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Mary Sheehy Moe: Montana’s Most Critical Teacher Shortage Is In Special Education

Cianan had a history of violent outbursts in his elementary and middle school years in Oregon. Struggling with autism, anxiety, and hyperactivity (ADHD), he had lashed out at a student or teacher at least six times before he entered high school.

“Afterwards he is very sorry,” one teacher wrote for the file. “But he can’t control himself when his anger flares – and it can be triggered without warning.”

Nonetheless, high school went well for Cianan until his senior year. His doctors had him on Prozac, Guanfacine for his ADHD, and the anti-psychotic Risperdal. Heprospered in the school’s Behavioral Learning Center and especially liked the teacher. There were no violent episodes. 

But before his senior year, the Behavioral Learning Center and his teacher were transferred.  It wasn’t until October that he was assigned a caseworker. Helen Brown’s caseload was so heavy that it wasn’t until December that she finally sat down with Cianan and his family. They agreed Cianan would meet with her every morning before his school day started. 

January 11, 2018, started with one of those meetings. Ms. Brown’s queries about Cianan’s homework escalated into an argument.  Cianan tried to self-regulate as he’d been taught, backing away to isolate himself and calm down. But Ms. Brown didn’t know what he’d been taught. She didn’t know about his history. She didn’t know that his doctor had taken him off Risperdal over Christmas break. If all this information was in the file, she hadn’t read it.

She saw a young man knocking furniture around, retreating, arguing.  So she stood in the doorway and ordered him to the principal’s office. Cianan panicked, charged her, and punched her in the neck with a force that slammed her against the wall and tore her carotid artery.

Ms. Brown’s injuries could be permanent. So could Cianan’s. Pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault and felony attempted assault, he went to jail.

* * * *

This story elicits varied responses. Special education teachers shake their heads at all the lapses in best practice. Parents of autistic children moan: After three years of steady progress, an effective program was cancelled and this boy was left unsupported till he was flailing, figuratively and literally. Disciplinarians harrumph. “Nobody’s to blame but the kid. Actions have consequences. Kids like that don’t belong in public schools.”

Let’s start there. “Kids like that” have a constitutional right to be in public schools. Moreover, it’s not only in their interest, but in society’s interest, to provide them the free, appropriate public education required by law.  “Kids like that” can be taught how to navigate a world their disability makes bewildering. If they don’t learn those lessons, it’s not just their well-being, but ours, that is impaired. They’re likely to spend their entire adult lives institutionalized – at our expense. 

As for “kids like that,” any special education teacher will tell you there’s no such category. Each student is uniquely complex. Reaching and teaching that student requires a team approach that includes the special education teacher and parents, but also medical, behavioral, educational and administrative support. Needless to say, doing it right is expensive. Which is why, needless to say, it’s so often not done right.

Like most states, the number of students with disabilities in Montana is increasing – 10 percent in the past five years. The block grant from the state for special education does not recognize expensive differences between disabilities or reflect the true cost of effective special education programs. And although special education expenditures tripled between 1990 and 2014, the state’s share of the burden shifted from 81.66 percent to 32.69 percent in that timeframe. To compensate, the local share quintupled – from 7.09 percent to 41.15 percent. 

It gets worse. Access to medical care for Montana children – especially psychiatric care – is extremely limited. Smaller districts can’t afford the entire team needed to serve the complex range of needs that ebb and flow with the student body, so special education co-ops serve an absurdly broad geographical area, making their visits few and literally far between. Co-ops don’t receive the inflationary increases the general fund receives, so they’re struggling to exist at all.

So: Complex, pervasively misunderstood students; uncompetitive pay; high caseloads; unfunded programs disappearing; gaping holes in the support team … what else could we do to drive special education teachers away? Needless to say, Montana’s most critical teacher shortage area is special education.

* * * *

Pondering Cianan’s story, I recalled my dad’s expression for the randomness that shapes lives: “It’s a game of inches.” If only the district hadn’t discontinued the BLC. If only Cianan’s file had been complete – and, if it was complete, if only Ms. Brown had read it. If only Cianan’s doctor had made sure she knew about the change in medication. If only Cianan hadn’t backed up so quickly he flipped over a table and sent chairs clattering, making Ms. Brown conclude he was defiant, rather than frightened. 

Over its 44-year existence, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has made huge gains in closing the inch-wide cracks through which children with disabilities too often fall. In the process, it’s opened educators’ eyes to the fact that, just as all autistic children differ, just as disabilities manifest themselves in countless ways, so children without disabilities prosper with individualized approaches.  IDEA was a good idea.

If only the Congress that enacted it had ever funded it properly.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.

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