Education for Children with Disabilities and the Next Attorney General

The confirmation hearings for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for U.S. Attorney General, are being held this week. Many people in the disability community are concerned that Sessions may fail to uphold the educational rights of children with disabilities. In a 2000 speech to the U.S. Senate titled, Education Discipline and IDEA, Sessions argued that “special treatment for certain children…may be the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.” He was referring to children with documented disabilities who meet the strict eligibility criteria for receiving special education services. The underlying message in the speech is that children with disabilities who exhibit behavioral challenges should be disciplined or segregated from their peers in general education.

Behavioral issues that result from a disability are as valid as physical symptoms of a medical condition. We do not punish a child who uses a wheelchair and cannot climb stairs — we build elevators and ramps. With support and accommodation, children with behavioral issues can participate meaningfully in the academic and social life of their local public schools. A recent series of events in my 10-year-old son’s education highlights this point.

For years, our son had behavioral problems in school, including some aggression. For several months in the fall of 2015, things escalated. We received emails nearly every day from our son’s teacher stating that he was exhibiting very aggressive behavior, including hitting, biting, and pulling hair. At times, he needed to be restrained. In January 2016, things improved. His episodes of aggression dropped to one or two brief mild acts per week. We often received texts from the teacher saying he had a “fantastic” day.

What caused the dramatic change in such a short time? A new medication, therapeutic intervention, or family transition?

It was not any of these. The biggest change was in the classroom setting. Our son has fragile X syndrome, which is a genetic disorder affecting 1 in 3600–4000 boys that causes a spectrum of challenges, including intellectual disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, sensory issues, and some characteristics of autism. For years, he had been inappropriately placed in a classroom for children with severe autism that triggered his behavioral issues.

We were deeply concerned about our son’s behavior, the safety of other children and staff, and the effect on his development. Our son’s main communication to us about his school day was, “I hit the teacher. No rewards!” In the mornings, he said, “No school!” repeatedly. We were informed that he was at risk of being suspended, and it was recommended that we look into special schools that support children with serious behavioral issues.

We considered various ways of addressing the behavior, including medications, therapies, and reward systems at home. We were reluctant to try anything too drastic because our son’s most challenging behaviors did not appear in any other settings. He did much better at home, in his after school program for children with disabilities, and on community outings, including local and international travel. The difference between our son’s behavior at school and in all other settings made it clear the problem was due to a poor fit between his needs and the classroom environment.

We hired a lawyer to help us with the process of getting our child into an appropriate placement. Our son was moved to two different classrooms. First, he was placed in a classroom in which the children are at or close to grade level, but need some extra academic support, and later, moved to a classroom focused on supporting children with intellectual/developmental and other disabilities. The first classroom change was very unsuccessful, and resulted in increased behavioral problems, but the positive change was immediate and sustained in the second. He seemed happier and more relaxed, and started telling us about things he did at school — including reading, singing, cooking, using a computer, and playing sports. In the mornings, he began to say, “I go to school now.”

The ecological model used in social work suggests that people need niches in which they can thrive. We do not expect a polar bear to survive in the tropics or a delicate flower to grow in the ice. Humans also need specific environments to support their well-being. Often, it is easier, more ethical, and more effective to change the environment than the person. This is particularly true for children, who have a very limited ability to control their environment, and so sometimes exhibit behavioral symptoms as a way to communicate.

We are very fortunate that our son now has an appropriate school placement, and that we had the resources to help him get into a classroom that met his needs. We worry about all of the families who don’t have these advantages. If we hadn’t pushed for a new classroom, he might be in a restrictive school, with no access to typically developing peers, and exhibiting more challenging behaviors, for which he would need more medications and behavioral interventions. This is especially true given his pre-adolescent age and increasing size and strength. We feel certain that if this negative feedback loop had not been stopped, the difficulties would have increased. We wonder how many other children with behavioral issues just need a change in setting to thrive.

Supporting children like our son in public schools is possible with compassion, flexibility, and accommodation. Children who exhibit behavioral issues do not necessarily need stricter discipline or more restrictive settings. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, they have the right to be included to the maximum extent possible with their general education peers in public schools. The next U.S. Attorney General must uphold the educational rights of children with disabilities.

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