Earning a diploma a nearly impossible dream

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John, a 20-year-old special education student, is still struggling to earn his diploma. In and out of five high schools since 1999, John has racked up multiple suspensions, one expulsion, four arrests for school-related offenses and a conviction for misdemeanor battery as a result of the fight for which he was expelled. Now he faces a possible second expulsion for alleged sexual harassment of a female student. Though John skips school frequently, unlike many of his peers he has not dropped out, and says he is determined to graduate. (John’s name has been changed for reasons of privacy.)

Paul Fagen, a licensed social worker and one of John’s former counselors, insists he is not just a troublemaker. “He’s a good kid in an impossible situation,” says Fagen.

Experts say special education students with behavior problems, like John, need more support to manage their behavior. But under recent changes in federal law, some advocates contend, John and hundreds of other students like him will be more likely to face expulsion and other stringent discipline, and less likely to get help.

When Congress reauthorized the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act last year, it changed provisions in the law governing how schools handle discipline of special education students. Under current law, schools must prove that the student’s misbehavior is not due to his or her disability before instituting severe levels of discipline, such as expulsion or reassignment to another school.

With the new law “the burden of proof lies on the parent” to demonstrate that misbehavior is linked to the student’s disabilities, says Elliot Marks, a special education advocate with Designs for Change and the parent of a learning-disabled student. “It’s a lot of work.”

In John’s case, proving the link might not seem like a lot of work. In addition to a disability, John has repeatedly struggled with mental health issues, according to hospital records.

One expert notes that learning-disabled students often misbehave when they become frustrated with their academic struggles. “Inability to cope with the learning environment often leads to aggression,” observes Fabricio Balcazar, a professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But in practice, making the link between disability and poor behavior is difficult without a lawyer or another savvy advocate in the student’s corner.

John’s struggle is typical

Through interviews with John and his mother, school and hospital records and interviews with school staff, Catalyst reconstructed John’s story. Several experts say his situation is typical of many special education students.

In 4th grade, John was referred for a special education evaluation because of poor performance in reading and problems paying attention in class. But the assessment failed to pinpoint what blocked his ability to read, suggesting that the evaluation was poorly done, says Balcazar.

The referral for John’s evaluation also noted his behavior problems. And twice during elementary school, outside groups recommended John for psychiatric evaluation and services, but his mother failed to follow through. Though this was noted in school records, there is no indication school staff attempted to pursue psychiatric evaluation for John.

A more thorough evaluation might well have determined John had emotional problems as well, which could have shielded him from harsh discipline.

Wallace Winter, an attorney and expert on disability rights with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, defends more than 50 special education students each year who are facing expulsion. Students like John often have undiagnosed emotional or behavioral disorders, Winter says. But without a formal diagnosis, proving the crucial link between disability and misbehavior is virtually impossible.

“When we’ve got a kid who’s only diagnosed LD [learning disabled], we know we’ve got an uphill battle,” says Winter.

High school troubles

By the time John reached Farragut High in Little Village in fall 1999, he was reading at only a 3rd-grade level. Farragut proved a poor match for a student with John’s problems. According to a report from the Illinois State Board of Education based on a site visit in April 2000, classroom teachers were not collaborating with special education staff to learn more effective ways of handling special education students in regular classes. Four of 11 special education teachers were not fully certified, and 41 percent of the regular faculty lacked full credentials.

A report written by John’s special education teacher as part of his application for Social Security disability benefits states that by Spring of 2000, John had received two out-of-school and seven in-school suspensions for failure to obey school rules, cutting class, sexual harassment and gang activity.

By the end of his first year, John and his mother were so frustrated they applied to North Lawndale College Prep, a small charter school. There, John had to start over as a freshman because he had earned so few credits. In his two years there, John still struggled with managing his behavior, but received only two two-day suspensions, both for fighting.

North Lawndale’s smaller, more personal environment gave staff more flexibility with disciplining John. When he disrupted class, special education case manager Lorna Wilson took him into her office to do his work, allowing him to avoid suspension. Other North Lawndale staff members say they were also reluctant to suspend John, saying that doing so only made his truancy problems worse.

“When [John] is stressed, he skips,” says Fagen.

John would also skip school if staff even mentioned to him, in an effort to ward off trouble, that he might be suspended if he continued misbehaving.

John says his experience at North Lawndale was positive and “a good opportunity for me to try something new.” But he was still not able to keep up academically and earned less than four credits in two years.

After expulsion, few alternatives

During the second half of his second year at North Lawndale, John, his mother and the school agreed it might be best for him to try an alternative school because he was so far behind in credits. He and his mother chose Lincoln’s Challenge, a boot-camp-style GED program in Rantoul, Illinois. But he lasted only a short time—”a good three days” in his words—and was asked to leave for fighting.

Students with disabilities are poor candidates for GED programs, notes Balcazar. “It’s absolutely impossible for them to pass,” he asserts. “It’s only for people who are very good at reading.”

By the time John and his mother called North Lawndale to ask to return, his seat had been filled. So John returned to Farragut a second time, and immediately began getting in trouble again. In February 2003, he was expelled for knocking out a Latino student in a fight.

While he was expelled, John attended Richard Milburn High School in West Town and says he had no discipline problems there. (Milburn Principal Calista Winford did not return calls for this story.) When his term of expulsion neared its end, John and his mother attended a meeting at Milburn to determine where he would go next.

Records show everyone present agreed he would be best served by one of the alternative schools within Youth Connections Charter.

Even so, an alternative school was not necessarily a good option. Alternative schools have too few expert teachers to meet the needs of special education students, Balcazar says. For instance, Youth Connections Charter must share seven special education teachers, who travel among the charter’s 24 sites.

Back to Farragut

John ended up going back to Farragut last year for a third time. Last spring, he also attended Austin Evening School. According to Farragut’s special education case manager Freida Garth, John’s mother said it would be temporary, until John took the test for alternative school placement. But John’s mother says he never went for the testing.

Once again, John’s problems with truancy and behavior resurfaced. He missed more than 30 days of school during first semester of this school year. By the winter break of this school year, records show John had been suspended for eight days in the fall and for another 10 days in December. The 18-day total exceeds CPS’ limit on out-of-school suspension of special education students.

Schools are required to contact the Office of Due Process and Mediation before suspending a special education student beyond 10 days in one school year. (The office receives “between 600 and 800” such calls each year, one official says.) But until contacted by Catalyst, CPS lawyers were unaware that John had been suspended beyond the limit.

On November 10, 2004, with Farragut seeking to expel John a second time, a special hearing was held to rule on the critical question: whether his behavior was linked to his disability.

According to records, John did not attend the crucial meeting, and his mother “came and left.” No lawyer or other outside advocate, who might have pleaded John’s case, was present. At the meeting, it was determined that his behavior was not connected to his disability.

In January, Garth said Farragut had requested an expulsion hearing for John. At Catalyst press time, the request had not yet been approved at the area office. John says he plans to attend alternative school, but has yet to enroll.

In most instances, students whose behavior is found to be linked to their disability would get extra help. The school would be expected to create a behavioral intervention plan for the student, says Winter, or modify any existing plan.

Winter notes that schools often don’t have the resources to provide the level of support John and other students need to succeed. “These kids have all kinds of problems that I think most of us don’t have the dimmest glimmer of.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.