Thursday, May 15, 2008
You don't know who attends school with your child.
How can schools to protect the rights of their mentally ill students while simultaneously ensuring the safety of the staff and the rest of the student body? As the parent of a special needs offspring I am sensitive to the need of appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for all students, but at what point should a school, district, community draw the line when servicing a student who is mentally ill? If a student has indicated an interest in doing bodily harm to others, but has a learning disability, should the school chalk it up to bravado or accept an evaluation from a psychiatrist? What if that student has access to weapons?
Eric Harris wrote in his journal six months before he and Dylan Klebold rampaged at Columbine High School, "I have a goal to destroy as much as possible, and I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy, mercy or any of that." What, if anything could/would have school authorities done had that journal been read in school? One would hope that fifteen lives might have been saved on April 20, 1999. What have we learned since then? Will “Compassion Crews” and Rachel’s Challenge assemblies prevent another Columbine?
It is a fine line that public schools walk to maintain students’ rights to an appropriate education, confidentiality, and the safety of others. Due to privacy laws regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information, school officials may only notify campus authorities or family members if they can with certainty conclude that a student poses a threat to him/herself or others. Parents of other students and other staff members are left in the dark while those in charge are left to hope. Unfortunately, the point at which violence becomes a real possibility is difficult to estimate. Faculty may often be forced to make a choice between either overstepping their roles as counselors and guardians due to a desire to protect students or by backing away from the issue in order to protect the rights of the ill student.
I have long felt that the law regarding who is fit for general education in public schools is too broad. I would not wish to refill all the institutions that were emptied in the 1970s, but in our rush to create “least restrictive environments” for citizens have we thrown the baby out with the bath water. There are only seventeen beds for mentally ill children at Western State and some few more at Fairfax Hospital in Kirkland and yet the proliferation of drugs in or society coupled with other environmental factors means that increasingly there are students in public schools who need help that outstrips the expertise of the school districts.
All students deserve an appropriate education, but do we not owe it to ill students to demand that their illness be addressed so that they are in a better position to take advantage of the offered education and prevent a disaster at school? What as a community do we want our public school communities to look like? How do we prevent another Columbine or Virginia Tech incident? With whom do your students spend six hours a day?