How to keep kids with special needs out of prison and in middle school

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As a special education teacher, I pride myself on being an advocate for my students and their needs.

Special education students deserve reasonable accommodations which make it possible for them to be successful in the school setting.

In my 20 plus years of teaching, I have taught students with every possible disability. Some of these young people have overcome the odds and become highly productive members of society: teachers, soldiers, pilots, mechanics, custodians, or taxidermists. They have achieved at levels many thought would be impossible for them.

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Unfortunately, however, it seems just as many of my students fall through the cracks and instead are incarcerated. I have former students in prison for burglary, drug related charges, theft, assault and battery, and murder. Almost every student now incarcerated, I knew when I had them in middle school, this was to be their fate. I feel a saddened sense of responsibility at not being able to find a way to change their path.

Too often, it was painfully apparent at the middle school level which students were prison bound. These students could not consistently conform to the basic rules of school life.

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Cossondra George

Cossondra George

Manifestation hearings were held to determine if the behaviors were directly related to their ‘disability’ or not. In some cases, I fought to defend the student’s behaviors – a child being suspended for swearing in an angry outburst caused by some minor misunderstanding, or a child who was consistently tardy because her lack of organizational skills caused her four minute locker break to be inadequate for her to gather all her belongings for class. Their behaviors were directly related to their disabilities and were not interfering with the education of other students, or endangering anyone.

In other cases, I disagreed with the decisions – violent students who endangered others by throwing furniture, or a child caught stealing in the cafeteria repeatedly, or the boy who refused to remove his hat or keep his feet off the table. I saw these behaviors as simply unacceptable, regardless. Endangering another person, stealing, or pure and simple defiance because you don’t want to follow the rules should never be tolerated.

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Teaching middle schoolers to become their own best advocates by empowering them to ask for what will help them experience success drives my day. I encourage them to ask to have tests read, or to take their assessments in a quiet location, or be given copies of notes before lectures, or to be given a chance to decompress in a quiet location when they are angry, or to be given an extra day to complete a long writing assignment.

I teach them to learn to know what makes a difference in their learning and in their success in the classroom, but I always encourage them to not make excuses for their disabilities, and teach them to not let their disability define them or their lives.

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Every child is unique, no doubt, and every situation warrants an in-depth investigation, but too often, we make excuses for children, simply because they have a disability. In doing that, we create situations where we back ourselves into a corner, and teach the child s/he is above simple rules. Students must ALL be held to certain standards of behavior, at all times. There are black and white, non-negotiable rules that must be followed, regardless of your disability. If you are in a public school setting, you must be a public school student.

When we determine that students are not to be held accountable for their actions, we set them into a pattern of making excuses, upping the ante with behaviors which often escalate as they test the system over and over, and eventually, too often, cross the line and find themselves sitting not at a manifestation hearing but instead, in front of a judge. In the courtroom, that judge doesn’t care what their perceived disability is, but instead focuses on the actual crime committed and issues consequences based not on a manifestation, but on reality.

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How can we break the cycle? I think we need to set forth simple rules and simple consequences for students, and adhere to them regardless. These rules and expectations may need to be vary for each student, but they need to be made clear before problems arise.

While we may need to work to create individual behavior plans for some students, basic rules should be non-negotiable, i.e. rules which involve the safety and education of others. Schools have a mission, and that mission cannot be destroyed by the actions of one.

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We need to work with families to teach parents and students what the expectations are and what is going to happen if those expectations are not met. Schools need to provide mental health support for students, teaching them coping skills and encouraging them to seek help when they are overwhelmed or frustrated. We need to create more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities, empowering students to help each other. We need to teach compassion, tolerance and kindness in all classrooms, at all times.

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But on the other hand, we need the media to stop villainizing schools and teachers, holding them 100% accountable for student actions and learning. As a society, we must hold parents and students accountable for the behaviors of our children. No matter how hard I, the teacher, work to help that child learn coping skills, or math, or history, ultimately, the responsibility for that child’s success in life is out of my control, and firmly in the child’s own hands.

When we make excuses for students, when we allow them too much leeway, when we do not hold them accountable for their own actions, we create coddled, entitled adults who do not understand why suddenly, the rules of society are black and white and apply to them, just like they apply to everyone else.

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We fail them because we don’t hold them accountable. We fail them because we don’t provide the services they need to be successful. We fail them because we don’t know what to do to help them.

To break the cycle, we need to work together – school, parents, and mental health service providers – to provide clear and consistent expectations and consequences for every child, setting them up for success, creating a path of productivity and possibility.

Cossondra George is a veteran middle school teacher who teaches history, math and language arts, along with special education, in Newberry, Mich. She is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory and serves as on the leadership team for the Teacher Leadership Initiative as the Virtual Community Organizer. George is also a teacher consultant for the Top of the Mitt National Writing Project.

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