By Delegate Dave LaRock
This past week, I read that a Lynchburg, Virginia, middle school student with autism was found guilty of disorderly conduct and felony assault of a school resource officer– for knocking over a trash can and then pushing the officer who was trying to restrain him.
During this past session in Richmond, the legislature passed a bill that would require the Virginia Board of Education to adopt statewide regulations on seclusion and restraint of pupils. Legislators heard testimony from dozens of parents about harrowing examples of children being physically restrained for acting up. One parent told about how their autistic child was locked in a closet for hours for offenses like tearing paper and banging on the door. Another special needs child was literally locked in what the school called a “scream room,” a concrete room with metal doors and a fan the staff would turn on to drown out the sound of screams. This child’s hand was broken when the staff slammed the door shut on him.
The truth is that many special needs children simply do not do well in the public school they are assigned, and even though they don’t do well, they are stuck there.
This past session, I proposed a bill that would give school choice in the form of a Parental Choice Savings Account to special needs kids in Virginia (and save the Commonwealth and school districts money at the same time). The bill proposed giving parents the option of taking control of their child’s education. It passed the House with bipartisan support and came within one vote of passing the Senate.
We cannot turn our backs on the kids who are stuck in a system that is failing them. Our lieutenant governor cast the deciding vote against school choice for special needs kids, siding with special interest groups like the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Education Association. These groups reject any proposal that allows dollars to follow a child. They see it as a direct threat to what they consider their turf.
The tug of war between parents and the education bureaucracy can leave special needs kids in a bad place, as with the 11-year-old from Lynchburg.
Recently, I met with a father from Purcellville who has tried every possible avenue to get his autistic daughter the education she needs before she ages out of the public school system. He and his wife have appealed at all levels and won, but little has changed as to how his daughter is treated. Litigation, which he cannot afford, is the only option left. I asked him what success for his daughter would look like and his answer was simple; success would simply be learning to be self-sufficient and avoid being institutionalized for her adult life; the latter would impose costs on the public far beyond the cost of educating this child.
Christy, a mom from Frederick County, had this to say when asked if a Parental Choice Education Account would help her: “We are facing an epidemic of treating and educating children on the spectrum. The public schools cannot handle it and either they deny services, provide inadequate IEP’s (Individual Education Plan) to get the student through the system, or frustrate the parents enough that they seek alternative ways to educate their children.” Christy went on to say, “Having my son’s educational resources at my fingertips could allow me to seek a specialized private school setting.”
School choice for special needs children will help by opening up an alternative to dangerous, often violent cycles of behavior and response. School choice is a long-term solution to the real problem at hand. Next year, I hope we’ll succeed with this program and protect special needs kids, not special interests.