Special Services, District 65

The following article recently appeared in the Evanston RoundTable newspaper. It was written by Cari Levin, who is the founder of CASE, a nonprofit group of parents in District 65 who are working to improve services for dsabled children in the public schools.

School District 65 Failing Children With Complex Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

By Cari Levin

There are children in Evanston who are suffering. These children are your neighbors. They go to your child's school. They play on your child's soccer or baseball team. They go to your church. You may have noticed them, but probably not, because they look like typical children. These children are living with an "invisible" illness, like bipolar disorder or an autism spectrum disorder.

As parents, we want our children to grow up to be happy, successful and responsible. Our children are our biggest joy and our constant concern. When children suffer with a mental illness their struggle is extraordinarily difficult. There is no cure, and often the medications used to treat their condition have side effects. As their bodies grow, or the course of their illness changes, these medications can stop working and another round of trial and error begins. There is never any certainty of a positive outcome.

Information about the particular illness can be scarce and conflicting. Finding knowledgeable professionals to help parents understand and cope is difficult and costly. These families live in turmoil and worry, often isolated from others as they try to make sense of the impact their child's illness will have on daily life. Families of children with mental illness, like mine, are under enormous pressure and stress on a daily basis. Just getting through daily life is difficult. These are courageous children who face adversity every day.

What happens at school for children with serious emotional problems? These are complex children with very difficult problems. Many have multiple diagnoses. But they look like typical children. At first glance, there is nothing obviously wrong with them. So when they act out impulsively, say inappropriate things, invade another child's personal space, are aggressive toward peers during play, cry or tantrum for no apparent reason, or are non-compliant, it is common for people to assume these things are volitional or caused by poor parenting. Peers don't understand what is wrong and socially ostracize the child because he or she is odd or unpredictable. Children with mental illness can also be targets for scapegoating since it is easy to provoke them. Learning is difficult for these kids because so many other things get in the way. So how do you educate a child like this?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a Federal law that requires schools to provide children with special needs a "Free Appropriate Public Education" in the "Least Restrictive Environment." This law was put in place to provide protections for vulnerable children who otherwise could not access the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers without necessary supports and specialized resources. It is a law that provides certain rights, including the implementation of an "Individualized Education Plan" (IEP), which outlines the child's needs, appropriate goals and the support services he or she requires to be successful at school. An IEP is a legal document. It is a contract between the school district and the family. If done right, an IEP provides guidance for staff and protects the child.

Unfortunately, the law is often not being followed in Evanston. The services currently available for children with complex emotional and behavioral disorders are one-size-fits-some, but not all. In District 65, children who need more intensive support are grouped in "self-contained" classrooms separate from their typically functioning peers. The District does this out of expedience rather than a planned therapeutic benefit. On top of that IEPs are not being implemented, services are not meeting children's needs, the District is out of compliance with IDEA standards and services are being denied due to staff shortages or cost.

The staff members charged with the task of educating these children are often dedicated, caring professionals. But their hands are tied because of lack of support from the School District to help them implement needed services. Parent's rights are not being respected. There is no transparency in the system and parents do not have access to accurate and complete information about the services available in the District. Parents have to fight to get the services their children need. Your tax dollars are being used on litigation rather than providing for these kids.

When my child was failing in school and falling apart emotionally, rather than providing an appropriate program for him, the School District chose to spend $26,500 to fight me legally. The hearing officer found the District was not upholding its legal obligation to educate my child, and District 65 was held accountable. But parents who don't have the resources or don't know their rights do not have the same access to relief. Their children are stuck in the system that is not serving them appropriately. These families are your neighbors.

As a result of the crisis in special education in Evanston a group of concerned parents have formed an advocacy organization called CASE -- Citizens for Appropriate Special Education. Our aim is to provide parents with an organized voice, and to educate the public and School Board about the problems in the system. Visit our website at www.evanstoncase.org. The Special Services Department is getting away with maintaining policies and programs that are failing children because there is no oversight or scrutiny. If the plight of these children concerns you please write to the District 65 School Board members and tell them to hold the administration accountable.