With 1,700 particular schooling jobs unfilled, households of scholars with disabilities really feel in danger
Susan Book knows how bad things can get when a child doesn’t have a stable, trusted special education teacher. Her son Emerson is 11 years old and is autistic. He identifies as a student with a disability.
“I attribute autism to its absolutely amazing creative brain,” said Book. “He comes with song parodies and jokes that just make us laugh.”
When Emerson was in third grade at Wake County Public Schools, his special education teacher resigned in the middle of the year. Over the next two years, he was tutored by a number of alternates, switched programs, and saw two more teachers leave.
Emerson explains why he doesn’t like subs.
“They do things differently that I’m not used to, that makes me angry,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not used to children with autism, and they may let me write instead of dictating.”
One aspect of Emerson’s autism is that he has dysgraphia. It means he is struggling to physically write things down and he gets really frustrated when he has to write. The best solution for him is to dictate his homework answers and have an assistant write his answers. His mother says his needs were not met without a qualified teacher or help.
His special school class was temporarily taught by a general education teacher.
“My son actually had a teacher who had never looked at his problems before in his life,” said Book. “It was a constant struggle to teach the teacher in real time while my child was struggling.”
Book says when Emerson’s needs were not met, he began to have serious behavior problems.
“He behaved in pretty bad ways in school that it’s really hard for parents to talk about,” said Book. “He didn’t trust anyone in this building and when that happens things will fall apart.”
Emerson’s struggle turned into a mental crisis. For months he was in the “home hospital”, that is, he learned mainly from home, supplemented by tutoring in his school in the afternoon.
All of this happened just before the pandemic started and before the teacher shortage exploded. This year, North Carolina public schools continue to see vacant teaching and staffing positions well into the fall semester. Some of the most difficult positions to fill are in special education.
Free special schools deprive students with disabilities of a qualified teacher
In the first week of November, a WUNC analysis found that North Carolina public schools had a total of more than 10,000 open positions listed on their online job boards. Around 17% of them were in special education – including teachers, trained teaching assistants and specialists such as speech therapists.
“It can feel very vulnerable and very scary not knowing how to help your own child.”
Susan Book, mother of Emerson
Emerson is much better off now, with a steady teacher and individual assistant professor to help him write, but Book still thinks of all students like him who may not have a qualified teacher or help this year.
“I am very concerned about these families because these children bring home all of these fears and weaknesses,” said Book. “It can feel very vulnerable and very scary not knowing how to help your own child.”
Inspired by Emerson’s advocacy, Book became a public school funding activist. She co-founded Save Our Schools NC and is a member of Every Child NC.
Book said she was grateful that Emerson attended Wake County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and one of the best funded, but she believes what her son experienced now applies to students with disabilities across North Carolina affects.
Latonya Burney is the Director of Exceptional Children’s Services at Robeson County Schools, currently serving 20 licensed special education teacher positions out of a total of 135 normally employed in the district.
Those jobs have always been tough to fill, but Burney says this year is harder than usual.
“We had a lot of retirees, some teachers just didn’t come back or went to other districts,” said Burney. “That put a strain on our department. It was difficult to get qualified teachers into these positions. “
Burney said it was especially difficult for rural and low-income counties like Robeson to compete for teachers during a shortage.
WUNC spoke to about a dozen educators across the state about what these positions mean to them. Many did not want to reveal their names or schools. You described classrooms in crisis. Some described how general education teachers spend more time responding to students with special needs at the expense of other students because of insufficient TAs. Some special education classes have long-term substitutions or not enough adults in the room to adequately monitor the class while helping children with disabilities use the bathroom.
Burney says her team is taking larger case numbers and feeling overwhelmed by the number of students and the mountains of paperwork that have to be filled out to document their progress.
“It has to get better,” said Burney. “I hope it gets better.”
Stacey Gahagan is a lawyer specializing in education law and special education law.
When schools fail to meet the special needs of students, they risk lawsuits
If families feel that their students’ special educational needs are not being met, they can file a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
“The other option is to go through due process, which I always call a nice word for a lawsuit,” said Stacey Gahagan, a lawyer specializing in special education law.
Each student with a disability receives an individual curriculum, or IEP. It’s like a roadmap that sets out what support the student will receive this year. The plan is worked out by a team that includes the child’s teachers and family, and often specialists from the school district such as school psychologists or lawyers.
“My biggest concern is that the job openings will determine the decisions that will be made for the students, not the needs of the students that will drive the decisions.”
Stacey Gahagan, lawyer specializing in special education law
Gahagan’s first career was as an educator, and after attending law school, she worked as a school district attorney. Now her clients are families of children with IEPs and special education teachers.
Gahagan says if schools fail to meet the IEP, they risk potential lawsuits.
“Ultimately, the obligation is to comply with this IEP and provide the appropriate services,” said Gahagan. “This need does not go away just because there is no one to meet it.”
As a lawyer, she says school principals should be very concerned if they cannot meet student needs. As a former educator, she also fears that schools may simply cut corners when writing an IEP based on the resources available.
“My biggest concern is that the vacancies will determine the decisions that will be made for the students, not the needs of the students that will determine the decisions,” Gahagan said.
For example, Emerson’s plan is that he should have his own vet all day to write down his responses. Without one available, he would still be in a locked special education classroom. But with a one-on-one TA, he’s now going to math, science, and English classes with his peers.
His mother, Susan Book, explains that his civil right under federal education law for people with disabilities is to be in as restrictive an environment as possible, preferably in a regular classroom.
She says that having access to general education classes is critical to Emerson’s general social and emotional well-being and education.
“The first time my child said ‘brother’ I was really excited. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he totally learned that from school,’ ”Susan said. “My child modeled other children, and that was really important for a child who fights socially.”
Susan says Emerson’s story underscores the harmfulness of more than 1,700 special education vacancies across the state this semester and the lack of qualified teachers and professionals in classrooms raising children like yours.