- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) - Summer Blackwell pops a can of Mandarin oranges and chugs her lunch in the cafeteria of Olympic High School. She laughs and chats with her boyfriend.

Earlier she had band, where she plays the trumpet, then English and health. This fall, Summer played on the JV football team. She loves music, martial arts and animals.

She’s just your typical ninth-grade kid. What doesn’t show are the years Summer spent in self-contained special education classrooms. Invisible are the frustrations and triumphs she had as she outgrew a childhood seizure disorder and made the transition to a general education setting.

“Inclusion,” whenever possible, is an overriding goal of special education. As Summer’s story illustrates, it’s not always a smooth journey.

Bright lights and loud noise cause Caleb (not his real name) physical pain, and can provoke violent meltdowns that used to land him in isolation rooms at school. The 15-year-old high school sophomore, who was diagnosed at 5 with autism spectrum disorder, used to feel sick to his stomach with anxiety walking through a crowd. Now, “it’s not actually scary but it’s uncomfortable,” he said.



Through years of therapy and working with special education teachers, Caleb now can sense a meltdown coming and find a quiet place or ask for help.

Like Summer, Caleb has been “mainstreamed” into general education classes. It’s been a rocky road, but this year, finally, he’s starting to feel more confident and positive about school. Like most kids, Caleb just wants to blend with the crowd.

“I just act normal, or try to, so they won’t know I’m autistic, because I think it’s embarrassing,” he said.

NUMBERS HIGH, NOT INCREASING

Summer and Caleb are part of a large and diverse group of students qualified to receive special education services. Recognized conditions include intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, vision or hearing loss, traumatic brain injury, orthopedic conditions, health impairment, and “emotional behavioral disability.” Bottom line, eligibility depends on whether the condition interferes with learning, resulting in “unique needs” that can’t be met in general education without accommodations.

In Central Kitsap School District, 13.9 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade are special education. Counting children from birth through age 5, who by law receive screening and services from public schools, the special education population in CKSD is closer to 16 percent. The state population, ages 0 to 21, is 13.4 percent of just more than 1 million students.

Central Kitsap is one of a handful of districts in the country providing services through the Navy’s Exceptional Family Member Program. That likely contributes to its high special needs population, said John Yellowlees, CKSD’s director of secondary special education.

The number of special education students statewide appears to have inched up over the past two decades, from 10.9 percent in 1996 to 13.4 percent in 2015, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Better identification of students in need of services and the trend to serve more children before they enter public school contributes to the perception that the special needs population is growing, said Doug Gill, assistant superintendent of special education for OSPI. In reality, the population has been relatively stable. Looking at fluctuations over time, K-12 special education students in Washington State have made up around 12 percent of the total student population for the past four decades, Gill said.

The state funds districts for special education at 12.7 percent of K-12 enrollment. Districts like Central Kitsap that have a higher percentage use federal funds, grants and local levies to fill the gaps.

The trend toward inclusion has put a strain on school districts, but for the better, say most experts, as schools get better at meeting the unique needs of individuals like Summer and Caleb.

SUMMER’S STORY

Summer’s family had no idea she was having seizures as a toddler and young child, said her mom, Mary Blackwell. One day, after a long nap, she was unresponsive. The airlift to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma was the start of a long string of hospitalizations.

Medication brought the seizures more or less under control, but Summer had learning disabilities and speech problems.

“No one could understand what I was saying,” she said. “I just cried a little bit and was very frustrated about that they didn’t understand what I was trying to say to them, even if I said it five times in a row.”

Summer was a runner. Whether because of the medication or the seizures, she was “hyper” and required one-on-one supervision.

In elementary school, the self-contained classroom was a good fit for her. At 12, however, there was evidence Summer’s brain had healed from damage done by the seizures, which disappeared over time.

ADVOCATING FOR INCLUSION

By eighth grade, Summer was bored in the resource room. She longed to join in mainstream classes.

“Summer’s very social and very outgoing,” Mary Blackwell said. “So that was tough for her.”

“I felt pretty sad that I couldn’t do what other kids were doing,” she said.

Summer felt hurt at the end of the year when students in her group did not get an invitation to the schoolwide eighth-grade graduation. Summer was welcome to attend, Blackwell was told when she complained.

As ninth grade approached, Blackwell went to bat for her daughter. She met with Olympic High School Principal Rebecca Johnson, Yellowlees and other special education staff, making the pitch that Summer was ready for full inclusion.

With support from her teachers and family, Summer has risen to the challenge and is thriving.

“I have to tell you, she is amazing,” said Diane Clouser, Summer’s English teacher. “We don’t know where she’s going to go.”

Blackwell has praise for Olympic and the district, but she says parents need to advocate for their children.

“Had I not said anything, she still would be in there,” Blackwell said. “Every kid has something unique to offer, and just because they’re special education, doesn’t mean they’re any less than anybody else in the student body. There needs to be more inclusion, and there needs to be a bar set higher.”

BEHAVIOR ISSUES IN SPECIAL ED

When, Caleb was in kindergarten, he soothed himself by counting backward from 100 - by 7s, said his mom, Liz Brown of Tracyton. He can easily assemble computer equipment, and he’s a wizard at video games. Put him in a social setting, however, and that forte for linear thinking becomes a handicap.

Transitions are difficult. Too much stimulation upsets him. Caleb’s mood can shift “from zero to 60” in a matter of minutes, Brown said. When he starts pacing, watch out.

The family has a safety plan at home. Some days sharp objects are locked in the bedroom.

Behavioral outbursts in some people with autism can stem from a heightened sensitivity to sensations, according to Ashley Penney of the University of Washington’s Autism Center. The center provides services to families, does community outreach and conducts research.

The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from one in 150 children in 2000, to one in 68 children in 2010. Most local special education experts speculate that’s because we’re getting better at identifying it, not because it’s on the rise.

Difficult behavior in people with autism likely is connected to challenges they have in the area of communication, Penney said. “My opinion is all behavior and all challenging behavior serves a communicative function.”

“It literally hurts me to stand still,” Caleb said. “I would just get more mad if I’d explain it, and they wouldn’t get it.”

DISCIPLINE AND THE QUEST FOR EQUITY

Evolving thinking on managing behavior in students with autism and other conditions is to identify the cause and underlying purpose of the behavior.

“We have to really honor the fact that kids in our school system are doing the best they can in the moment,” Penney said. “If they don’t know the appropriate behavior, it’s our job to teach them the appropriate behavior and do it in a supportive way. Not punish it.”

Data from OSPI shows that special education students are suspended or expelled at a rate disproportionate to their representation in the total population. Statewide in 2015 special education students were twice as likely to receive these punishments as students in the general population.

Educators concerned about equity are taking a close look at these numbers, and districts are looking at their school-level data to identify areas where improved practices could reduce excessive or inappropriate use of punitive measures.

A new law, approved in 2015 and effective this school year, prohibits the use of isolation or restraint of special education students except as a last resort, when there is risk of harm to the student or others. And districts must now document to OSPI each instance in which these techniques are used.

Experts, including OSPI’s Gill, say isolation and restraint improperly used can exacerbate undesirable behaviors, because they don’t teach kids other ways to get their needs met.

Liz Brown describes autism as “a moving target.” Each developmental stage brings new challenges and opportunities. Students should not be given a bye on behavior just because they’re special education, Brown said. But the best educators know the triggers, see the storm coming and give students tools to help them fend it off.

Little by little, Caleb’s life is improving, Brown said. “He’s made amazing strides. I don’t have any fear for him as an adult, and how he’s going to be. He will be successful. He will be OK.”

___

Information from: Kitsap Sun, https://www.kitsapsun.com/

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