OUR VIEW: Volusia students with autism need help, not trauma
News-Journal - 8/18/2019
The Volusia County school district is failing too many students with autism and other emotional-behavioral problems -- failing them because school too often becomes a place they associate with emotional trauma, and failing to provide them with the education to which they are entitled.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether the district's actions -- and inaction -- rise to the level of illegal discrimination. Even if the Justice Department decides in the county's favor, local school officials must face the reality that the current cycle of repeatedly suspending students, or submitting them to involuntary commitment under the state's Baker Act, is cruel and counterproductive. That's the inescapable conclusion of a four-month, deep-data analysis of school records by The News-Journal's Cassidy Alexander and Nikki Ross.
The stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, included interviews that focused on a few individual cases. Those parents and students talked candidly about the pain and frustration they've faced. But Alexander and Ross also presented, in easy-to-understand and compelling graphics, just how deep and wide the problem is. Among their findings:
• Schools throughout the district have ramped up the use of the Baker Act to have children with autism removed from campus and transported to Halifax Health, usually in the back of a police car – a deeply distressing experience for a child who's already in emotional meltdown. In 2018, the district Baker-Acted 115 students, six times the number in 2014.
• Even worse, the number of "bad" Baker Act removals -- where hospital staff conclude that the student doesn't meet the criteria for admission -- has grown at an even sharper rate. In 2014, there were only two non-admissions. By 2018, that number had grown to 34.
• The county doesn't have nearly enough trained personnel who can help calm students with autism, get them back to their classrooms and learning and -- most importantly -- stop incidents from happening in the first place. One-third of the district's vacancies are for teachers certified in exceptional education. Meanwhile, the district hasn't hired enough paraprofessionals to work with autistic students, or adequately trained teachers who aren't ESE-certified but have autistic children in their classrooms.
These are serious failures, and represent an abdication of the district's responsibility to these students and their families. But local officials also have a compelling defense: Volusia County has been increasingly starved of the funding to meet these needs.
The number of Volusia County children with autism has increased sharply: In the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,122, more than triple the number who were enrolled 10 years ago. But federal and state funding for students with disabilities has remained relatively flat. It should be obvious that Volusia County can't provide the same level of service for students with one-third of the funding -- even though the lack of support means more crisis incidents, which devour the time and attention of teachers and administrators.
Fighting for that funding is an obvious long-term goal, one U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz and our state legislative delegation should help with. In the meantime, however, district officials should seek the best short-term solutions. Equipping every school with a "sensory room" designed to soothe an out-of-control student doesn't have to be expensive, and community groups and parents might be willing to contribute. Basic training for non-ESE certified teachers is readily available.
Volusia district officials should act swiftly, without miring their response in a sea of bureaucracy. It doesn't take Department of Justice intervention to see that vulnerable students are suffering, right now. They should be the priority.
To see more of the data from The News-Journal's investigation and read the stories by Alexander and Ross, visit www.news-journalonline.com/opinion, and click on the link for this editorial. Coming Monday: The meltdown at Mainland High School.
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