Special Education in the U.S. Has a Long Way to Go—Here’s What Schools Can Do About It

In 1965, Congress passed legislation that created a bureau to examine the problems facing special needs students in the nation’s public schools.

But nearly 50 years later, these students still deal with too much discrimination and bullying in schools. In fact, a recent study released by the Department of Education reports a record number of disability-related civil rights complaints.

In the last three years, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) “received over 11,700 disability-related complaints—more than ever before in a three-year period, and more than half of the total complaints received by OCR during this period.”

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The numbers are, indeed, shocking. The survey examined 72,000 schools that teach 85 percent of America’s children, 12 percent of which were identified as special needs students.

The Department of Education reported that “nearly a third of school districts in the sample reported at least one incident of bullying or harassment on the basis of disability.” Another 70 percent of students with disabilities were physically restrained by adults in their schools.

More than 4,600 concerns focused on a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) of students with disabilities. Special needs can range from children with Down’s Syndrome, autism, or speech impediments to kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or even those who are considered gifted.

“The strength of the American dream lies in its accessibility to all,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a release celebrating the 39th anniversary of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a national law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.

“The best way to celebrate this important anniversary is to renew our common commitment to ensuring equal opportunity for people with disabilities in school, in the workplace, and throughout our public life,” Duncan said.

Indeed, renewal is key, but so is awareness and action, says Edie Raether, behavioral psychology expert and author of The Bully Buster.

“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” Raether says.

For example, she encourages empathy training through role playing that is integrated into lesson plans of the standard curriculum. She also says that classrooms need to create a buddy system where a student is assigned to a special needs child to be their support system. 

The Bully Project has partnered with the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), AbilityPath, PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, and Autism Speaks to create an anti-bullying toolkit specifically designed for special needs children. The number one message of the kit is simply common sense: discussing peoples’ differences.

The toolkit states: “Getting started is as easy as writing a letter to your child's teacher, or asking your Principal to post your school’s anti-bullying policy in public places around the school building. It could mean talking to your child about how he or she has experienced bullying, or reading about the roles of bullying and identifying your personal place in the cycle of bullying.”

But the overwhelming issue of special needs students shouldn’t paralyze people to ignore the problem. In fact, now is the time to step up as Congress could cut spending for students with disabilities by $900 million in 2013.

Many communities and schools around the country are heeding the call and taking matters into their own hands.

In Lansdale, PA, Pennbrook Middle School and North Penn High School have a cheerleading squad made up of five special needs girls that are embraced by the school’s main cheerleading team.

In San Jacinto Valley, CA, a local Kiwanis Club has hosted free bowling for special needs children in their community. It began in 1991 with one school and now includes students from all ages—even college—who participate.

“It provides for a morning of fun and comradeship,” Kiwanis president David Knackert told The Valley Chronicle newspaper. “The Kiwanis members are the kid's biggest cheerleaders. Nothing is more satisfying than to see the high fives and knuckles the kids give each other.”

And in the small town of Canton, GA, high school students and staff help special needs students at Cherokee County High School by buying coffee from them at the district’s coffee café. Such a project teaches students life and social skills.

These programs show that as more people stand up for special needs children, bullies will have no choice but to either put down their fists or join the cause.

Do you know someone with special needs who has been bullied in school? Share your story in comments.

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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com