The members of Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc. (COPAA) work in schools every day with teachers and on behalf of the 7.1 million children with disabilities in the United States. Because of our work, we feel intense, personal pain over the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We express our deepest condolences to all of the families involved and the entire Newtown community.
In 1974, with the passage of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress delegated to school districts the responsibility to identify, evaluate and program for children with all types of special education needs. Thus, by design, the neighborhood public school is the first responder for many children with disabilities. As attorneys and advocates representing children and families in the special education process, we are too familiar with the struggles of families to obtain appropriate services for their children and the many issues that come with raising a child with a disability. We also know the dilemmas faced by schools to provide learning environments that are safe, positive, and secure for all students. It is time to acknowledge that fully-funded, appropriately designed special education and related services for students with disabilities are a critical piece of the solution.
The national debate triggered by Newtown needs to include strengthening our country’s education system. We need to work collaboratively to ensure that children with disabilities are identified and provided with services at an early age and that children are not excluded from school based upon their disability. Unfortunately, we have already seen students excluded from school since Newtown. The IDEA can make a huge difference, if it is fully funded and if educators work collaboratively with parents to utilize the panoply of tools available under it, including positive behavior supports, mental health counseling, and parent training. All students can progress through school to become responsible and contributing members of their communities. COPAA stands ready to face these challenges shoulder-to-shoulder with public school systems to ensure safe and high quality education for all children.