By Liza Long
September 2, 2014

This week, all my friends are posting Facebook and Instagram pictures of their adorable children, whose forced grins and too-neat clothes suggest that the kids aren’t quite as thrilled as their mothers about the inevitable return to school. But for parents of children who have a mental illness or a developmental disability like autism, back-to-school preparation feels more like manning a war room, complete with strategies, maps and complex diagrams. The enemy? Unfortunately, it’s likely to be the very people tasked with helping your child to succeed: his teachers and administrators.

If your child has behavioral symptoms associated with his or her diagnosis, it’s likely that you’ve experienced that painful phone call—probably right in the middle of an important work presentation–unleashing an arsenal of assessments and tests and meetings with teachers, counselors and administrators. The end product is likely either a Section 504 plan, named for that section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or the dreaded Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is essentially a contract with your child’s school to ensure that he or she receives a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Have I lost you with the acronyms yet? Even if you earned your Ph.D. in astrophysics, you may soon discover that getting an appropriate education for your special needs child is harder than rocket science. Parents are forced to become instant experts, not only in the complexities of their child’s condition, but also in disability rights. I hate to break this to you, but the school district is not your ally in this fight for your child’s education. Neither are the parents of so-called neurotypical children, who don’t understand why their children’s learning environment should be disrupted by your “weird kid” (yes, I have heard that phrase more than once about my bright, funny, sensitive boy).

Combine that already adversarial relationship between parents and schools with well-intentioned but misguided zero-tolerance policies, and you find school districts creating IEP solutions like the one they used for my child: pull-out programs for all children on behavioral IEPs, complete with padded isolation rooms. At first glance, this might seem like an ideal solution: the neurotypical kids get to learn without disruptions, and the students with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities have a safe environment with additional dedicated support from teaching assistants. And since it’s a contained program, it saves the district money in the short term—and we all know how thin most school districts are stretched.

But I would suggest there is an uglier word for this approach to education: segregation.

What is the logical consequence of taking 100 students with behavioral and emotional symptoms between the ages of 12 to 21, 95% of whom are male, and putting them together in a program that will not allow them to earn a high school diploma or to learn to interact with neurotypical peers?

In our society, too often the consequence is prison.

Zero-tolerance policies were developed in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shootings as a way to reassure parents that their children were safe in public school. Statistically speaking, they are safe, and they were safe before zero-tolerance policies too. Just like your chances of dying in an airplane crash are far less than the chances of dying in a car accident, we ascribe far more risk to the school environment than actually exists because of the media ever-presence of statistically rare mass shootings like Columbine or Newtown.

But by not integrating children with mental illness, which admittedly sometimes manifests through challenging behavioral symptoms like unpredictable rage, into the general school population, we are contributing to the ongoing stigma of mental illness. Worse, more often than not, we are condemning these children to prison.

Children like my son are not “bad” kids; in fact, with the right support and treatment plan, they can survive and thrive in public school, and beyond. As a society, we should be investing our resources in educating all of our kids. Early prevention and treatment can change the entire course of a child’s life. Instead of a life on the streets or in jail, a child with mental illness can graduate from college and have a successful career. This school year, I hope that parents, teachers, administrators and legislators will do the math. By complying with IDEA and providing appropriate education to all children, we can save money—and lives—down the road.

Liza Long is a mother, educator and author of The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, from Hudson Street Press.

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