It’s easy to mark the troublesome students in class as, well, troublesome and punish them as such.
Johnny, for example, is always talking in class. He talks over the teacher, he interrupts the students. His behavior is disruptive, so the easy solution is to throw him out of the classroom, right?
But what if Johnny has undetected autism? Or what if Amanda, who often skips class, is struggling with anxiety due to trauma at home?
As a high school special education teacher, Lee Robbins saw how such students were not receiving the academic and behavioral supports they needed, and as a consequence, they often fell victim to school discipline and even academic failure (students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of school suspension!). She went to law school with the mission of securing educational rights for students with disabilities, and is currently making a splash at Equip for Equality as a CBF-sponsored Equal Justice Works Fellow.
Lee’s two-year fellowship at Equip focuses on providing representation and outreach to low-income elementary school-age children with mental health needs and ensuring they receive the services they are entitled to in order to succeed in school. Her clients’ needs run the gamut of mental health, including ADHD, Asperger’s, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. In low-income areas, up to 50 percent of Illinois students face emotional or behavioral issues that impact their educational performance.
There’s still a real stigma around mental illness and these kids, she said. Their disability manifests by them acting out in school, and they’re just being viewed or treated as bad kids.
A student with disabilities is eligible to receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a legally-binding document outlining the additional supports he or she needs to access the education at school. Such supports can be as simple as extra time for test taking or having an entirely different curriculum drawn up. A behavior intervention plan can also be put into place as part of an IEP which could include social/emotional support and social services in the school.
There are many kids in our education system that have all the potential in the world, but are unfortunately not receiving the special education services that they need, Lee continued.
Over the last six months, Lee has worked with over 50 families with children with mental health needs and provided legal representation through special education due process hearings and school discipline hearings. She also supports families in advocating at school-based meetings or on their own. Currently, Lee is focusing on creating more partnerships with community-based mental health organizations to develop referral relationships as well as provide training in order to increase the impact of her project.
Much of Lee’s advocacy work with families is in the spirit of recent reforms around school discipline, like moving away from zero-tolerance policies and towards positive behavior intervention. She’s seeing that people are thinking more critically about how to support a child before crisis. We encourage school districts to not give up on these children, not let them fall through the cracks. Lee hopes that by changing the mindset, a child’s disability can be addressed with compassion instead of punitive measures.
Helping a family out of a crisis period and having the student enjoy school again is Lee’s greatest indicator of success. She recalls a student who would run away from school every day because he suffered from anxiety and was experiencing panic attacks at school. Working with the school to develop a plan, they first took measures to make him feel safe in the building. They advocated for him to receive paraprofessional support so that someone could physically be with him throughout the day and help him overcome the school-based anxiety. He now enjoys school for the first time, and his education is meaningful again.
I’m one of the few people that get to say I got to pursue my dream job after law school, Lee enthused. To get to do this work is a real gift.