Are Schools Prepared to Meet the Needs of Students with Disabilities?

As students return to schools shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, many large school districts are not prepared to meet the needs of well more than 1 million students with disabilities who have a legal right to receive support and services but are not getting them ― and the problem is most severe for students of color, according to a new report.

The crisis existed before the pandemic began in spring 2020, but was exacerbated in the past year, according to the report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. The authors analyzed reams of federal and state data for thousands of school districts, and the report will be released Tuesday.

“Pre-pandemic, we were doing a miserable job,” co-author Daniel J. Losen said in an interview. “And now, kids are returning to school after more trauma, loss and instructional time. Some have had horrific experiences. And it’s going to be harder for kids with disabilities or emotional issues and [those who] have trouble regulating their behavior. We’re just not prepared to deal with them, and we have to rethink the approach to dealing with these kids.”

Students with disabilitiesAbout 7 million students — who constitute close to 14 percent of all K-12 public school students — are deemed eligible for special education under the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law mandates that public schools provide a free and appropriate education designed to meet their individual needs through what is called Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

But, according to the report — titled “Disabling Inequity: The Urgent Need for Race-Conscious Resource Remedies,” and written by Losen, Paul Martinez and Grace Hae Rim Shin — there are nearly 1.4 million students with disabilities whom districts are supposed to identify and support, even though they do not necessarily require specialized instruction.

These students — whose numbers have been growing for two decades — are eligible for services under a different federal anti-discrimination law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects students with disabilities who qualify for special education and those who do not.

Section 504 requires public schools to identify those students who do not require specially designed instruction, but have a disability that limits one or more major life activities and requires some services.

Such a condition could be asthma or diabetes, or depression and anxiety disorders. Another example could be a student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder who doesn’t need special education but does need support with organization or behavior challenges. For those students, districts are required to provide support and services to ensure that they, too, receive a free and appropriate education.

“We find strong evidence suggesting that hundreds of large districts could be failing to identify 504-only students,” the authors wrote. “Our findings show that in 3,298 districts, serving nearly 1.8 million students (1,781,962), not one 504-only student is identified. When all the districts with at least 1,000 enrolled students are examined, one can see that in 306 districts serving nearly one million students not one 504-only student is identified.”

School districts, the report said, don’t have enough resources to identify and support these students — and still don’t have enough to provide adequate services for special education students. The federal government has never funded IDEA at anywhere near close to the levels it promised when the law was passed. And the authors said they found no states that had earmarked state funding to provide support and services to students eligible for services only through Section 504.

“We should recognize that districts don’t have enough resources,” Losen said. “And the federal government should step in because these kids need the support and services.

The report also said that there are “glaring disparities” for students receiving services and support under IDEA in disciplinary exclusion, referral to law enforcement and chronic absenteeism — and that the situation is “far worse for non-White students receiving special education.”

For example, because of out-of-school suspensions, across all grade levels nationally, students without disabilities lost 19 days per 100 students enrolled while students with disabilities (IDEA) lost 41 days per 100 students enrolled.

For secondary students in large districts, the authors found many districts with much higher rates and wider disparities, including 30 districts where students with disabilities (IDEA) lost at least 90 more days per 100 students than were lost by their peers without IEP.

Nationally, among secondary students with disabilities (IDEA), 24 percent of Black students, 15 percent of Native American students and 11 percent of White students were suspended out of school at least once in 2017-18. “These disparities are even greater in many large districts, where the risk for suspension for Black secondary students with disabilities was well above 40 percent for Blacks and 33 percent for Native American students,” the report says.

“The purpose of providing this analysis now is to suggest that the magnitude of the inequities that students with disabilities experience is being overlooked, especially those experienced by children of color,” the authors said.

The report recommends a massive infusion of federal funding to districts, noting that in fiscal 2021, Congress allocated only $13.8 billion for the IDEA, which is about 13 percent of the total additional costs of providing education to students who need special education

“A truly equitable remedy would begin by fulfilling the original promise of meeting 40 percent of the additional costs, which would require an additional $20 billion, for a total of over $33 billion annually for IDEA alone,” the report said.

The authors said they could not find specific resources to address the needs of students identified for services only through Section 504. They recommended that at least $1 billion per year be dedicated for this purpose, with some of the money aimed at creating more accurate counts and estimates of the additional costs of meeting the needs of 504-only student.

Other recommendations include:

  • Bolster civil rights enforcement and the capacity to bring about substantive change when responding to systemic discrimination: Reinstate the federal school discipline guidance issued in 2014 under President Barack Obama, which was aimed at ensuring that schools don’t unfairly discipline students of color.
  • Expand federal funding to eliminate the shortages of counselors, social workers, nurses, school psychologists and well-trained fully certified special education teachers: Provide incentives for state funding to cover students experiencing trauma and for 504-only students; include accountability for states such as Ohio that have not provided adequate or equitably distributed resources and have been found in violation of their state constitutional mandates.

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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