Schools across the United States are required by law to accommodate disabled students, who have a right to public access and education as set out in law, court precedent and global discussions about human rights. The spectrum of accommodations made available, however, varies widely, despite having frameworks in place intended to support disabled people who want to attend school. Consequently, students often find themselves navigating a world of discrimination, frustration and sometimes active abuse; they’re locked into solitary classrooms, forced to eat crayons covered in hot sauce, restrained for “acting out,” and, apparently, sent to emergency rooms for behavioral outbursts.
When a disabled student starts school, schools usually sit down with her, her teachers, parents and her care providers to discuss an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The IEP discusses the specific accommodations she needs to do well in school, including the steps the school should take to deal with behavioral issues. This document creates clear guidelines to help teachers instruct their disabled students equitably and with a mind to the wishes of their students, their parents and the caregivers in their lives — for example, a student’s psychiatrist might have specific advice about helping a student handle anxiety.
IEPs, however, are often ignored, as parents report when struggling with school districts to get basic accommodations, or when demanding to know why schools have specifically overridden their requests. This has been the case with several schools in New York City, where staff members are apparently sending children to local emergency rooms when they experience outbursts, using the ER as an effective “time out” room for these students…even after parents have said they do not want their children taken offsite to handle outbursts.
Dealing with potentially disruptive students in the classroom can be extremely challenging. Often, approaches to student behavior focus on suppressing it, rather than determining why a student is having a tantrum or acting out in other ways, attempting to establish communication and resolving the situation. Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches is restraint and/or seclusion of disabled students, which can actually serve to make students more anxious and upset.
Imagine how much more upset students get when they not only are removed from the classroom, but they’re sent to a hospital filled with unfamiliar people, sounds, sights and smells. Some students have actually become afraid of hospitals as well as people in uniform (fearing the police and hospital personnel who attempt to care for them when they’re tossed into the ER).
“…a now-7-year-old with autism known as D.E. was sent to the ER repeatedly as a kindergartner after having tantrums even though he was often calm before the ambulance arrived and his mother asked to take him home instead. On several occasions, the mother and son spent between four and six hours at the hospital before staff determined that the boy did not require emergency services, the lawsuit alleges,” Disability Scoop reports.
The refusal to honor parent wishes comes on top of yet another insult: in the aftermath of ER visits, parents are receiving big bills for ambulance transport and hospitalization, in addition to spending hours in the ER waiting for their children to be evaluated. Schools are effectively forcing parents to pay for their children to receive unnecessary interventions from emergency services, even when many such students come from low-income communities where parents may struggle with health care costs (even under insurance reform). Furthermore, they’re wasting valuable EMS resources by using hospitals as a discipline tool.
Part of the problem may be a lack of staff members, including support staff, to help teachers, aides and other personnel implement IEPs, interact with disabled students in distress, and work with parents to achieve the best outcomes for students. Thanks to funding cuts, overcrowding, school closures and other factors, many schools are struggling to accommodate pupils. Sending difficult students to the emergency room, however, is certainly not the solution.
Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain.