for Persons with Disabilities
The intensity of debate surrounding this issue reflects the fact that public schools are fundamental institutions in our society - institutions that are surrounded by various interests and expectations, and which, today, are operating under tremendous stress. Since the late 1960s, local education authorities in Connecticut have been expected to identify and educate students with disabilities, including students who present behavioral issues. Historically, these students were sent to segregated “special” schools. However, driven partly by efforts to contain costs associated with the rapid increase in numbers of students manifesting both emotional and autism- related disabilities, and partly by growing recognition that, for many of those students, segregated schools were producing very disappointing results, local education systems have increasingly moved toward in-district, neighborhood school placements. Theoretically, placement into one’s own local school alongside neighbors, friends and siblings is optimal: the student benefits from incidental learning that comes from association with non-disabled peers, gains a sense of positive identity as a full community member and emerges better equipped to deal with “real life”. And, theoretically, the school community acquires competencies and develops resources that can benefit all its members.
However, after decades of relying on segregated placements, many local schools are ill-equipped to deal with these students, and transitions have not been well supported. Like many of the other mandates and imperatives to change, including students with behavioral issues seems like just another externally imposed requirement – another “add-on” for schools that are struggling to fulfill their basic mission. When OPA/OCA investigators interviewed Middletown administrators, the administrators stated that the district had previously congregated students with behavioral support needs in a segregated program environment. But, the administrators said, they had been informed by reviewers from the State Department of Education that continuing to do so on a categorical basis violated special education law. While it is unclear what other factors may have contributed to the district’s decision to dismantle that segregated program, merely transplanting students with behavioral support needs to a neighborhood school (along with the same questionable practices that had been employed in the segregated program) ultimately created a state of cognitive dissonance for the neighborhood school’s students and their families. Schools should be places of safety and learning, not places where children can be put into a “scream room” if they become upset. Whether or not a child has an IEP, schools should not be places where adults can put hands on a child and hold her down, or force a child into a small room and then hold the door shut while he cries uncontrollably and bangs on the walls. Creating the alternative – schools that are genuinely competent to include and educate all children - requires committed leaders as well as resources from, and relationships with, the larger community: families, faith based organizations, mental health providers, children’s services and various consultative resources and coaches. To the extent that larger systems (e.g. SDE and DCF) have oversight and policy-setting roles, they too have a responsibility to organize their resources and marshal expertise in support of schools that are struggling. They must engage not only as occasional interpreters of overall policy, reluctant to be seen as interfering with “home rule” or “local autonomy”, but as sources of concrete assistance in the day to day journey of learning.
• The Middletown Public Schools must recognize and acknowledge that seclusion and restraint are not supported by research as sound educational or therapeutic practices, and should not be included in students’ IEPs.
• The Middletown Public Schools must partner with community service providers and foster collaboration so that educational teams have access to consultation and additional resources to support student’ success in school, home and community.