If you have kids or relatives with kids, you know that all kids act out or misbehave — including children who have special needs or disabilities.
Unfortunately, often these same kids who struggle in school also have challenges that can affect their behavior. At their wits’ end, school administrators push children who actually need more niche instruction, therapy, and an extra dose of grace, toward disciplinary proceedings and even juvenile detention centers, where they get worse.
Since 2017, Fort Worth-area schools have referred a total of 3,443 students to the Tarrant County Juvenile Detention Center — these kids were either charged or arrested for a school-related incident. Yet Bennie Medlin, director of Juvenile Services in Tarrant County, believes approximately half of the children held at the Tarrant County Juvenile Detention Center have some form of mental health or developmental diagnosis — including, but not limited to, dyslexia, autism, and more.
Data backs Medlin up. This phenomenon known as the special education “school-to-prison pipeline” means that students with disabilities make up just 12 percent of high school students nationwide, but represent 75 percent of students restrained.
In 2018-19, the number of students who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.1 million or 14 percent of all public school students. Students who qualify under IDEA are usually given an Individualized Education Program or Plan, known as an IEP.
The percentage of kids in juvenile corrections who have disabilities is at least three times greater than the percentage of kids in public schools with them. By the time they get to a juvenile detention center, only 37 percent will get the support they need via IDEA.
We need to do better for our kids who are struggling. All students must be safe in school and have the same opportunities to learn.
Parents who have children with disabilities must hold schools accountable and demand transparency. If school districts are slow to test children for an IEP and parents think their child needs one, they must pressure them to speed up. Teachers and parents need to work together to determine if their child is eligible for IDEA and then work towards an IEP. This is key.
According to Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, “If there are behavioral challenges, these could be signs that the school did not create and/or implement the IEP correctly. If a child with an IEP has a disciplinary removal from the class (suspension, expulsion or the contacting of law enforcement) and that behavior is a manifestation of the student’s disability, then the IEP needs to be revised to include behavior analysis and a subsequent behavior plan.”
Many children with disabilities escalate in “bad” behavior over small things that happen because their IEP was not followed to the letter. Parents and school administrators must stress the importance of following this.
To that end, if school administrators see there are not enough teachers and resources available in their schools to adequately address the needs of children with disabilities, the school board should cut funds in programs that are inefficient or unnecessary and reallocate funds to these programs. They should, bolster IEP teacher’s training and ensure they are aware of the importance of following the IEP and how to de-escalate small problems before they grow.
One of the reasons so many children with disabilities seem to be sent to juvenile detention centers is that they are charged over small grievances and their discipline is disproportionate to their crime. Trying to break a pencil in half is not a reason any student should go to a juvenile correction center. School boards must reevaluate their list of grievances and related punitive measures to ensure the crime and punishment correlate.
Schools also must change their accountability measures: Whether a student with a disability receives an education or a jail sentence appears to often come down to one teacher’s perception of incidents. The kind of assault that lands someone in a hospital is applied to a child who hit a teacher who was goading her on. One-size-fits-all labels and indictments meant for adults should not work for most children who are acting out due to a disability.
Finally, parents should not hesitate to seek funding in the form of grants or scholarships to either send their child to a school just for children with disabilities, or for additional after-school therapy that may help the child during the school day. In Texas, there may be charter schools that can utilize private grants and financial aid designated just for this use.
All children deserve the same opportunities in school to be safe and to learn. We must continue to help the children with special education needs before they are sent to correction centers, where their struggle will continue.