Let Down

The Real Juvenile Offenders

School districts are required by law to provide services for special-needs kids. Too often, they don’t—and they’re getting away with it. By Daniela Drake

When he was in third grade, his teachers knew DaShawn couldn’t read. Yet despite their pleas, the school district refused to test him for special-education services.

Nationwide, school districts are increasingly caught in a bind between tight budgets and the needs of children with reading challenges. But if children don’t get early reading intervention, they run a high risk of illiteracy and school failure. Third grade is a pivotal year.

“By third grade if you don’t know how to read, you probably won’t learn how to read” without specialized help, says LaJoyce Porter, a special-education attorney from Oakland, Calif.

By fifth grade, it’s said that literate children have read a half-million words—and soon become expert readers. But dyslexics still require enormous effort to read even simple passages. Teased for their slowness, many become depressed and angry and act out.

At age 11, DaShawn was bringing liquor to school. “By sixth grade, children are aware of their deficiencies,” Porter says. “They’re faced with the choice of being the stupid one, the class clown, or the one who … drinks or smokes pot with his friends.”

For the next two years, DaShawn started fights, stole, and ultimately joined a gang. Meanwhile, area parents won a class action lawsuit against the district—for failing to deliver special education services—and the district was compelled to give DaShawn the help he needed.

And he began to learn. And he began to thrive. And he began to see a different kind of future for himself. So he pulled away from the gang. But, while walking home from school one day—with gang violence rampant in the area—DaShawn was shot and killed, possibly in retaliation.

When he was laid to rest in 2009, he was 15 years old.

By ignoring his teachers’ warnings, it’s my view the district bears some blame for what happened to DaShawn. By failing to educate these kids, districts practically guarantee they’ll end up in the so-called school-to-prison pipeline (PDF) like many youth with learning disabilities. Moreover, failure to deliver an appropriate public education is a federal crime.

“These school districts are definitely breaking the law,” Porter says. “There’s a part of [federal] law called Child Find. The districts have an affirmative obligation to seek out children who are struggling and provide services.”

Child Find is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that compels districts to “locate and evaluate …all children who may need Special Education services.” But with growing budget constraints, many districts turn a blind eye to Child Find.

Districts may also employ additional tactics to conserve resources. “Some districts discourage testing by suggesting you don’t want your child labeled ‘special ed.’” Porter says. Other well-known strategies include denying services, delivering inadequate programs, and and delaying implementation.

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I asked the U.S. Department of Education if it knew that across the country many children with learning disabilities were not getting appropriate testing or services, a spokesman gave me this response via email: “We defer to the particular state Department of Education in which these situations occur.” Given the illiteracy crisis, that’s a remarkable statement from the national agency responsible for ensuring every child has a chance to learn.

On the other hand, Porter, who represents many who’ve been denied services, feels the district tactics are clear. “It’s a numbers game. Probably half the parents will go away. Half may sue. Of those, half may win. Meanwhile the child is not getting help.”

This issue always sounded like somebody else’s problem to me—until my own son was found to be severely dyslexic. As I fought for services, I felt I was dealing with bureaucratic indifference bordering on malevolence. For two years they mollified me, while my son’s reading progress remained glacial.

Ultimately, I hired a lawyer who got us an appropriate reading program. Indeed, many parents have to take legal action. I interviewed several special education attorneys who told me the same thing: Parents are being stonewalled.

Although I observe that district officials count denying services as victories, I cannot find anything for them to feel good about. As I sat in the district meetings—perplexed, overwhelmed, and occasionally on the verge of tears—I always remembered the woman who killed herself and her disabled child because she couldn’t get appropriate services. I understand the powerlessness, confusion, and sickening despair. I think of the way my own child has suffered—and I multiply that by the estimated 6 million learning disabled children, many of whom without anyone to advocate for them. And, I am staggered by the loss and the pain.

“The public indifference to all this is astounding,” says Khefri Riley, a maternal-child advocate in Los Angeles. A parent of a special education child herself, Riley adds, “Maybe because they think it’s just a black problem.”

While African American children are disproportionately affected, the problem cuts across racial lines. It’s estimated that less than 35 percent of all 4th graders are reading at or above grade level (PDF).

No matter what the casual observer might think, reading failures are clearly not the teachers’ fault. It’s my view that learning to read is an easy process. If a child can’t do it, the child has what I’ve come to think of as a “broken reading mechanism.” And it’s hard to fix. These kids require intensive one-on-one or small group reading programs that teachers simply don’t have the capacity to implement.

Although the work is time-consuming, how to help these kids is not a mystery. Several research-based reading programs have been proven effective. The California Reading Initiative (PDF) recommends these programs start in Kindergarten. Indeed the state of Kentucky, facing staggering rates of adult illiteracy, recently began these programs in early elementary. Interestingly enough, Kentucky may turn out to be the model for the nation.

Across most of the country, however, it’s puzzling that with effective programs available, many districts fail to implement them. “This all comes down to money,” says Riley. “These programs are expensive.”

In these economic times, getting additional education funds is almost inconceivable. Plus, the public tends to view special education as “a waste,” as I once did.

However, if voters decide to properly fund schools—and we should—we must demand oversight to ensure that districts deliver the correct programs. Sadly, too many school districts have proven themselves incapable of voluntarily implementing proven strategies.

Until then, short on money and hoping parents will just go away, districts will go on denying services. And many parents will go away; and the vast majority of these children won’t get the help they need.

And then they’ll grow up.

“If you’re an illiterate adult, you’re probably going to jail,” says Porter, “because you can’t hold a job if you can’t read.”

So while most kids graduating this month celebrate gaining entrée into society, illiterate children can only look grimly into the future. Damaged by school districts that tell them in both word and deed that they aren’t worth the trouble, these children are likely to be the ones who will fill our jails, and welfare rolls, and rehab centers.

These are the people who will shape the next generation. We’re talking about Americans—millions of them. As we generate class after class of enraged, broken, unskilled illiterates, before long, they’ll constitute a big portion of our society. Then, suddenly, childhood illiteracy won’t be someone else’s problem anymore.