Why Everyone Should Care about Special Education
Staff shortages, damage from school shutdowns, and inflation have created unsafe conditions in our local schools
People pay attention to special education only when something goes really, really wrong. Like when an autistic kid skips out of unlocked school exit and is lost forever. Or, as happened three weeks ago at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, VA, a 6-year old boy with severe behavioral issues shoots his teacher in the chest with his mom’s handgun.
This tragedy forces us to look at the problems in Richneck Elementary’s procedures for special education. And the problems were legion.
On the day of the shooting, school officials were told three times by staff and students that this boy was carrying around a gun that day AND DID NOTHING. The boy had a well documented disability, but rather than sending this child to a private facility to manage his needs, the school district made the parents accompany him to class every day. School leaders dismissed the teacher’s concerns about the boy’s behavior prior to this incident. The school didn’t have enough aides, and had too many students in the classrooms.
Let’s just pause for second to absorb all that information: Parents were expected to accompany a kid to class. Why? Because the school district didn’t want to pay for a private placement, which would have probably cost them over $100,000 per year. School leaders downplayed a teacher’s serious concerns. Why? Because they didn’t want to pay for this student to get more support in a private school.
Many problems in special education boil down to money. And due to the pandemic, those money problems are tenfold.
After the pandemic, all kids came back with mental health issues. Kids with disabilities, who were even more isolated and neglected than other children during that time, are especially mixed up.
And with all the blah-blah-blah in the press about staff shortages, the real issue isn’t a shortage of AP History teachers. We have too many AP History teachers. The problem is that there aren’t enough special education teachers, substitute teachers, and aides.
After the pandemic, low wage workers in the restaurant and retail industry all got a big raise. Minimum wage, non-unionized, no-benefit workers in your public schools did not. So, many of them wisely decided that fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse for $25 per hour and health insurance was a better gig, and quit their job helping autistic kids color in their shapes.
There have never been enough good special ed teachers, but after the pandemic with disregulated children and staffing issues, they quit, too.
Meanwhile, inflation is killing local school budgets. The new roof on the high school is going to cost triple. The new turf on the football field? Triple that, too. And those pesky parents of the theater kids want a new auditorium.
So, school boards are under pressure to find money. What part of the budget is massive and brings school districts no glory? Special education. So, school leaders find ways to push back at expenses there, including restricting out-of-district placements for the most difficult children.
Due to these budget issues, very complicated, high needs kids, who were sent to private schools in the past, are now down the block at your local school. And remember there’s staff shortage going on, too. Fun times!
This situation is happening at your school, too. It’s happening everywhere. Now, in 99.9999% of cases, those high needs kids aren’t shooting their teacher. But they might be getting restrained. They might be biting staff. They might be neglected, isolated, and treated worse than a dog. That absolutely might be happening. But you probably won’t know about it unless something really bad happens. Odds are that the parents don’t know either.
It’s really terrible that we need tragedies to expose problems and then fix them. Wouldn’t it be much better if people responded to obvious needs, rather than political and legal nightmares? I could write a book (ahem) on all the ways that special education and care for disabled people should be improved. But for the sake of a short newsletter, the first thing we should do is fully fund IDEA. Federal money to local schools would remove Sophie’s Choice decisions that school districts make every year about how to spend local tax dollars.
On my blog, I talk about all my jobs: Nice Ninjas and a Growing Job Portfolio. I took some pictures this week of two big sets of books for my vintage book shop, which continues to be surprisingly profitable. One set has Kipling’s signature. Not bad for books that I bought in a crumbling house in Westchester and were basically free.
Watching: Finished the Crown (meh), but thinking about starting Last of Us later tonight
Weekend Plans: Local pub with Steve and Ian tonight, then cozy night on the sofa. Tomorrow: run, one interview for an article, book stuff, bathroom tile shopping, and tapas with friends at a restaurant along the Hudson. Sunday: church, teach niece about websites and SEO, make pasta and meatball dinner for the extended family.
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