What Do We Owe To and Expect from a Special Ed Teacher?

Abigail Zwerner
Courtesy AP

by James C. Sherlock

On February 16, USA Today published a story by Jeanine Santucci. That is the latest in an excellent series of reports on the shooting of Newport News first grade teacher Abigail Zwerner.

Her article, “Virginia 6-year-old who shot his teacher exposes flaws in how schools treat students with disabilities.” raises questions that Virginians need to answer.

  • What, exactly, do we expect of special education teachers and what do we owe them?
  • What training and resources must we provide?
  • How do we keep them safe?
  • How do we get enough people to accept the challenges and risks?

Any school official or teacher will tell you:

  • That the best-organized parents in K-12 education are special-ed parents;
  • That federal law is very prescriptive and provides little room for error on the part of the schools;
  • That schools’ (meaning taxpayers’) liability for error is open-ended; and
  • That special-ed continues to get more challenging, especially after COVID accelerated the number of emotionally disturbed children and adolescents.

Few school divisions will claim to have any of that under control.

 JLARC in 2020 concurred with that assessment in Virginia.

Longstanding shortage of special education teachers persists, and many school divisions rely on under-prepared teachers to fill gaps.

IEPs are not consistently designed effectively.

School divisions are not consistently preparing students with disabilities for life after high school.

The basic issue: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has written requirements that many American schools cannot fulfill despite their best efforts.

The Code of Virginia provides definitions of special education. VDOE has an excellent web page explaining the program.

Thirteen percent of Virginia public school students met special education requirements in 2019, matching national averages; 164,000 K–12 students were enrolled in special education that year.

Conditions requiring special education support include:

  • Autism (can include certain areas under Autism Spectrum Disorder)
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional Disturbance (can include Emotional Disability)
  • Hearing Impairment (can include Deaf and Hard of Hearing)
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment (including blindness)

IDEA guarantees that children with disabilities have the right to a “free appropriate public education.” It requires that services for school-aged children with developmental disabilities (3 through 21 years of age) be provided free of charge through the public schools.

IDEA covers special education and related services such as physical, occupational, and speech therapy and supplementary aids and services, such as adaptive equipment or special communication systems.

All of that is very expensive and very hard to staff.

Grants to States Program (IDEA-B) provides some limited funding to Virginia school divisions for special education and related services. With federal money comes federal regulation. Lots of interesting information in there.

Subpart E Procedural Safeguards Due Process Procedures for Parents and Children — is the Part B regulation series that supports parents and grants them rights to civil action in federal courts. It daily confounds schools trying to comply.

Reporting requirements. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) thinks it keeps close tabs on the states through mandatory reporting.

Check out correspondence from OSEP to the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Virginia meets the requirements and purposes of Part B of the IDEA.

The JLARC report, ordered by the 2018 General Assembly, which knew special education wasn’t right, confirms the difference between reporting and reality.

It shows that OSEP knows absolutely nothing about special education in Virginia schools based on our reports.

Special Education Advisory Committees (SEAC). Virginia’s State SEAC has its quarterly meeting this week starting Wednesday.

Every school division is required to have a local SEAC as well. Each creates reports and improvement plans.

That clearly satisfy OSEP requirements without satisfying student needs.

School divisions. So, what challenges do a school division, and a school, face in the real world? Each of them wants to educate their special education students whether federal law requires them to do it or not.

But they have two problems: the costs of implementing the federal requirements and a statewide (and nationwide) shortage of trained special education teachers.

Costs. Federal payments under IDEA-B were originally supposed to offset 40% of the costs. The actual transfers have never come close. Currently they are estimated to cover 16% of actual costs.

So what are poorer divisions to do?

Teachers. The NEA reports that in February of 2022, there were 335,000 fewer educators than before the pandemic.

Special education teachers have been at the top of the list of the Ten Critical Shortage Teaching Endorsement Areas in Virginia as reported by the Board of Education in its Annual Report on the Condition and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia for as long as I can remember.

It is a national problem. In 2022, 48 of 50 states reported shortages of special-ed teachers.

Virginia is one of the states that allows provisional licensure of teachers working towards their special education certification. Whether that is a good thing is up for debate. Whether it is necessary in Virginia is not.

Even with those provisional teachers, special-ed teachers represent Virginia’s number one shortage. And the ones we have are not optimally distributed across 132 school divisions and never will be.

Classroom management. Once licensed, a special education teacher faces unique challenges, not only with each child’s individualized education program (IEP), but also with classroom management with children and adolescents in the “least restrictive environment,” which often but not always means IEP students mixed in with students without special needs.

It requires a lot of both skill and patience, and can prove hazardous when students act out, sometimes violently.

Crimes and discipline – IDEA. Nothing in Part B prohibits a school division from reporting a crime committed by a child with a disability to appropriate authorities or prevents state law enforcement and judicial authorities from exercising their responsibilities with regard to the application of Federal and State law to crimes committed by a child with a disability.

Part B also provides:

School personnel under this section may remove a child with a disability who violates a code of student conduct from his or her current placement to an appropriate interim alternative educational setting, another setting, or suspension, for not more than 10 consecutive school days (to the extent those alternatives are applied to children without disabilities), and for additional removals of not more than 10 consecutive school days in that same school year for separate incidents of misconduct (as long as those removals do not constitute a change of placement under §300.536).

But the handling of crimes and discipline, as we have seen, has been modified by Virginia law. I have recommended changes that better align with federal requirements.

What to do? I don’t have any other insights that the professionals have not thought of.

There are certainly policy differences among people who want to help. A couple of my personal positions adamantly opposed by the left:

  1. Facing a shortage like this, I would not force White teachers to confess their “racism” every couple of years in “training” sessions; and
  2. I would require principals to call the police in every case of battery. And make that a policy, not a matter of personal choice, to protect principals from retribution from communities or parents.

But perhaps that is just me being fanciful. Certainly progressives want to help too.

But Virginia has to fill the special education teacher pipeline in an era of collapsing willingness of young people to enter the teaching profession, much less special education.

Making the job as safe as possible is a sine qua non.

Every adolescent ready for college gets the news somewhere. A special education teacher getting shot by a 6-year old cannot be considered a recruiting advantage.

We are also going to have to pay them more. Perhaps dramatically and differentially more. The unions may not like the differential part, but so be it.

Time to get to it.