The system has already failed a 6-year-old student who shot his teacher in an elementary school in Virginia. But, it is not a tale that only belongs to one kid or even one state.
According to the unnamed child’s family, he has an “acute disability,” and like 7 million other kids in the U.S., he is provided with an education plan made for pupils with disabilities, according to the family’s attorney.
Even though they are legally obligatory and well-intended, those education plans are frequently the focus of disputes where American schools disobey them.
Concerns about the Newport News child’s behavior before the shooting and if the needs for special education were met have come up in media accounts. Many people have found this instance to be an unbearable illustration of school violence.
The child’s family released a statement on behalf of the teacher, saying, “Our heart goes out to our son’s teacher and we hope for her healing amid such an unspeakable tragedy as she tirelessly served our son and the children in the school.”
The series of events in Newport News provides a nationwide window into a more serious issue with special education. In circumstances where teachers, students, and parents must comply with ambiguous directives from school administrators and legislators, teacher shortages, staff who are not trained in best practices and poorly implemented special education plans can all contribute to the escalation of violent behavior and other grave consequences.
First-grader Abigail Zwerner was shot in a first-grade classroom in Newport News using his mother’s rifle. Following a gunshot that left a 25-year-old instructor with serious injuries, some have questioned if major reforms are necessary.
From Florida to California, special education classes are seeing the effects of schools’ failure to serve students with disabilities, often with violent outcomes:
This month, a mother in Arizona complained to the federal government about how her daughter’s needs had been neglected to a dangerous degree. This led to frequent suspensions and a lack of assistance, which caused her child to become increasingly agitated and finally violent toward her instructors.
In 2020, a federal judge in Wisconsin granted $260,000 to a mother whose son, who has ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, and other disabilities, left public school because she claimed his high school teachers were completing assignments for him, lying about his progress, and passing him in classes even though he hadn’t done the work.
One of the biggest school systems in the country, the Fairfax County School Board, is the target of a class action complaint filed in September alleging violations of the rights of disabled students. Documents obtained by American University Radio revealed hundreds of instances in which children as young as 6 were detained or placed in seclusion in rooms without windows. In a separate case, the same school administration declared it had outlawed the practice of isolating students.
During calls for reform, there is concern that punishing aggressive pupils may unfairly punish students with disabilities, according to experts.
According to Kimberly Knackstedt, a former special education teacher and current co-director of the Disability Economic Justice Project at the Century Foundation, “children—who frequently are students with disabilities—are set on a track of essential exclusion.” “They are beginning to be excluded at higher rates. Rates of suspension and expulsion increase.
Advocates claim that because Black and kids of color already get disproportionate amounts of punishment, such measures may particularly harm them.
Few would suggest doing away with all forms of punishment, but they argue that providing teachers with alternatives to suspension and expulsion is a crucial first step.
An IEP is what?
Children with disabilities are given the right to a “free adequate public education,” or FAPE, under the federal People with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was first enacted in 1975 under a different name.
Before the IDEA, it was possible to bar students with impairments from attending public schools. Kids were occasionally kept at home and denied access to education while being institutionalized in subpar conditions.
Schools are required to create Individualized Education Program plans to meet the educational requirements of kids with disabilities, which might include mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and learning problems like dyslexia.
The purpose of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) is to guarantee that children are educated in the “least restrictive environment” and to address the unique, individual requirements of pupils who require special education services.
In court documents, the Wisconsin case claimed that “IEPs must also be implemented properly for them to be effective. A serious breach occurs when an IEP isn’t carried out “federal law on disability.
Students with a history of educational needs shot the teacher
According to James S. Ellenson, a lawyer for the family of the 6-year-old who shot Zwerner, the boy had an IEP.
His parents were supposed to accompany him to school every day as part of his care plan, according to the family’s statement, but during the week leading up to the shooting, they didn’t.
The family stated, “We will regret missing this day for the rest of our lives.”
It is quite unusual, according to Knackstedt and Malhar Shah, staff attorneys at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, that parents accompany a kid to school rather than staff personnel who are provided and trained by the school system.
Due to rules safeguarding student privacy, Michelle Price, a spokeswoman for Newport News schools, was unable to provide any other information about the 6-year-old. Ellenson and Diane Toscano, the lawyer for Zwerner, also declined to provide any additional information.
Knackstedt noted that the episode alludes to more significant issues facing special education even without knowing further specifics.
According to reports from the associated press, Richneck Elementary was not sufficiently addressing the educational requirements of the 6-year-old who shot his teacher which was related to his disability. The lead special education instructor was overworked, the associated press reported, citing unnamed workers and texts received.
According to the associated press, faculty members had previously expressed concerns about the student’s behavior, including the fact that he had previously threatened teachers.
Zwerner’s lawyer said that on the day of the incident, the administration had been informed many times that the boy might have a pistol but had taken no further action despite a search of his backpack yielding no results.
Knackstedt claimed that although something went wrong at Richneck that day, understanding what happened before it is crucial.
“We wouldn’t be in this predicament if we were able to intervene earlier if the school had done something different,” said Knackstedt.
Lacking adequate resources for special education
It is more difficult for instructors to execute their duties and for children with disabilities to obtain the education they are entitled to due to a dearth of special education teachers and a lack of training on crucial behavioral demands like de-escalation and positive support, according to Knackstedt.
Inconsistency in children’s routines, which rely on consistency, can also be brought on by high teacher turnover rates.
According to Knackstedt, who once oversaw domestic policy for the Domestic Policy Council under the Biden administration and led disability policy, it’s “no wonder kids start to have relationship issues with their instructors.” Research suggests that relationships are the most effective way to nurture children all year long.
According to Shah, funding is also a major issue.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities claims that even though Congress pledged to cover up to 40% of the cost of special education when the People with Disabilities Education Act was created, Congress has never come close to meeting that commitment.
Teachers are put in a challenging situation since school districts may not prioritize the necessary assessments and training that they may fight for, according to Shah.
The majority of the time, Shah explained, “school districts don’t have the desire to undertake these things because they cost money and require time.”
Vicki Beatty, a Virginia-based advocate for parents and children in special education, claimed that whereas more resourced schools barely make any effort at all, school districts with comparably fewer resources invest heavily in behavior management.
She claimed that the issue she encounters most frequently is schools creating insufficient IEPs that fail to address the behavior of the students and then expecting them to adhere to standards of conduct regardless of their disability.
Beatty added, “If the child looks the wrong way, they’re suspended.”
Parents claim that struggling children act out when their needs are not met
Children experience “escalation cycles,” especially those with disabilities that make it harder for them to control their emotions. This is how a child becomes upset and dysregulated: from the early warning indicators that arise when a trigger is present to the behavior’s escalating crisis point to the aftermath and restoration to a regulated state.
According to Knackstedt, if a child’s IEP is not being followed, it may lead to disruptive conduct that is not always in their control and cannot be resolved through punishment.
As students progress through their escalation cycle, she predicted, they will eventually stop responding to instructor requests because their brains will eventually be unable to absorb them.
According to a federal complaint made by a mother in Gilbert, Arizona, her daughter’s IEP, or individual education plan, clearly outlined methods of intervention for her kid, but these techniques were not followed, which led to mounting issues and, in the end, violence.
The child, whose name will not be used by the associated press because she is a minor and her parents asked for anonymity out of concern for the school district’s retaliation, has a rare developmental disability that frequently includes difficulty with emotional regulation, which can cause meltdowns that can escalate into violence against herself or others. She’s had spinal operations, breathing problems, and further medical problems in the past, such as a congenital heart abnormality.
According to her suspension report, she struck a teacher in the eye, breaking his spectacles and causing blood, and grabbed the face of another adult, breaking that person’s glasses as well, during last fall’s five-day suspension from her school in the Chandler Unified School District.
The eighth-grade student, who is 13 years old, no longer wants to attend school. She frequently complains to her mother about how unfair her teachers are “I get no assistance. I constantly have problems.”
Her mother said it’s a stark contrast to the young girl she used to be. She used to like going to school, being friendly with other students, giving hugs, and trying to win over her professors.
The distinction? According to her mother, who gave the Associated Press thousands of pages of records detailing her child’s academic record and disciplinary charges against her, her education and behavior plans used to be followed; today, they aren’t.
The Chandler Unified School District’s Stephanie Ingersoll said in a statement that school districts throughout the country are dealing with special education difficulties. According to Ingersoll, privacy regulations forbade criticism of particular students.
“The Chandler Unified School District is dedicated to every student’s academic success. To help every CUSD kid succeed, we use positive behavioral interventions and multi-tiered support systems “explained Ingersoll.
Her mother says the key for her is to keep her involved in her education and to avoid escalation and stress. Her family’s educational plan, which they shared with the media, places a strong emphasis on prevention. It contains recommendations like speaking to her in a calm voice, giving her clear instructions and expectations and making little eye contact. According to the proposal, people should “give her space” if prevention doesn’t work.
Adults are instructed to remove their glasses, jewelry, and hair accessories right away because they are triggers for the behavior if the situation escalates.
Her mother said the suspension unfairly punished her daughter for her disability in a recent complaint to the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education.
Her mother remarked, “She’s being suspended because of behavior that we had predicted would occur and could have been avoided.”
Ways that schools can stop violence
Schools should attempt to prevent students from escalating situations and should improve teacher training on de-escalation strategies to reduce violence and other disruptive conduct.
According to Shah, one issue that frequently causes behavior to worsen is when schools stick with their behavior programs even though their current interventions are ineffective.
The more you disregard disability-related behaviors, particularly the harmful ones, the more likely it is that the pupils will continue to engage in them, according to Shah.
According to Knackstedt, the school should have provided staff training on subjects like de-escalation and mental health, implemented a behavior intervention plan, or created new positive behavioral strategies if teachers at Richneck Elementary School had expressed concerns about the 6-year behavior. old’s
About the existence of any preventative measures, Price, the spokeswoman for the Newport News district, remained silent.
Changing the way you view school discipline
Following the shooting, parents, school personnel, and other community members expressed their dissatisfaction about the lack of consideration given to staff members’ concerns. Some people claimed that the school system placed an unfortunate emphasis on keeping students in classes, even when they behaved aggressively to maintain attendance appearances.
Because behavior in an escalating condition is frequently “involuntary,” according to Shah, removal and other punitive measures are ineffective because pupils are unable to understand that the consequences are being meted out later to deter them from the immediate behavior.
In response to severe retaliation for his disability-related behavior, Joana Rigo, a daycare provider in Brooklyn, Michigan, recently withdrew her sixth-grade son from in-person instruction. According to her, he ended up spending the majority of the day sitting in the hallway and stopped eating at school.
Rigo claimed that the staff at Columbia Upper Elementary was preventing her son from taking the breaks from class that his IEP allowed him to when he was overwhelmed in an Office for Civil Rights complaint that was examined by the Associated Press. She claimed that a staff member at the school had grabbed his hand and ordered him to put the phone down as he was trying to call Rigo, another accommodation he was meant to receive to help him cope. She claimed that when he attempted to advocate for himself, he was called “disrespectful.”
The superintendent of the Columbia School District, Pamela Campbell, told the press in a statement that the organization rejects Rigo’s claims and is cooperating with an investigation into her complaint. She declined to go further, citing privacy regulations.
According to federal and state law, Campbell said, “The Columbia School District does not discriminate against kids with disabilities and aims to provide a free suitable public education to all eligible students.”
Rigo cried out, “What they are doing is wrong. “They are harming a child’s mental health and sense of self-worth who hasn’t done anything wrong but is being labeled as a problem.”