As a nation we are filled with many questions in the face of yet another horrific tragedy caused by a devastating school shooting in Florida yesterday. This is the 18th school shooting so far this year, which claimed 17 lives in a single attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day 2018.
Many of us need to find answers or blame someone or something. Do we need better gun-control laws? Probably. What about providing safer schools for our children? Of course. However, as a society if we continue to fail to address the underlying issues found in each one of these tragedies, tougher gun laws and safer schools will not provide the answers we need.
In most cases, at the core of each of these incidents, is either an undiagnosed mental illness, an under-treated mental illness or some other form of a disability. Who is responsible for treating children, adolescents and teenagers who are faced with disabilities including mental illnesses? In many cases school districts are ultimately responsible for providing these crucial services.
We as parents do everything we can to help support our children and if needed provide them and seek out appropriate therapy, mental health treatment and anything else that can provide help and support. What many people don't know, however, is that the school districts where our children reside are ultimately responsible for providing evaluations and often times, appropriate special education and related services to children when there is merely a "suspicion" the child might have a disability.
Put bluntly, school districts are mandated by state and federal laws to seek out children that they suspect may have a disability which is impacting their education and who may require specialized services to help them. Suspected disabilities can include Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ADHD to name a few. All of these diagnoses have the potential to impact a student's education. The threshold for triggering a school district to evaluate a child who is suspected of having a disability is very low. Yet we continue to see students left unevaluated and their needs unaddressed.
Why is it so important that school districts timely address students' special education needs? Because once they graduate from high school and transition into adulthood, they need the appropriate skills to function in and hopefully contribute to society. Tragically, many students are either not identified as a student with a disability, or they are provided services, but those services are not appropriate to meet their needs.
Federal law requires that school districts provide a transition plan to students with disabilities before graduating from high school. This is an extremely important step our school district's must provide these students, especially those with mental health illnesses or social disabilities. Left unaddressed or undiagnosed, students graduate from high school, become adults and are left without adequate resources.
For our more severely disabled children, school districts may be responsible to provide them appropriate services until they reach the age of 22. However, if a child graduates with a high school diploma at any age prior to 22, even if they have significant social and mental health disabilities, the school district is no longer responsible for providing them with services. As special education attorneys who represent these students, we see far too often that they seem to slip by under the radar.
Students with ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety and Depression who act out in school and get in trouble, are often labeled as having behavior problems, not disabled. Many times, these students are expelled from school due to their actions, when the conduct is directly connected to an underlying disability.
Of course, we want to keep all of our children safe and students that act in an unsafe manner absolutely have to be punished or provided appropriate treatment. But, often times the appropriate remedy is not expelling or simply ignoring the problem. It will only make matters worse. This epidemic must be addressed. These students need to be properly evaluated for special education supports and related services as soon as possible, to determine if they have a disability that is impacting their education, academically or socially. The fact that a student has a disability does not automatically qualify them for special education services. However, if there is a suspicion of a disability or an actual diagnosed disability that is impacting their education, the school district is responsible for providing appropriate supports and services, and may be barred from simply suspending or expelling the student.
What about the students who have the ability to pass their classes, but they are not doing well socially? They may have no friends and might be getting into trouble because they make "socially inappropriate" statements that may be perceived as a threat. Many of these students are passing their classes and completing assignments, yet are struggling socially and being denied services.
If we take steps to make our schools safer and provide better gun-control laws, but we ignore the crucial underlying issues of the mental health needs of our society, it won't be enough. This horrible epidemic will continue happening to our children and families.
What needs to be done? To start, we need to provide better guidelines for school districts to seek and find students with mental health needs and social deficits. Many school districts have put in place protocols that go beyond federal and state law and they are doing a great job. But there are many students missed each year. School districts must follow the legal mandates placed upon them. They must not ignore students with mental illness. In this most recent incident, the shooter reportedly left a comment on a YouTube video last year stating: "I'm going to be a professional school shooter." According to a media report, he was not allowed on campus with a backpack after the YouTube video. He had previously been found with bullets in his backpack. He had been expelled from school. After the shooting, a teacher indicated "I can't say I was shocked...He seemed like the kind of kid who would do something like this." Other students shared opinion "Everyone predicted it." Were these warning signs properly addressed? Only time will tell.
Providing stricter guidelines and funding for better community support for transitioning these students out of high school and into adulthood is also an area that needs reworking. Services after graduation provided by other state agencies including regional centers in California are also lacking, which must be addressed.
We must protect our children and our society. The issues are complex. There are not quick and easy answers to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Yet steps must be taken. Suspicions must be reported. Teachers must not be afraid to refer their students for special education evaluations. We must address the flaws in our system. School districts' failures to provide appropriate treatment to the disabled, even from a young age, are having a devastating impact upon our children and society as a whole. Keep talking about mental health issues. Keep informing others about school districts' obligations. The federal law not only supports this, it mandates an affirmative duty on districts to seek out and find children who are suspected of having a disability.