Articles in the Special Education category

The week in blogs

stockvault_4799_20070301Fall is coming: A new season awaits. The players are bigger, stronger, tougher than ever.  It all leads, inevitably, to a critically important question: To get an edge on the competition, should you consider redshirting ……your kindergartner?

I confess to being behind the times. Because while I was aware of parents keeping their just-kindergarten-age children at home for another year of maturing, I didn’t know there was a name for it – same as the name for a standard practice at Ohio State and the University of Georgia. But there is, and you can see it right here on that encyclopedia of record for the Internet age, Wikipedia.

I mention redshirting – kindergarten redshirting – because there was a lively discussion of it on the web after USA Today reported on new research showing that children who are the youngest in their class are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest. In other words, it appears that mere immaturity is being misdiagnosed as a learning disability.

A lively debate about whether parents should “redshirt” boys is summarized on Joanne Jacobs’ blog, Linking and Thinking on Education.

Want more debates? How about one on whether President Obama has, in the words of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “taken the worst aspects of Bush’s No Child Left Behind law – an obsession with testing – and amplified it.” That drew immediate fire from his colleague Jay Mathews, and by John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress.

Nothing like a few good Internet debates to liven up the Dog Days of Summer.

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Lawrence Hardy|August 20th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Educational Research, Governance, Policy Formation, Special Education, Student Achievement|

Teacher of the Year shares his streetwise view

In his 20 years as a New York City cop, some of it serving within the gang unit, Anthony Mullen crossed the paths of area youth many times. And what he saw worried him so much he decided to pursue a second career as a teacher so that he could be at the front end of these tragic cases and hopefully change the outcomes.

But as a husband and father of three, going to school and working full-time took its toll, and after a year of doing both, he was on the verge of quitting the masters program.

“I was physically and mentally exhausted and I told my wife I can’t do this and she said, ‘Don’t make any hasty decisions, why don’t you sleep on it,’” Mullen said. “And I’m glad she did because later that night [the police station] got a call.” 

A 15-year-old girl was perched at the top of a fire escape, screaming down to a gathering crowd. Mullen raced to the scene, climbed the stairs, and squeezed through the window to join the girl on the deck.

“I remember telling this young lady she was beautiful, and she had a whole life ahead of her, and I was just about to tell her something else when she jumped,” Mullen said, who dove to catch the girl. With quick work from Mullen and  his partner, she was safely rescued–though, in truth, she rescued him, too.

“I saw her later on the street, and she was with a group of her friends, listening to music, and I realized we had each given each other something special that night … she’d given me the energy to finish my degree because I knew that’s what teaching was all about,” said Mullen, who has taught special needs students for the past nine years and was named the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.

He shared his street-level perspective and success in working with young people in crisis with a packed crowd Sunday afternoon.

For the past seven years, Mullen has worked at an alternative school in Greenwich, Conn., a school where the kids arrive angry, bitter and intent on dropping out. In fact, according to statistics, a student leaves school every 26 seconds and by the end of his session, more than 150 students will have dropped out, Mullen said.

Reversing this trend requires a paradigm shift from teachers and administrators, he said. One of the most important changes is realizing that unless the social and emotional needs of children are addressed, academic achievement will be impeded, because they are all intertwined.

“When I first started at my school, I saw nothing but chaos and behavioral problems and yet I saw teachers just handing out worksheets and I remember one teacher telling me ‘This is what [the students] want,’” Mullen said. “So I said, ‘Do you have any other tips?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, if you want three back, assign five.”

Clearly, this was just busy work and not the kind of academic intervention these kids needed, he said. Not only has that changed, but students and their parents or guardian have a meeting with teachers every six weeks.

Yet, instead of this being view as a burden or onerous, students actually look forward to these conferences because they are not structured and are meant to be enlightening instead of confrontational.

“It’s a meeting about them, and you’d be surprised what they bring up at this meeting and what they let us know … because we’ve created a safe haven,” Mullen said. “Research has shown that students don’t say they drop out because it’s too academically challenging. They tell us time and time again, they left because nobody cared, nobody paid attention to whether they showed up or not. Whether that’s real or perceived is irrelevant.”

Naomi Dillon|April 11th, 2010|Categories: NSBA Annual Conference 2010, School Board News, Special Education, Student Achievement, Teachers, Wellness|

Hot law topics include two Supreme Court cases

Several recent Supreme Court cases and Circuit Court opinions will impact school districts, NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron said in a session today on hot law topics.

NSBA’s Office of General Counsel is following two Supreme Court cases this session—both of which will be argued on April 19.

NSBA has filed a brief in City of Ontario v. Quon, which is not a school-law case but could impact school officials’ rights on monitoring employee communications, particularly in the emerging area of electronic communications. The case centers on a city’s action to search employees’ pagers for text messages, where a search of one employee’s device showed numerous sexually explicit and personal messages.

District officials need the authority to search work-issued electronic devices in certain cases, given that the information could impact students’ education environments and safety.

“We want the Court to understand the realities of the school district workplace,” Negron said.

NSBA also is supporting Hastings College of Law, in San Francisco, which withheld recognition to a Christian student group that denies full voting membership to homosexuals, nonbelievers, and others whom the group says follow “a sexually immoral lifestyle.” NSBA’s brief states that Hastings’ law school did not violate the group’s First Amendment rights.

The case impacts school districts because they need the authority to regulate student groups and extracurricular activities, as those are integral to K-12 education, NSBA says.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a lower court decision on the topic of special education attorney fees. In El Paso Independent School District v. Richard R., the school district agreed to provide a student with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder additional services to end a lawsuit brought by the student and his family. However, the student continued the lawsuit to obtain a court judgment for the services and wanted the school district to pay his attorney fees.

After an initial ruling that said the student’s demand was acceptable because a “private settlement” would not be enforceable in state and federal courts, the 5th Circuit ruled that the student had violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which favors cooperative and early resolution of disputes, by prolonging the lawsuit.

“This was a good decision,” Negron said.

Another decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed a Washington school district’s rights to ban religious songs during school ceremonies after a student asked to perform Ave Maria at a high school graduation. The decision concluded that the school’s prohibition against the performance as part of its effort to keep all musical performances at graduation entirely secular was reasonable and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Negron also spoke on the recently announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. The Obama administration will certainly replace Stevens with a like-minded, liberal leaning justice, who would not significantly alter composition of the court, he said.

But what’s more likely to impact the court is the fact that Stevens, who was appointed by President Ford in 1975, was the most senior-level justice and was instrumental in writing opinions or choosing the justice to write the opinion.

Joetta Sack-Min|April 10th, 2010|Categories: NSBA Annual Conference 2010, School Board News, School Law, Special Education|

Use of restraint and seclusion questioned

It’s not an easy topic to discuss, but the use of physical restraints or seclusion to control or discipline violent students with disabilities is an issue that school districts and their legal staff must plan proactively.

That was the advice of a panel of lawyers and special education experts who presented a workshop for members of NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys today.

“This is increasingly a very important and timely issue—there are incidents every day throughout the country,” said Edward Sullivan, a partner with the Baker & Daniels law firm in South Bend, Ind. He added, “There are high costs to failing to do it right, certainly the costs on students and families, their relationships with schools, public relations with the community, staff morale, and the costs of litigation.”

Last year, a report by the federal General Accounting Office found hundreds of cases where students with disabilities were injured, emotionally traumatized, or in a handful of instances, killed while being improperly restrained by teachers or other school staff. The report provoked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and federal lawmakers to call for more monitoring of these incidents.

Sullivan noted that research and data show that intensive restraint holds and seclusion rooms do not work. Instead, teachers and staff should focus on using restraints only in emergency situations, if the student or classmates and staff may be injured.

Legislation passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and under consideration in the Senate would alter school officials’ rights to prescribe a restraint within a students’ individualized education plan. Currently, courts have tended to protect school officials from legal actions by parents and students if the IEP includes such means.

With an IEP, schools have assurance that the parent or guardian would allow the disciplinary actions and that the teacher would have training in performing a restraint, added Mary Jo Dare, a senior advisor at B&D Consulting and former special education director.

The bill, which passed the House after several emotionally charged hearings, would state that restraints can be used only if a student or peers were in imminent danger of physical injury and if less intrusive means would not work. It also would ban mechanical devices and require school staff to be trained in proper methods of restraint and prevention. Although NSBA is supporting the bill, which also has been endorsed by a long list of education, civil rights, and disability groups, there are concerns about the IEP provisions as well as funding for the new data and training requirements.

One issue, Dare said, is that currently “99 percent of training is on how to avoid the need for restraints.” Instead, school officials should look at positive behavioral supports that impact the entire school culture.

Such supports “help eliminate a large percentage of discipline issues,” she said. Those make sure schools know how to analyze behavior, and will be better to understand the root of the problem and respond with a less intrusive support.

Read more on the issue of restraints and seclusion in special education in the March issue of American School Board Journal.

Joetta Sack-Min|April 9th, 2010|Categories: NSBA Annual Conference 2010, School Board News, School Law, Special Education, Student Achievement|

Webinar helps educators understand autism

The rising number of students with autism is impacting schools across the country, but new resources are available to help school boards and school staff members work with these children to help them cope with educational and social challenges.

NSBA’s National Affiliate program held a webinar, “The Key is Leadership: Success in School for Students with Autism,” cosponsored by Autism Speaks and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, to help school officials understand the disability.

The rates of autism have risen exponentially in the past 20 years, and now one in 110 children, and one in 70 boys, have been diagnosed with the neurological disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Part of the reason for the increase is that pediatricians and school staff have become much more aware of the symptoms, which include social difficulties, communication challenges, and repetitive or odd behaviors.

The condition presents itself differently in each person, and each person acts and learns in different ways, noted Lisa Goring, the director of family services with Autism Speaks, an advocacy and educational group. “It’s often said if you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism,” she said.

The condition impacts a students’ schoolwork through their processing of concepts and behavioral disabilities. The challenge for schools is figuring out ways to work with their learning patterns. One example shown was a child who was offered pretzels, an apple, or graham crackers for a snack. The teacher always presented the options in that order and the boy always chose graham crackers, but he was usually unhappy and threw out his snack. A developmental specialist realized that the boy could not remember the choices and always chose the one that was presented last—so instead she showed pictures of each snack and the boy learned to choose the pretzels.

Like other disabilities, early detection and intervention is crucial to success—educators need to have a student evaluated if they suspect a developmental delay or specific sign of autism.

Another important factor for school officials to consider is the acceptance of the student with autism among their peers, said Peter Faustino, the school psychologist at Fox Lane Middle School in Bedford, N.Y. His school has set up a peer-buddy system to help students with autism better integrate into regular classes and socialize with their nondisabled peers. The program has also helped the other students empathize and accept the students with autism.

The Bedford school district also integrates information about autism into its professional development for teachers and administrators, who have been very receptive to the training, Faustino said.

“Autism can be looked at as another culture that we are trying to integrate into the school,” he said.

Autism Speaks offers a free kit to educators and advice on working with parents to provide a better educational experience, including a video, which can be downloaded at

This webinar, including the video, PowerPoint presentations, and additional resources, will be archived at

Joetta Sack-Min|March 24th, 2010|Categories: Curriculum, School Board News, School Boards, Special Education, Student Achievement, Teachers|

Keeping all students safe

Photo courtesy Stockvault

Photo courtesy Stockvault

Special education is one of the most complicated, misunderstood, and underreported facets of K-12 education. And for journalists, the factors that make special education topics so compelling—the emotions, the politics, and the money (lots of money)—are the same issues that give school board members angst.

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act (formerly the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act),

 H.R. 4247, a bill that would mandate states and districts to monitor the use of restraints and seclusion or isolation in all classrooms, report actions to parents, and provide better training for teachers.

The bill is strongly supported by the disability community, but also by education groups including NSBA and the American Federation of Teachers, who typically advocate for local control for school officials on such issues. In spite of this endorsement, quite a few school board members are concerned—and rightly so–that this bill would lead to another unfunded mandate and paperwork for their districts.

Naomi Dillon|March 15th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation, Special Education|Tags: , , |

Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds

In her recent TED talk, Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, tells us how her mind works. She gives an overview of how people on the autism spectrum think and makes the case that the world needs those people: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids. She describes autism as “a continuum of traits. When does a nerd turn into Asperger’s, which is just mild autism? I mean Einstein and Mozart and Tesla, would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today.”

Grandin advocates that people on the autism spectrum need to be encouraged in school. The standardized testing scheme of the No Child Left Behind Act simply doesn’t work for neuroatypicals as she calls them. This is just one reason why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is important to our education system. One-size-fits-all is not an educational policy that will work for neuroatypicals. Individualized Education Programs (IEP) can do wonders for such students. 

More importantly, Grandin is not arguing that autistic students need such flexibility for their own interests alone; she contends that we as a society need these kids. The wonders to be found in the neuroatypical mind could be key to solving future problems.

Grandin also speaks her mind on certain education reforms. She advocates the need for classroom teachers who can teach a subject well, but who don’t necessarily have education degrees:

 And this brings up mentors. You know, my science teacher was not an accredited teacher. He was a NASA space scientist. Now, some states now are getting it to where if you have a degree in biology, or a degree in chemistry, you can come into the school and teach biology or chemistry. We need to be doing that. Because what I’m observing is the good teachers, for a lot of these kids, are out in the community colleges.

Mentorship is certainly an idea BoardBuzz can get behind. There are undoubtedly many bright young minds that just need the right mentor to help them find their talent and develop that potential. Grandin called on the TED audience to think about mentoring and hiring those kids.

She also joked that Silicon Valley would not exist today if it weren’t for those geeky neuroatypical minds, which drew a big laugh from the techie crowd. And she suggested that this next generation of kids with autism, properly mentored and motivated, could solve the world’s energy problems.

“The world needs different kinds of minds to work together,” she said. Check out the Ted Talk below or at the link above.

Erin Walsh|March 5th, 2010|Categories: Educational Legislation, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Special Education, Student Achievement, Teachers|

Overuse of restraints in special education

More than a year ago, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., head of the House Labor and Education Committee, began probing the use of seclusion and restraints in special education classrooms. At the time, those acts seemed to be rare and isolated.

But new research has, unfortunately, proved otherwise.

Not only are many schools and teachers frequently and improperly using those methods to punish students—sometimes for seemingly trivial behavioral issues— but also a handful of incidents have resulted in students’ deaths. And state and federal policies are lax in addressing the issue, which can leave districts unable to fire abusive teachers or reprimand inappropriate acts.  

In a story for the March ASBJ, I spoke to researcher Joseph B. Ryan, who was concerned about the training teachers are receiving. As part of a study that was used by Miller’s staff, he interviewed teachers and found that many had only received training on how to restrain, not when. Others, when asked about the prevalence of the use of restraints, cited policies and school rules, but when he examined incidence reports he found that the use of restraints was much more widespread than they acknowledged.

“It becomes a cultural situation—this is why parents and advocates are up in arms,” he said. “It’s an inappropriate response in the majority of times staff use it.”

Miller’s bill – which was passed by the House committee by a vote of 34 to 10 earlier this month — would create minimum safety standards for schools and require states to set and enforce policies. It prohibits a number of types of restraints deemed dangerous and requires schools to notify parents of incidents and report data to the U.S. Department of Education.

Since the story was published, NSBA has given another resounding endorsement to the measure.

“We believe that this legislation will meet our safety and other goals for students and school personnel while providing sufficient authority and flexibility to schools and school districts in training school personnel based on their unique needs,” NSBA associate executive director Michael A. Resnick wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to Rep. Miller. “The legislation is strategic and balanced in dealing with such factors as training, prohibiting the use of certain practices, and promoting positive learning supports.”

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|February 17th, 2010|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, NSBA Publications, Special Education, Teachers|

Sen. Collins Receives Award From NSBA

Last year, as state governments confronted huge budget shortfalls in the face of a national economic meltdown, it was clear to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that the federal stimulus package under consideration needed money set aside specifically for public education.

“I cannot imagine what the state of our schools would have been without [that] money,” she told attendees during Monday’s Congressional Awards Luncheon at NSBA’s Annual Federal Relations Network Conference.

Collins, who was presented with an award of special recognition for her efforts in passing last year’s American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, offered some insight into the “extremely difficult” negotiations on the stimulus package that sometimes ran “deep into the night.”

The weeks that went into crafting the package were well spent, she said. In hard economic times “it is absolutely critical that the federal government provide relief to states . . . to help them avoid draconian cuts to critical education programs and prevent the loss of thousands of positions.”

Although she and a colleague lobbied for even more education money, Collins said, the final stimulus package still represented a solid investment in the nation’s schools—more than $90 billion.

Of that, she said, she was particularly pleased that $12.2 billion was set aside for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“I fought particularly hard for more education money for special education programs, as [IDEA] is the granddaddy of all federal mandates,” she said, earning a round of applause.

Collins said putting more money into IDEA was only right. “I personally believe it’s essential that Congress fulfill the promise that was made in the 1970s, when it first passed IDEA, and that was for the federal government to pay 40 percent” of the mandate’s cost. “Think what a difference that would make.”

Now the fight for education funding turns to the fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which looks to boost education funding by $3 billion, she said.

As they prepared to head to Capitol Hill the next day to meet their elected representatives, conference attendees were encouraged by Collins to make their opinions known.  “You’re the ones on the front lines,” she said.

She should know. Over the years, she said, both her mother and younger brother had served on their local school boards.

“I know first-hand how important your service is,” she said, “and I understand very well how challenging it is, particular when you’re faced with such difficult economic times.”

Also recognized by NSBA’s Federal Relations Network for their outstanding service to public education in 2009 were Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.).

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Del Stover|February 1st, 2010|Categories: Educational Finance, Educational Legislation, FRN Conference 2010, School Board News, School Boards, Special Education|Tags: |

Let every service dog have its day

MSNBC reports today that an Illinois public school district is refusing to let a six-year-old autistic student “bring his yellow Labrador retriever, Chewey, to school.”  Apparently, Chewey is a service dog that helps the student with the emotional challenges faced by some children with autism.  “The dogs are trained to be a calming influence, providing a constant between home, school and other new places.”  Experts argue that this is essential in the case of children with autism, many of whom act out, because they “have trouble with changes in their environment.” Beyond, their ability to stem negative behaviors, the dogs can also help avoid physical danger.

For instance, sometimes as “in [this student's] case, the dogs are tethered to children to prevent them from running off in dangerous situations.”

So, what’s the school district’s beef?  According to reports, the school says it is already providing adequate services and claims the dog is simply “a companion or comfort dog, not a true service dog.”  BoardBuzz is confused.  If the dog helps control the kinds of acting out that prevents a student from learning and may help prevent a child from walking off into traffic, how is this animal not a “true service dog?”  Moreover, isn’t the calming influence and its resulting ability to focus the kind of educational benefit the school district would welcome?  BoardBuzz doesn’t want to second-guess the district’s decision.  After all, there may be more to this pooch than meets the, er, fur?  For instance, the district may have had a concern about allergies, about the dog’s training, or even about the potential distraction an animal in the classroom might be, especially given the young age of these elementary school children. 

What BoardBuzz does know is that an outright ban on assistance animals, even those that aid students with autism, serves neither the school nor the student.

Christina Gordon|August 24th, 2009|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Security, Special Education, Student Achievement, Wellness|
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