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Response to Newtown Tragedy/Discussion Must Include Special Education: Fully Fund IDEA/Hold Schools Accountable

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For all those who either love a child with a disabiity or work with children with disabilities there is clearly a pivotal missing piece in the discussions over the last week concerning the tragedy in Newtown. While this horrific event has sparked much needed discussion about the need for gun control and how we as a nation need to address mental health in this country. What is missing from all this dialogue is how Adam Lanza fell through the cracks. For those of us involved in the special education process in this country we cannot help but question where was the intervention that this young man so desperately needed as we hear friends, neighbors, and his former teachers say that he was an individual who had Asperger's. Congress has delegated to our public schools an affirmative duty to act to identify, evaluate and develop appropriate programs for children with disabilities. All too often, however, our public schools shirk their responsibility and these children are left isolated, alone and marginalized. Adam Lanza may have been an individual with Autism, but it was not his Autism that caused him to perpetrate this unspeakable act. It was most likely the years of loneliness, isolation, and the failure to address the manifestations of his disability that caused mental illness to set in.

Each and every day children with Autism are denied the services that they are entitled to from their public schools. Numerous fictions have been used to prevent access to services and have even been upheld in the administrative hearings designed to address the inappropriate implementation of IDEA. All too often we hear that children only have "medical autism" not "educational autism" as if their autism somehow remarkable evaporates as they walk through the school house doors. Much needed related services, like speech therapy, occupational therapy, social skills instruction, and counseling, are left to teachers who are neither degreed in these areas and are not provided with appropriate training to handle the complexity of the disorder. Parents, already financially and emotionally drained, are forced to chose between fighting their school district or providing some semblence of services so that they can try to help their children as school district fight these due process proceedings with the same might that corporate giants fight each other.

The loss of these 20 beautiful children in Newtown is a loss that is beyond words. There is, however, another loss of our children that is happening each and every day but the numbers are far greater - the 7.1 million disabled children in the United States today - who are not receiving the specially designed instruction they are entitled. While we mourn the loss of the children in Newtown, we should also be mourning the loss of the potential for these children as well for under the present Supreme Court holding in Rowley - these children are entitled to "only some educational benefit." While all other American children are entitled to an education that maximizes potential per most state statutes.

If we are to truly address the real cause of what transpired in Newtown, we must look at all the variables and most importantly, the foundational ones - why are we not addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children in our society - those with special needs, who if provided with the appropriate intervention, would be valued members of our community, not shut away and left to languish in dark rooms by themselves.

The national debate triggered by the tragedy in Newtown must include an examination of our public education system. We need to do more, we need to act fast, and our Congress needs to fully fund IDEA and reexamine the problems that exist in the law as it currently stands. The rights of our disabled children is the next frontier that needs to be conquered in our country's battle to insure the civil rights of all its citizens.

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