Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part occasional series on special education. Today's story is on students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
For four decades, federal law has enabled children with disabilities to be integrated with regular education students at school, but even today that integration is a puzzle in progress.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Anna Dill works with her son, Kristopher, at the Altoona Area Public Library to get started with his cyber school class.
"Not a lot of regular education teachers have the level of training to respond to students' behaviors," special education legal advocate Kathy Custren said.
She represented an Altoona student in court who was criminally charged for striking a teacher during an aggressive "meltdown," a characteristic of his Asperger's syndrome. He currently attends cyber school because of the charges.
Altoona Area School District has 1,484 students with disabilities.
District administrators cannot comment on individual cases because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) laws, district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.
"Accidents are few and far between," Custren said.
But the effects of incidents that do occur can linger.
For the past two years, administrators have been concerned that Kelly Williams will file a civil suit against the district, which could be taken seriously, said Assistant District Attorney Russ Montgomery. A teacher's grip on the back of her 6-year-old son's neck resulted in a strain and moderate pain, medical records show.
At the time, the boy, who was later diagnosed with a disorder on the autism spectrum, was uncooperative in walking to a school event. The teacher clasped his neck as she directed him.
"I don't care about money. I don't hold the teacher responsible. I requested the district look into more training for teachers to handle special needs kids," Williams said. "My son is fine, but for other kids - I'm sure it happens to some extent every day."
In Altoona, a district commended by the state Bureau of Special Education for its implementation of a parental advisory committee to solve problems in special education, about 84 percent of special education students are in regular education classes for 80 percent of the school day. Crisis Prevention Institute Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training is offered for teachers in Blair County through Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8.
"It takes training, for example, so that I don't engage in an ultimatum, a power struggle with a student," Randy Boardman, CPI executive director of research and development, said.
Altoona Area administrators said CPI training is offered to all staff members each year.
"I support the fact that all teachers need continuous training on ways to work with both special education students as well as regular education students," Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Ray said. "There is training scheduled for secondary as well as elementary teachers planned for December and February."
The training comes at a cost.
"Certainly, it's a meaningful challenge, if it [would be] an unfunded mandate, in the current austere funding climate," IU8 Executive Director Joseph Macharola said.
"There are opportunities for professional development regarding training that incorporates appropriate techniques and behavioral strategies for educators. The commonwealth does not specifically mandate this particular instruction," he said.
But to be an educator in Pennsylvania requires nine credits, or 270 hours, of education in inclusion of students with disabilities, said State Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller. All educators receive these hours, he said.
U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-5th District, said the federal government has "not even come close to meeting our obligation under [the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act]."
The law calls on the government to fund 40 percent of a district's special education costs. But there are many unfunded mandates in special education, from transportation to education services, passed from the federal government to school districts.
Thompson said the U.S. House is working to cut unproductive educational programs to fund special education as well as give schools more flexibility to use federal funding for purposes they deem high priority, such as training, he said as an example.
A report on file with the district states one of 14 total teacher responses to a 2011 Bureau of Special Education adviser interview responded "no" to the questions on whether they believed Altoona Area provided enough training on how to de-escalate negative and aggressive student behavior and also on providing positive behavior supports for students with negative behaviors.
"I look at the positive side of things," Custren said.
Charges filed against Anna Dill's 16-year-old son, whom Custren represented, were expunged by the boy's agreement to six months' probation, 25 hours of community service and six months of good behavior.
"Teachers are not in the business of taking kids out of the district," Custren said. "There may have been prejudice or lack of awareness that could have been helped. [Dill's son] could still be enjoying mainstream education."
When faced with a change in routine, aggressive behavior may arise in people with Dill's disability. The boy ran out of a classroom when he saw a substitute teacher who he was not prepared to see.
A felony charge of aggravated assault was filed against him in 2011 for striking a teacher who intervened when he felt the boy's trained therapeutic support staff worker was in danger.
State school code prohibits a student from being punished for a disability-related behavior. But school district police did not contact Custren to ensure the boy's rights were maintained, nor did the district special education department uphold the boy's right to a school-level investigation prior to charges being filed, Custren said.
"That's the one thing missing from this whole thing," Custren said.
Custren said she does not know whether the teacher attempted to use physical restraint to subdue the boy, but CPI training covers that topic.
Physical restraints are used as a last resort if a person is a danger to himself or others, Boardman said.
"It's a difficult decision to make. It has to be based on training," he said about using restraints. "It's not uncommon for students to throw things, hit, kick, scream. Our training also teaches staff to be aware of signals such as a student getting loud or becoming anxious. "
CPI's restraints are compatible with the regulations of the state - all are standing restraints to avoid restraint-related asphyxia.
"Always weigh the risk of intervening against not intervening," Boardman said. "If a student runs down the hallway, maybe we should let them run away. Or would they hurt themselves or someone else?"
The district's 2011 special education audit conducted by the state recorded 426 parent responses to a range of questions, including whether the district involves parents in IEP development and whether program services and training are provided.
There were 284 affirmative responses, 16 no responses and 126 other responses from the sample group of parents.
This year, Dori Settlemyer observed as a teacher and special education aide were unable to direct her second-grade granddaughter to the cafeteria for an assembly in which students were promised to see fire trucks.
The girl only saw firefighters who were about to deliver a presentation prior to taking children to see the trucks.
"See, this is why we held her back last year," teachers told her.
Settlemyer said her granddaughter initially reacted because the teachers did not explain the process to her properly. So she intervened.
"OK, take your aide's hand," Settlemyer said she told her granddaughter. "First firemen, then fire trucks."
She said the girl took her aide's hand and sat through the assembly without incident.
"Most folks go into education because they want to help people and because they like a particular strand of education - math, English. They didn't have skill sets to put up with disciplinary aspects. They want people to comply so they can teach," Boardman said.
"So if you get better at dealing with behavior [of students with disabilities]s, staff can have more confidence, lessen frustrations, incidents and increase time on task, he said.
"Training helps teachers be part of the solution instead of making the problem worse."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.