The Special-Education Charade

I am in hell—or its equivalent. Specifically, I am in an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) meeting for my 14-year-old daughter, a special-education student in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Sitting across from me is an educator who is describing one option that she says would be a great place for my daughter to attend ninth grade: a program at one of the county’s lower-performing public high schools for adolescents who have emotional disabilities or autism. (My daughter has ADHD, an auditory processing disorder, and some major anxiety issues, but she does not have autism and does not qualify as “emotionally disabled.”) Another option is a school for kids with language-based learning disorders. My daughter’s reading comprehension and vocabulary skills are ranked as “very superior,” according to the county’s own psychological testing; her learning issues center on math.

All this leaves us one more option: a school in Baltimore for college-bound kids with a variety of learning disabilities. That could be a possibility—but today is July 7. School starts in six weeks. Even if all the paperwork gets processed this week—and often this kind of thing takes a month or more, because there are so many special-education kids and so few special-education caseworkers—my husband and I would still be making the momentous choice of where to send our daughter to high school under deadline pressure, without the benefit of visiting the school when its students were actually there. School visits should have happened last spring, except there was a mixup with her paperwork, and these bureaucratic mistakes can take forever to rectify. But playing the blame game at this point just uses up time, which is what we don’t have. So here I sit, stifling my mounting rage with what I hope is a poker face.

How My Autistic Son Got Lost in the Public School System

Federal laws exist to protect kids like mine: specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). All state that children with disabilities have the same right to a “free and appropriate public education” as any other child. Lots of people think the ADA and the IDEA exist to protect youngsters who are blind, or who have cerebral palsy or autism or other cognitive delays—the kind of things most people think of when they see the word “disabled.” And that’s true. But the laws also exist for kids like mine with invisible disabilities, including very bright students whose learning disabilities create huge disparities between their math and their verbal skills. In educational parlance, these are known as “twice-exceptional” students, or—sometimes—GSLN, for Gifted Students with Learning Needs. (The world of public education seems to have more acronyms than NASA.)

A child who simply needs certain accommodations in the classroom is covered under the ADA with what’s known as a 504 Plan. The idea is that with a little help organizing his schoolwork or a few minutes more to finish a test, the child will be able to succeed in the same environment as his peers, the same way a hard-of-hearing student might simply need a hearing aid. The other law, IDEA, gives students with more significant disabilities the right to specialized instruction, as outlined under the IEP. That could mean anything from a pull-out class period devoted to individual tutoring, a designated classroom aide for the whole school day, or assignment to a school dedicated to special education students. Having an IEP can also mean the stigma of being picked up at home by the “short bus,” and many parents will do anything to avoid it.

the problems faced by twice-exceptional kids in today’s increasingly regimented and test-driven public-school classrooms. Some teachers recognize their differences but lack the training or the time to alter their teaching methods; others just assume that a child who is smart in one area is simply being lazy or obstructionist by not being smart in another. The emotional toll exacted on a child who is told that his repeated failures are his own fault can be high. After three years at an elementary school where she was constantly told that she “just needed to focus,” my daughter collapsed to the floor one night sobbing. She’d spent two hours on homework and still wasn’t finished, but I told her she was done. “I’m not done! I’m not done!” she wailed. “There’s always something else, and I never know what it’s going to be!” One day I found bloody Kleenxes stuffed between the mattress and the wall, which made me suspect she was cutting herself. Maybe she was suicidally depressed. She was 10.   

It’s not uncommon for twice-exceptional kids to fall apart in middle school. Up until then, many may have been able to fake success, but the demands of more classes, more homework, and a more challenging social environment can overwhelm them. Maybe the child has been spending hours on what should have been 30 minutes of homework, maybe he has begun to refer to himself as “stupidhead,” maybe he is reduced to tears three nights a week by Algebra 101 or essay assignments—but often all the school sees is a C student who “isn’t living up to his potential.”

At that point, even if parents ask the school to do some testing, they may meet resistance: Testing is expensive and time-consuming, campus psychologists are spread very thin, and schools are under pressure to put fewer kids in special education, in the name of “mainstreaming,” not more. So the parents often end up resorting to private testing, which can run as high as $2,000 and is seldom covered by insurance. Or they may simply stop and wait for their kid to flunk math, at which point the school will be forced to come up with some kind of plan—an approach called “waiting to fail.” In recent years, this approach has been supplanted by a more humane educational tactic called “response to intervention,” which is a fancy way of saying “tackling these problems early with specialized instruction.” But theories don’t always survive the collision with the reality: general-education teachers who are overworked, stressed, and under-trained in the discipline techniques that are most effective with kids whose brains are wired differently. As somebody (sadly, probably not Yogi Berra) once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

pilot programs here and there, there are small seeds of change. Those could take a generation to flower, and for parents like me the wait may seem more like a couple of centuries. Time passes slowly when you’re in an IEP meeting. Childhood doesn’t wait.