District’s switch to home-school model is hurting students, staff

Uncontrollable pupils in classroom acting out, frustrated teacher "tearing her hair out".


Q: I’m a teacher in a county that’s changed to what’s called the home-school model. The special education programs or learning centers are being phased out, and students with serious academic and behavioral challenges are returning to their neighborhood schools. The idea is to ensure these kids are in the least restrictive environment, but the extra support we were promised hasn’t materialized. As a result, we have students who probably should have a 1:1 aide sitting in classes with 26 students. We only have specialized co-teaching help four to eight hours a week. I’m overwhelmed, nervous, and stressed all the time. One of these kids keeps running away or hitting classmates. Our principal keeps asking for more support, but he’s gotten nowhere. It’s been all hands on deck at my school, from the counselor to the security officer, but this is basically a disaster waiting to happen. I can’t focus on these struggling students and teach a roomful of kids. Despite my best efforts, I know there’s no way I’m following these students’ IEPs to a T. My colleagues are in the same boat, and I want to complain on behalf of all of us. I don’t trust my union but don’t know who to call instead. My principal feels stuck, too. What can we do? 

A:  This situation doesn’t sound sustainable. I’m wondering why you didn’t get the promised support. Is there a hiring freeze? Are other schools having more luck securing additional help? Has your principal spoken to his colleagues to see if others took a different approach? 

I think your best bet may be to take a closer look at these students’ IEPs. Are you truly unable to supply the required interventions? If so, you could make the argument to higher-ups that your school is violating the law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that each child who has a disability and needs special education and related services will receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). You’ll be more likely to elicit an immediate response by talking about the law than by referencing your mental state. 

I also suggest calling your school district’s lawyer for advice. The website Wright’s Law recommends that when teachers know that a colleague is violating a student’s IEP, they ought to write a letter to the district stating that they assume their school administrators are unaware of the problem and can’t correct it unless they know. This could end up being protective for teachers, the site notes. For example, in Doe v. Withers, an important 1993 case in West Virginia, a teacher had to pay damages out of his own pocket for not following a student’s IEP. Meanwhile, his coworkers —  who knew he’d been violating the IEP — weren’t held responsible because they’d put their concerns in writing. Your situation is a little different, but still I’d ask the lawyer how you and your colleagues should be documenting violations. 

I suspect parents and guardians are well aware of what’s going on, but if they’re not already advocating for more staffing, they you should enlist their help. They can write the superintendent, or testify publicly at a Board of Education or special education advisory committee meeting. The parents of the other students in the class might be willing to speak up too since this affects their kids’ instruction. I’m sure everyone would be grateful if you took a public stand as well, but that could be professionally risky.  

Parents also can ask for a due process hearing, request mediation with a third party, or write a letter to the state education agency if they believe the school is in violation of IDEA. They have a year to file a complaint about a suspected violation. The state’s job is to make sure school districts are following the law, so someone may even visit your school to check out the situation. Parents also have 180 days to file a complaint with the Office of Civil rights — the federal education authorities — for disability discrimination under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

You say you don’t want to contact your union, but that may be worth reconsidering, especially if your voice would add to a chorus of other teacher complaints. There’s power in numbers. If you have a compliance department, you could talk to someone there about your working conditions. It’s possible that all these new demands violate your employment contract. 

As cost-cutting measures go, this one sounds unsafe, unwise, and short-sighted, particularly if the school system ends up fielding a bunch of lawsuits. But the bottom line is that all students should have appropriate time with trained educators so they’re able to meet their goals. It’s simply the right thing to do.  

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.orgAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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