Compass: School cuts leave special-ed students behind

Last week my daughter needed to tell me about something that happened at school. She was playing with an older girl, acting out skits with characters they made up and the older girl started pretending to be someone with what my daughter called a "mental disability." My daughter described a portrayal that we have all seen: intellectual disability as buffoonery. What gave me hope was her response: "Mom, I got sick to my stomach. I wanted to throw up." When she found words for it, she said she had been disgusted.

I know why she was disgusted. It is because she is friends with Harley. Harley is a funny, engaging redhead who loves Disney movies, going to lunch with her dearest friends, jumping on our trampoline, making jokes and swimming. Harley was also born with Downs' Syndrome. She has autism, and a seizure disorder. Sometimes it's hard to understand what she says, and she doesn't talk about the things my daughter's other neighborhood friends talk about. But my daughter sees Harley as a whole person, who has changing moods, habits, preferences, and goals that are all unique to her. Harley is not her disability and my daughter knows that.

There are no children like Harley at my daughter's school, but Harley goes to an ASD high school. Her teachers have taught her so much there, often in her special education classroom. But without teachers' assistants Harley could not get the repeated practice she needs to retain what she learns. She could not move through the rest of the school. She could not go on field trips in the community, or have opportunities to build other skills for greater independence in her life. She could not be learning the skills she needs to be a friend.

ASD's proposed budget cuts 49 Special Education Teaching Assistants, 9 Special Education counselors, and 7 Special Education Teacher Consultants. Those 65 positions are about 53 percent of the total cuts to instructional support from all departments, even though students receiving special education represent only 14 percent of the ASD enrollment.

The impact on these children will be significant. Most children in special education spend a lot of their instructional time with teachers' assistants. A typical educational plan includes learning new or difficult skills during intensive instruction with the special education teacher and having those skills practiced repeatedly during longer sessions with a teachers' assistant. Special education counselors teach social skills and help kids cope with bullying, which happens to children with disabilities three times as often as to other children.

ASD downplays the impact of these cuts by pointing out that many of these positions are not currently filled. But parents already see the effect of schools being understaffed for these positions. Just recently our office received a call from a local parent who was told by the school to keep her child home for two days because there was not sufficient special education staffing for him there.

As an advocate for children with disabilities, I often make the argument that including these children with non-disabled peers at school benefits their skill development. Inclusion has been shown by reliable, science-based data to be the best model for developing skills for most children. I rely on that data to make the argument that kids with disabilities should be included with their peers in the regular education classrooms to the greatest extent that can be accommodated.

In the face of the budget cuts that are borne so disproportionately by children in special education, what I want is data to show the benefit of inclusion to all children, to the school environment, and to our community.

Last week my daughter gave me one little data point. It is not scientific, a single observation in a sea of social interactions.

But it demonstrates an essential truth: that including someone in our daily world who is different than most everyone else there teaches us to appreciate the potential in all others, and to reject actions that stigmatize and demean. That's an education worth paying for.

Anne Applegate is a staff attorney at the Disability Law Center of Alaska, a non-profit law firm protecting the rights of people with disabilities.