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Teachers at risk from special needs students

Jody Stallings

Jody Stallings

I'm hearing from teachers about struggles with special needs students. What's happening?

Here’s an example: On March 2, a Florida special education (SE) student attacked teacher Trisha Meadows, causing her to hit her head and lose consciousness. She required intubation and surgery.

It was the third time the boy’s attacks required Meadows to be hospitalized. According to parents, he has assaulted other kids, causing various injuries.

The student is five years old.

Imagine the same child at fifteen and you’ll have a sense of why so many people are calling for help.

Most SE students are harmless kids who need extra attention. A small percentage, however, possess severe behavioral disorders, and the way federal law restricts managing their behavior is pushing teachers and parents away from public schools.

Federal law prohibits suspending SE students for more than ten days. Expulsion is next to impossible. A push for inclusion means they are more likely to be part of regular classes while tight regulations inhibit enrolling them in special schools or classrooms to receive the therapeutic services they need.

In lieu of traditional discipline or alternative placements, SE students are issued committee-written Behavior Improvement Plans: BIPs.

BIPs are almost always devised to avoid tough consequences for the student’s conduct. That’s bad because science tells us those consequences are critical to helping students improve their behavior. They’re also essential in keeping teachers and other students safe.

BIPs frequently build a false world around the student, setting him up for future failure, incarceration, or even death. If a student attacks teachers who ask him to remove his hat, the BIP might give that student the privilege of wearing a hat wherever he wants to.

This doesn’t solve the problem; it magnifies it. When that student as an adult is told by his boss to wear a name tag or a police officer to put up his hands, his school training will tell him he doesn’t have to. He might pay for this incorrect assumption with his job or his life.

The accommodating nature of BIPs means that rules, norms, and expectations are negotiable. Consider Parkland murderer Nikolas Cruz. To avoid power struggles, his BIP said that teachers were to walk away when they gave him directives, allowing him time to make his own choice to comply. When Cruz engaged in disruptive attention-seeking behavior, teachers were supposed to ignore it. These sanctions did not help Cruz. They escalated his violent behavior by giving him power that no other students held.

One popular BIP intervention is to evacuate the room when an SE student rages. While administrators try to induce the student to settle down — restraint or force is rarely permitted — the other kids put their learning on hold. When they’re allowed to return, the offending student is still there, the BIP serving as a kind of reverse-restraining order, mandating that abused teachers and students maintain close contact.

Federal restrictions apply also to students labeled as section 504. These students have been diagnosed with medical disorders like ADHD, many without a single medical test. It’s so easy to qualify for 504 that kids who continually misbehave are often pushed under the label, even if their misbehavior originates from nothing more than basic human naughtiness.

In one case I know of, when a boy sexually assaulted a young girl, he faced no repercussions because he had ADHD. I know what you’re thinking: ADHD doesn’t make someone sexually assault people; depravity does. Whichever the case, how can the child learn to control his behavior if he endures no consequences for indulging in it?

This example also shows the urgency gap that exists between the boots on the ground (teachers) and the suits in the chairs (district officials, principals, and school psychologists). While teachers have to teach their lessons, manage the assaulters, and protect their students right now, the suits can dilly-dally in endless committees. When teachers’ most urgent needs are continually met with such bureaucratic lassitude, they quit.

Politicians, psychologists, and administrators need to wake up to what’s happening. SE students are valued, and they deserve to have their basic rights upheld. But as Max Schacter, whose son was killed in the Parkland attack, told the Douglas Commission, “You cannot prioritize the rights of this one violent individual to the detriment of every other person around him.”

Unfortunately, they can, and they do. But they shouldn’t.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question, order his books, or follow him on social media, please visit