Monthly Archives: December 2012
We knew this would happen…again. The tragic shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut was bound to trigger heightened sensitivity to anyone and anything that seems to be even remotely threatening. While we should all be thinking about what can be done to keep our schools safe, we have to be careful that we do not react in a way that produces, rather than prevents, harm to students.
Some students with disabilities are at particular risk of becoming victims of hyper-vigilant policies and practices. The other day an obviously-distressed parent called because her son’s school was planning to conduct a “threat assessment” on her son after he drew pictures of guns during class. My guess is that this was not a new behavior for this child, but it was now seen as threatening after being viewed through post-Newtown lenses. This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he would say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal. There are several things about that situation that should give one cause for pause, but I will approach the topic at hand with recommendations rather than criticism.
The very first thing to do is talk to your children about school safety and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats. Even if the child does not fully understand why someone would consider their comment, joke, writings or drawings to be threatening, you have to give them specific examples of behavior to avoid. Mention or representations of guns, knives, bombs, explosions, killing, etc. are topics to be avoided anyplace except home. Even if the child is studying a time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked (ex. no speculation about what could have happened if the good guys had a super hand-held weapon that could wipe out hundreds of people with the press of a button). We can encourage imagination in other forms, as well as other interests for those children who seem preoccupied by violent themes.
If you have a child that likes to carry or use a pocket knife, sticks, rocks or anything else that could be considered to be a weapon, check their pockets and backpacks frequently to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally end up bringing something to school that will get them in trouble. Keep in mind that when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary action, a student can be removed to an interim alternative educational setting even when the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the child’s disability. Such removal is not required though, and school administrators have the authority to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis.
Be proactive! Review your school system’s Code of Conduct, and disciplinary/school safety policies. If you see glaring problems with the policies, address them with your School Board. If the policies include the possibility of a required “threat assessment”, make sure that the assessment will be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any disabilities that the child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise that issue if your child becomes involved in this type of situation. Some disabilities can impact the child’s ability to truly understand the questions that will be asked and how his answers might be interpreted by others. The disability may also have contributed to the behavior itself. Those making decisions about how to respond to a potential threat should have enough knowledge and experience to understand all of the factors involved, and take actions that are appropriate to each specific situation. One-size-fits-all does not work for special education and it also does not work for discipline or school safety!
The Individualized Education Program (IEP) that describes special education services and supports for a qualifying student with a disability is created by an IEP Team that is defined by federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists the core membership of an IEP team as including the parent, a special education teacher, a regular education teacher (at the student’s assigned grade), and a representative of the Local Education Agency (school system). The student is a required member of the IEP team when their transition to adulthood is being discussed. In addition to this bare-bones requirement, there are others who can or must be invited under varying circumstances.
Whenever evaluation results are being discussed, the IEP team should include individuals who are qualified to interpret those evaluation results and the educational implications of them for the child. Most parents can read evaluation reports with some degree of understanding, but the IEP team needs input from individuals who are in a position to connect the dots and make sense of the various pieces of information available when an evaluation has been conducted.
When children are aging out of the Infant-Toddler Program and are being considered for eligibility for Preschool services, the Child Service Coordinator or previous service providers can be invited to the IEP meeting. If you want to have your child’s Service Coordinator or others attend an IEP meeting, invite them directly yourself because the school system may not automatically send them an invitation.
At an annual review when the IEP is being totally re-written (rather than amended), all of the people who are currently providing special education services to the child will normally be invited to the meeting. Sometimes a related service provider (e.g. speech, occupational or physical therapist) will submit written information and some proposed goals when they are unable to attend an IEP meeting. If you feel that it is important that specific school system staff members (regular education teachers, clinicians, administrators, classroom assistants, etc.) participate in the IEP team discussion, communicate that to the person who is coordinating the meeting so that they are invited and the meeting scheduled at a time when they can attend.
In addition to the required IEP team members, the school system and the parent each have the right to invite others who they feel can contribute to the IEP process. Individuals who have particular knowledge of the child or specific expertise can be involved upon request. For example, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, tutors, behavior specialists, psychologists, individuals who have disability-specific information, or private service providers can become invited members of a child’s IEP team. These individuals can either attend in person, submit written input, or participate via conference call or another technology-supported means.
When your child’s next IEP meeting is being planned, communicate with the meeting coordinator to make sure the all of the right people are at the table to create an educational program that effectively addresses your child’s unique educational needs.