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Gap Watch: How schools treat students with physical disabilities vs. emotional disabilities

Jun 3, 2015

Credit user Mark Ramsay / flickr

Thousands of high school seniors this month will put on their caps and gowns, walk across a stage, and get their diplomas. Go graduates! 

But it also got me thinking about the countless students who, for various reasons, won't make it to graduation. For instance, students with emotional disabilities, who have some of the worst graduation rates in the country. Fewer than half graduate compared to a national average of around 80%.

Regular State of Opportunity readers will know I spent a lot of time this school year at Cody’s Medicine and Community Health Academy in Detroit. It’s a small high school on the city’s west side. That's where I met 15-year old Kaylan. She has a disability. It's an emotional disability, which means unlike a physical disability, you can't see it. It's hidden. And that can lead to a gap in how these students are treated in school.

About 20% of youth in the U.S. have some type of emotional disability. That term covers a really broad range, from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to mental health issues like bipolar disorder or depression. 

Now without getting too specific about Kaylan’s disability, I can tell you that she gets angry a lot, especially around schoolwork. She has a hard time following orders and often acts out in class. When she gets stuck on an assignment, she gets mad. "I just want to give up," she says. "I want to walk out, I sometimes want to cry."

Now Kaylan has an Individualized Education Program. Some kids who qualify for special education get IEPs, which are plans that describe the student’s disability and let teachers know what they have to do to help a student be successful in school.

But two things went wrong for Kaylan at Cody:

  1. Some teachers didn’t even know she had an IEP, which is a problem.
  2. She was suspended multiple times throughout the year, even though an IEP is supposed to help students like her avoid suspension.

It turns out, in terms of suspensions at least, this is not an uncommon practice.

Debra Chopp is a lawyer with the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, and she has fought with dozens of Michigan school districts and even sued districts on behalf of families whose children aren’t getting the type of education they deserve by law.

She says she sees students with emotional disabilities "get suspended from school constantly for disrupting the classroom, and that it’s really hard for the schools to wrap their brains around the fact that it’s not intentional behavior." 

These students, she says, are not deliberately trying to disrupt the classroom.

Students with emotional disabilities "are often given up on very quickly. They're often seen as being the bad kids."

Chopp represents students with physical and emotional disabilities, and in her practice she’s noticed that the two groups get treated differently. She finds that "students with physical disabilities get more comprehensive services and more support from schools" than students who have emotional disabilities or impairments that affect their behavior.

So what does the data say? Well, a lot of research focuses on students with disabilities in general and does not parse it out by type of disability. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are some statistics out there that illustrate the gap:

  • Students with emotional disabilities have the worst graduation rates of all students with disabilities. 
  • When they leave school, they are far more likely than students with any other disability to be homeless, addicted to drugs, or to be incarcerated.
  • Students with emotional disabilities are almost twice as likely to become teen mothers as students with other disabilities. 

Dan Habib is with the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, where he produces documentaries about students with physical and emotional impairments. His work on disability started because his son, Samuel, has cerebral palsy, and Habib wanted to document what it was like to include Samuel in all aspects of their life – home, community and school. The result is the very moving film, Including Samuel. 

As Habib told U of M's LSA Magazine last fall, putting so much of his family on film wasn't an easy choice.

“It was a lot to ask of my family,” he says. “There was honest vulnerability we had to show in order to make the story real, because if I had sugarcoated it or made it look easy for our family, that would have done a disservice to all the other families who are really struggling trying to make sure a child with disabilities is a part of their school and their communities.”

Now Samuel has what Habib calls an obvious disability. "He rolls into a classroom in his wheelchair and there's no doubt" folks will notice. But it's a different story for students with "hidden disabilities" like emotional impairments, which he captures in his other documentary, Who Cares About Kelsey?

"The big difference I've seen ... is that a kid with a physical disability is not going to be blamed for their disability," says Habib. Whereas students with emotional disabilities "are often blamed and they're often given up on very quickly. They're often seen as being the bad kids."

Dan Habib, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President's Committee for People With Intellectual Disabilities, says schools can do a much better job when it comes to helping students with emotional disabilities. Like getting rid of zero-tolerance policies for starters. 

"Expulsion and suspension does not work," Habib says. "It does not yield better outcomes for students to use these punitive measures." Schools need to take a positive approach, one that reinforces good behavior. And he says teachers cannot do it alone. They need training and they need support.

We'll have a blog post tomorrow on teacher training programs and whether or not they adequately prepare general-ed teachers on matters of special education. Stay tuned!

Habib says the combination of positive reinforcement, better training and more support can make a big difference in the lives of students like Kaylan – student who aren’t “bad kids,” they’re just kids with emotional disabilities.