chair and go get the thing out of my eye. Again. It’s not like I’m unaware of how much discipline in our schools has taken on a law enforcement culture. Though I didn’t know—and maybe you didn’t either—that the association of in-school police officers  recommends that officers not be used for school discipline matters, though 70 percent say they are; and that Congressional Research Service  says we don’t actually have good data on what law enforcement is doing in schools, or what its effects are. And I know that boys, children of color, children of lower socio-economic status and children with special needs are much more likely to be disciplined, to be suspended and to come into contact with law enforcement. I even know, because I’ve watched it with my own eyes in my own wonderful progressive local schools, that kids in those categories tend to get disciplined for behaviors for which other kids get a laugh, a reprimand or extra help.

Great Training on Autism Exists: Let’s Get it Out There

Something I know that you may not is that there’s a generation of  amazing educators who have developed methods to help elementary school teachers manage challenging students—and set those students up to self-regulate, succeed and learn. Professional development associations  offer evidence-based, peer-reviewed development modules for the district or individual teacher level. Researchers have put years of study into what works and what doesn’t—including pretty much every step taken by the Florida district. In some parts of the country, cutting-edge clinics, research programs and schools offer training for districts and teachers. Mid-career training is urgently needed, because studies have  found that fewer than half of undergraduate teacher-training programs, and just two-thirds of graduate programs, offered coursework preparing instructors to work with autism in the classroom. Something else I know, though I wish I didn’t; in my state of Maryland, police officers  get training on disabilities such as autism, how to recognize symptoms of the condition and how to de-escalate confrontations. Why do I wish I didn’t know this? Maryland’s program stems from a tragic incident in which a police officer shot and killed a young man, mistaking his anxiety and confusion for belligerence and threat. Why do I know all these things? I wish I could say it was because I’m just a concerned citizen, that I’m just bothered by the inequities our kids face, and the obstacles in the way of kids who need a hand up to learning the most. But I’m not that civic-minded. I’m actually kind of selfish. I have a son on the autism spectrum, a boy with a beautiful smile who, like the child in the video, sometimes asks inappropriate questions in a plaintive voice, and whose understanding of cause and effect doesn’t always match that of authority figures around him. He does great in school, loves baseball and his family and friends. Selfishly, I’d like him to grow up without being handcuffed, tazed or shot, without being called “retard” too often, and with the idea intact that he’s a valued member of society. We don’t use outdated treatments for cancer now that immunotherapy is available. We don’t invite unlicensed healers to practice in our hospitals. Nor do we need to cure autism, poverty or American politics to keep our beloved children from being unfairly disciplined or even harmed by law enforcement. We do need to hold our principals, school boards and police departments to the same standards we’d use for our doctors.
An original version of this post appeared on Head in the Sand.
Heather Hurlburt lives with her family in Montgomery County, Washington, D.C., and directs the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

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