Panel at DePaul highlights Chicago’s struggle with special education

On May 22, 2013, Chicago voted to close 50 public schools.  Among those most affected were special needs students.  Last week DePaul’s College of Education  held a panel discussion to inform listeners about the history of special education in the city, where it stands today and how it can be improved in the future.

Beverly Holden Johns is Illinois’ very own special education crusader.  She has authored several books on the subject and has worked with special needs students for over 40 years.

Johns recalled one of her first experiences working with a girl named Sally.  Sally attended school for the first time at age 10, living with poor hearing, a cleft pallet and a variety of intellectual and behavioral disorders.  Johns learned that Sally had been denied her education previously by the school’s principal, who claimed she didn’t belong.

The battle for special education rights followed a path similar to that of Civil Rights in the United States.  Illinois was one of the first states to pass legislation back in 1965 with a law that prevented students from being excluded from school because of their disabilities.

These regulations were enhanced in 2004 when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was created.  Special needs students received benefits such as a free education from birth to age 21, an Individualized Education Plan and the opportunity to work in the least restrictive environment possible.

Johns encouraged the audience to “always be vigilant of what laws and regulations say if you want to make a change.”

This is crucial because general education teachers often lack the knowledge or skills necessary to successfully incorporate special needs students in their classrooms.  Special education advocates are also fighting legislation that would allow funds for the program to be redistributed to music, theater, and sports departments.

Enter Kristine Mayle, a DePaul graduate and Chair of the Illinois Federation of Teachers Special Education Committee.  Her first job in special education was with Chicago Public Schools 10 years ago, in the basement of a disheveled church with no classroom door.  She is passionate about immersing her students in general education courses, while making sure they receive the maximum amount of support allowed by law.

Mayle spoke of an instance where “a teacher spent $1,500 out of pocket for braces and supports because CPS wouldn’t provide them.”

“If everyone followed IDEA, I wouldn’t be here right now.  I would be helping my kids.”

Although special education rights evolved alongside Civil Rights in America, minorities and low-income students are still at a disadvantage.

Dr. Federico Waitoller studies special education inequality at UIC.  Despite increased diagnoses of special needs students since the ‘70s, Waitoller believed that cases among minority students have grown at a disproportionate rate.

“Segregation is still ongoing,” said Waitoller.  “Sometimes by race, sometimes by disability, and sometimes by both.”  Minority students are also likely to receive harsher punishments than their counterparts for same or similar offenses.

Speakers at the event said special education reform will not occur without the help of those outside of the education field.  Education students are well informed of the plight of special needs students, but their influence rarely extends beyond the classroom.  In order to give special needs students a better chance, proper legislation and administration of IDEA laws must be carried out.  Of course, the voice of a few concerned citizens never hurts.