By law, public schools are required to provide fair and appropriate education to all students, including those with mental health issues. But what really happens is that families are forced to navigate an incredibly complex system, in a process that can take years to get the right services for their child. A new report by ProPublica and media outlet The City examines the glaring inequalities in this system. Tiffany Caldwell is a parent who experienced it and Abigail Kramer is a journalist who spent a year covering the subject. They joined “WNYC Morning Edition” host Michael Hill to talk about how public schools are serving — and not serving — children with mental health issues. Below is a slightly edited transcript of their conversation.
This is the morning edition on WNYC. I am Michael Hill. Hello, Abigail and Tiffany.
Abigail, your story paints a pretty bleak picture of what the school system is like for families whose children have mental health or behavioral issues. Could you give us a brief overview of how the system works?
In New York, what we have is a system where the services families can get through the public education system often depend on the private resources a family can bring to the table. So under longstanding federal law, New York City, like all other school districts, is legally obligated to provide appropriate education for children with disabilities, including those with mental health and behaviour. If a school district, including New York City, cannot do this, it is legally obligated to pay for a child to attend an appropriate private school.
So how come families with more resources can make the system work for them?
Often families who can afford it spend a lot of money to get private assessments, for example, which they should get for free. Through the public education system, they hire professional advocates to help them fight for the services their children are truly entitled to and should already be receiving through the public education system. In many cases, they send their children to private schools that adequately serve students with disabilities, then hire attorneys to sue the city to reimburse them for at least some of the tuition they incur.
This seems like a very convoluted approach. Abigail, how did we get here?
New York’s special education system has been in turmoil for years, hasn’t it? We have decades of reports and findings indicating that New York City students are far too often placed in segregated special schools rather than receiving the services they need to stay in community schools where they will be integrated with non-disabled peers.
We also have a mental health care system that for a very long time was inadequate to meet the needs of children. Children cannot get the mental health care they need in their communities. Over the past decade, New York State has closed hundreds of beds and programs for children with life-threatening and very acute mental health needs – all based on the promise that there would be a massive expansion of community services for children. This expansion did not take place.
Tiffany, you have been through this trying to get support for your daughter. Before going into details, could you tell us how it was?
Well, I found that extremely difficult. My daughter, for her part, is on autism spectrum disorder. So in the community we live in, the only option we had, unfortunately, was the psychiatric emergency, which I took her to when she was in a mental health crisis. Basically, they raised their hand and I begged them to keep it for the night. There was physical assault which was never an issue before the pandemic.
How old is Taylor?
She is 15 now.
Tiffany, during the pandemic you realized that your daughter needed a very specific type of residential education, but due to bureaucratic and financial hurdles, it took two years to enroll your daughter in the right school. How was it for you as a parent?
Oh Lord. Just hurtful. I can’t even put it into words. Sitting down and feeling helpless and like you’re trying to help your child and there’s literally nothing you can do. I equated it to being in the ocean without a life jacket and you literally screaming “help us, save us” and drowning.
Abigail, the cost of these so-called “Carter cases” [students whose educations are reimbursed under the federal law] has grown exponentially over the past decade, with payouts reaching $918 million last year. What drives this?
Well, a big part of that is the rise in the number of parents unilaterally sending their kids to private schools and then asking for tuition reimbursement. Families are not getting the services they need from the public special education system, and so families who can afford it feel the need to have their children helped.
Tiffany, what do you say to other parents who start this?
You have to educate yourself as much as possible. It’s a very complex system to navigate, so try to surround yourself with organizations that offer advocacy and support as it’s a very confusing system. And I think that’s the best advice I can give.
Abigail, in your reports, have you found any realistic ways to improve the system?
In my reporting, I learned of many relatively small-scale initiatives to improve the system. I think the city deserves credit for creating good education programs, especially for students with autism in recent years, for making efforts to improve public special education for some students with disabilities. I have also heard of several small-scale initiatives and pilot programs for children with significant mental health and behavioral issues. I think these programs are great. They will affect a few dozen kindergarten children.
I spoke with Abigail Kramer and Tiffany Caldwell. Thanks to both of you for your time.
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