Response to RTD Editorial on Students w/ Autism
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
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Legal Aid Justice Center Responds to Richmond Times-Dispatch Editorial on Students with Autism
Richmond, Virginia (November 30, 2018) – In response to the recent Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial on children with autism, the Legal Aid Justice Center makes the following statement:
The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial, “Bring more light to decisions about autism and the classroom,” evokes a much darker time in Virginia’s history: when we routinely separated children with disabilities from their families and peers and placed them in institutions. Whether they were called orphanages, state hospitals, or group homes, these facilities segregated and secluded children with disabilities, offered little education, and were breeding grounds for physical and emotional abuse. Prior to the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) in 1975, millions of children with disabilities in the United States had no access to public education, and unsafe institutions were the norm.
Provision of a public education to children with autism is not “special treatment”—it’s the law. The IDEA and its progeny of court cases guarantee children with disabilities the right to receive a free, public education tailored to their individual needs. The IDEA requires public schools to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment: to the maximum extent possible, these children must be educated alongside other children without disabilities. The law recognizes that all children benefit when they learn in an integrated, diverse environment.
Children with autism—like all children—are not a monolithic population, nor are the behaviors associated with autism categorically disruptive or indicative of the need for removal from a classroom. And the notion that classrooms are ever pristinely “free from interruption” such that students with autism or other disabilities are exacting a cost on others is a harmful myth. Children can be disruptive in classrooms for a variety of reasons that run the gamut from hunger to trauma to academic frustration to just a simple bad mood. As we noted in our Suspended Progress 2018 report, exclusionary discipline—using access to education as a form of punishment—is harmful and self-defeating. The Virginia Department of Education and many local school divisions are rightly turning to root-cause disciplinary interventions, recognizing that behavior is a symptom, and that student accountability doesn’t have to mean punishment or exclusion. They should be commended for taking this research-driven, goal-oriented direction—which does include methods such as restorative practices, an optional tool that many divisions already implement with great success.
Budgetary stress in Virginia’s public schools is not the fault of children with autism or any other child who enters the schoolhouse with unique educational needs. Instead, we have only ourselves to blame. Virginia’s schools have been strapped for cash for decades, while student needs and the Commonwealth’s performance expectations continue to increase. In 2009, the General Assembly slashed funding for school support positions by implementing an arbitrary cap on the amount of state dollars that go toward funding school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other vital positions. The Virginia Board of Education has recommended more than one billion dollars per biennium in additional funding just to meet minimum educational standards for all children, whether they come to school with disabilities or not.
Compassion and understanding are not zero-sum goals. Education is not a gift we choose to bestow upon children with autism if we decide the “tradeoffs” are worth it. And we are not mainstreaming students with disabilities by assuring their access to education in the least restrictive environment. Students with disabilities—including autism—are the mainstream, as are other children with unique educational needs—like economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, and students dealing with trauma. Every child in our schools is brimming with potential, with so much to teach one another.
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, worker’s rights, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance.