Special Education: An Overlooked Factor to the Newtown Tragedy

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Something has been tugging at my heart in the wake of the unfathomable tragedy in Newtown, CT.  The obvious broken systems have been laid bare.  Gun control issues must be wrestled away from special interests and mental health must be recognized as an urgent public health issue. 

But there’s another broken system in America that has yet to be fully addressed in light of Friday’s incident:  special
education
.

I venture to say that every parent of a special needs child knows of what I speak. 

Certainly, here in Seattle, it is common knowledge that school districts fail to provide a free and appropriate education to every child it serves. 
A scathing article in the Seattle Times lays out what everyone knows all too well – teachers are without the proper training and resources to address the needs of their most vulnerable of students.

Because of this, I can certainly relate to certain elements of the Adam Lanza story. I, too, have been forced to homeschool my high school-aged son with Asperger’s because he was unable to withstand the hurly-burly of a huge, urban high school, nor thrive in the self-contained setting they offered with other children who were extremely low functioning.  Like Lanza, my son would become easily overwhelmed and take flight from what he was supposed to be doing. When a beloved classroom aide transferred to another school, no one had my son’s back anymore and the school would not be proactive about his triggers, despite my myriad exhortations. 

When I withdrew my “problem” child from school, they were nothing but relieved. I asked for homeschool resources and all they gave me was a list of free online courses. The district’s beautifully appointed Homeschool Resource Center, with its science lab, gym, library and classrooms are only for the neurotypical because I was told “they don’t have the budget to service Level 3 Special Ed students."  Now, the end result is an isolated teen who becomes more so, consigned to stare at a computer screen all day long.

I’ve been piecing together a new life for my son with my limited resources, but it’s certainly not easy. And then I read of Nancy Lanza, without a financial care in the world, holed up with her degenerating son. Maybe when you live high on a hill in an idyllic town, it’s harder to admit the reality of your life does not match the veneer — that you, in fact, aren’t hacking it as a single mother of a troubled
child and that you need help. 

By all accounts, Ms. Lanza’s forays into the community were to escape her troubles, not to share them.  It reads like a major mental illness such as schizophrenia had befallen her son, and denial allowed her to believe she could handle him alone.  It remains to be seen if her gun collection was secured, but the decision to teach her son to shoot was a tragic one. If she had survived, she likely would’ve faced charges of culpability.

One fact among everything I read stuck with me — Adam Lanza’s problems first became apparent when he started elementary school and he could not find his place amongst his peers.  Maybe this is a clue as to why he revisited that scene with such deadly intent.  

To be very clear, I am in no way sympathizing with Lanza nor am I justifying the horrific acts he committed.  However, due to my own personal
experiences as a single mother with a special needs child, I feel I understand much better than most as to why things unfolded the way they did.

When talking heads now espouse the need to take care of our children, special pains must be made to include all of them, including our most vulnerable.  Special education teachers need special training and programs must fit the child, rather than vice versa.  Federal pressure must be brought to bear upon school systems who chronically and flagrantly violate the civil rights of our special needs children so that the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975) is not a lofty dream, but a working reality.

The conscience of a nation needs awakening … the dire state of our special education system affects us all.

Susan Moffitt