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News & Press: Policy

Statement on Parkland: Time to Take Action to Protect Our Children

Tuesday, February 20, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Denise Marshall

Our hearts go out to the victims of the February 14th massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  As details emerge, we have learned that many students and teachers were heroes during the attack and many more continue to raise their voices to demand action.  It is long past time to listen, learn, and take action to prevent such senseless violence.  No child or teacher should fear for or lose their lives at school. 

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar tale.  As the details of these tragedies emerge, we learn of a shooter with a troubled past; isolated from his peers and his community; and, we learn of warning flags ignored.  We do not know the unique circumstances of Nikolas Cruz, and we do not yet know what steps were or were not taken by the school system to identify or support him.  As we look for answers COPAA Board member and New York attorney Michael Gilberg reminds us that ‘as someone who grew up with undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, I think it is critical that we not use this tragedy as a reason to stigmatize children and adults with disabilities or mental illness, but rather we need to identify gaps and push for more resources for our educational system to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities to get the most appropriate outcomes.”


Schools must meet the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to seek out, evaluate and identify all students with disabilities.  IDEA includes an eligibility category of emotional disturbance and federal law requires such students be evaluated, identified, and provided appropriate services from which they can derive meaningful benefit.  Failure to do so has grave consequences on individuals and society.  


We understand that there are students who are difficult to serve and who may be hard to reach and teach.  The answer cannot, however, be to simply send them into society without services or supports. School systems often use consequence-based behavior systems to try to extinguish maladaptive behavior.  Failure to conform results in exclusion from the mainstream education environment.    Certainly, we need to protect the learning environment for the non-disruptive student.  At the same time, we need to end the isolation, the rejection, and stigmatization of the disruptive student.  We need to end expulsion and suspension; substituting instead a system of positive supports and services. We need to ensure that all eligible students under the IDEA are identified and afforded every protection under the law.  We need states to be diligent about enforcement.


Schools can build strong social, emotional, and behavioral programs. They can provide training to parents and guardians to help them cope with dysregulated children and have integrated programs which incorporate community based supports and mental health services.  Rather than relying on outdated and ineffective school-pushout techniques, states can support the creation of strong therapeutic programs for children who need intensive services that have not always been available to our schools and communities. Positive school environments include staffing and policy that successfully resolve behavioral challenges.  They include positive techniques that are trauma-informed, promote emotional well-being, and lead to students who are safely engaged in learning, while support for the student’s behavioral needs continues.  


Social, emotional, and behavioral programs also need to focus on building adaptive skills that enable friendship and promote community.  Much of the American public education enterprise is built around individual achievement and performance.  We need to remember that becoming a productive member of society is one of the most valued objectives of public education.  We must also remind ourselves that individuals with disabilities, including mental illness and emotional disturbance, are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. 


Taking a trauma-informed approach to building school safety is particularly important after such a traumatic event when security, procedures, and other protocols are implemented in the name of safety.  Too often such policies, however well-meaning, turn into fear-based procedures that further marginalize and push out the students who most need services and supports.   

We learned just last week that the proposed 2019 federal budget would cut millions of dollars from federal education programs designed to help school districts improve safety and provide mental health assistance in the event of a tragedy.  The budget proposal would reduce funding for national school safety activities by $25 million compared to 2017.[1]  Reducing resources in the face of continued tragedy is unthinkable.  School systems and teachers need more funding and resources, so that children can access more in-school alternative programs and therapeutic interventions and supports, not less.  We acknowledge that approval of the proposed federal budget will require action by the House and Senate. We are calling on all stakeholders at the local, state, and national levels to share with their elected officials the importance of continuing to fund school-safety program and mental health initiatives in schools.

Perhaps nothing that we as a society can do is absolutely guaranteed to stop future school shootings.  Yet, there is much that can be done to reduce the isolation, alienation, and perceived powerlessness that leads, in part, to these tragedies. 

We must take action now to protect our children. 


[1] http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/374103-trump-budget-would-cut-millions-in-school-safety-funds-report


Vincent Caballero says...
Posted Monday, March 5, 2018
I am emboldened to know that the lessons that I learned at my few COPAA Conferences have brought me the same conclusions drawn in the Statement on Parkland. The suspension and expulsion data for many districts is sadly a reflection of the continued use of exclusion as a means of discipline. Despite this, districts continue to try the same things over and over, expecting different results. Thank you for pointing out that there is nothing gained by the vilification of mental illness and pointing to the etiology of this tragic incident. The pending federal budget will have a big impact on our efforts as advocates and parents and we will have to rely on the fact that School districts cannot use economic issues to deny your child the services he needs. [34 C.F.R. Part 300, App. A, Q. 1 and 31.]. This in of itself will not ensure our success but requires that as professionals, we will have to utilize all of our knowledge and resources to the utmost of our abilities. Vincent Caballero

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