A miseducation

On the first day of classes at his local public school in Yuba City, CA, David Swanson was turned away at the door. Twelve days later, his family received an unsigned letter offering $86,000 to keep him out for good.

David, whose story has garnered some local media coverage, has autism and diabetes, and at age 21, he is still unable to express himself verbally. He struggles to write his name, to remember his phone number, to maintain his hygiene—all activities that were supposed to be the core of his education plan. Last year, while David was still enrolled in school, one of his teachers added table manners to the curriculum. Deciding that plastic cutlery would not suffice, the teacher forced David to eat with a metal fork. David, who is sensitive to metal utensils touching his teeth, became distressed and spit the food out. The teacher then shoved the food back into his mouth, causing David to vomit.

The law says that David, like all other disabled students, is entitled to a “free appropriate public education”—often referred to by the acronym, FAPE. While what David received was free and it took place in a public school, it was neither appropriate nor educational. Although most special needs students are tended to by dedicated and knowledgeable teachers, far too many children with disabilities are routinely denied one or more of the elements of FAPE.

By shortchanging the needs and legal rights of disabled students, the educational system not only cheats its most vulnerable charges, it also increases the difficulties that they and society will face when they become adults.  David’s case might be unusual, but it is hardly unique or even the most extreme example of how our education system regularly, and tragically, fails its most vulnerable students. A 2009 General Accounting Office  report found hundreds of reports of students who had been abused and even died in the preceding decade at the hands of school staff. The overwhelming number of them were disabled: a four-year-old girl from West Virginia with cerebral palsy who was tied to a chair with her mouth duct-taped shut; a 14-year-old boy from Texas with PTSD whose teacher, twice his size, laid atop the facedown boy until he died.

When, in 1990, the federal government established the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the hope for the law could be summarized in those four words: free appropriate public education.

Too often shortsighted local education administrators focused on budgetary rather than academic concerns, determine that only one or two, not all four, aspects of FAPE can suffice. They decide that if they provide some modicum of education, it doesn’t really need to be appropriate; or if it is appropriate, it need not be in a public setting, but instead sequestered in a grim, isolated environment. In other words, they diminish the law and, in doing so, violate the rights and damage the prospects of their most defenseless students.

David Swanson received his buyout offer after his mother, Heather Houston, sued his school district for violating her son’s civil rights by denying him FAPE. The district hoped that an $86,000 settlement would be enough to compel David’s family to withdraw their complaints and pull him out of school. But Houston refused. She rightly wants the entire promise of FAPE fulfilled.

Cost, of course, is a growing issue holding back the FAPE ideal. The population of children suffering from autism and other physical and intellectual disabilities is growing at an alarming rate. David has one more year in the educational system and then he will join the burgeoning number of adults with autism and other special needs. This tidal wave has built before our eyes for decades, and yet we are no more prepared to manage their issues when they become adults than we were when they first started school. We have inadequate housing options, vocational training, jobs, and health care.

It boggles the imagination to conceive of a teacher who would cram food into the mouth of a distressed, disabled person. But FAPE exists in part to combat this type of compassion fatigue. It was created to ensure that the disabled don’t have to rely on the goodwill of others to received equal respect from our education system. And every time someone thinks such guidelines are not necessary, a case like David’s arises to remind us why it is our obligation to protect society’s most vulnerable.

The money school administrators have tried to save by shortchanging their neediest students will be paid by government agencies and families forced to care at a more intense, restrictive, and expensive level for disabled adults woefully unprepared for life after school. The guarantee of FAPE must be honored now because the moral and financial alternatives are too costly to contemplate.


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