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“School Safety” and Students with Disabilities

Columbine, Newtown and now Parkland. We knew this would happen… again.  The tragic shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida 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.  Recently, a 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 that child, but it was now considered to be a potential threat after being viewed through post-Parkland “school safety” lenses.  This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he might say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal.  There are several things about that situation that raise questions, 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 concerns and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats.  We want them to recognize danger when they see it. We also want them to avoid doing things that others may see as dangerous. 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 just about every place except home.  Even if the child is studying a particular time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked. For example: DO NOT speculate 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 other forms of imagination, as well as broader 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, when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary situation, a student can be moved into 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. You may need to remind them of that.

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 must be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any identified disabilities that a child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise the 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 during this type of assessment, 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!

Behavior Intervention Plans should include instruction

When students who have disabilities show a pattern of challenging behavior, schools are encouraged to use positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). PBIS is an approach to addressing behavior and not a specific “program.” Individual PBIS seeks to find reasons for why a behavior is happening so that effective strategies can be identified that will meet the needs of each unique student.

Unfortunately, there are still too many schools that do not promote the use of PBIS. It is not uncommon to find Behavior Intervention Plans (BIP) that focus mainly on how the staff will respond to behaviors after they occur. Many of those schools respond to challenging behavior with things like silent lunches, in and out-of-school suspensions, behavior contracts, shortened school days, etc. All of these strategies seem to assume that the child will improve their behavior on their own in order to avoid punishment. These actions may work once in a while, with some students. However, they are not likely to be effective when the behaviors are directly or indirectly related to a child’s disability.

Many students with disabilities have developmental delays and/or weak skills in certain areas. These skill weaknesses, or deficits, can contribute to challenging behavior in many different ways. Children who cannot clearly communicate their wants and needs experience a lot of frustration, and may even resort to challenging behavior just to get someone’s attention. Children who lack the social skills to have positive interactions with other children or make friends, often experience rejection, anger, loneliness and frustration. They may even become anxious and stressed when they are placed in social situations because they expect something to go wrong. Some children use behaviors to hide academic skill weaknesses because they don’t want to look “dumb.” Other students may act out simply because they don’t know what else to do when they are given assignments that they don’t understand.

Those were just a few examples of ways that skill deficits may play a big role in why a child might have challenging behaviors. In order to create lasting change it is important to help the child improve their skills. The IEP team should consider using instruction as an important proactive way to help prevent challenging behaviors from occurring in the first place.

IEP goals can be written to improve academic and functional skills. Some of these skills will need to be worked on for a long time. For more immediate relief, children may need to learn to use assistive technology or other strategies to help make up for their weak skills. Meanwhile, children can also be taught better ways to handle situations that are difficult for them. They can learn new things to say or do that are more appropriate than what they are currently doing. These “replacement behaviors” will allow the child to meet an immediate need. Children can also be taught self-regulation and coping skills so that they can function better in a world where things are not always going to go the way that they would like. A lot of this instruction can happen during real-life activities that offer teachable moments. Other skills can be taught and practiced at times when the student is not under stress.

When students begin to use the new behaviors, they may get a natural reward such as a positive reaction from another child, or being able to get a desired outcome. Adults should be sure to praise or otherwise encourage the child so that they see the new behavior as something that works for them.

Challenging behaviors often have ripple effects that are mostly negative. Viewing those same behaviors as a sign that the child needs some instruction can lead to positive ripple effects such as  higher self-esteem, better relationships with others and improved school performance.