State and Federal Laws May Be Worsening School Violence Crisis

When a school system wants to remove a violent disabled child from those classrooms, the layers of documentation and data-keeping required under the law can take months -- and during that time, other children have been severely injured.

South Florida Sun Sentinel

By Megan O'Matz

Florida’s schools are teeming with disturbed students who endanger their classmates, but the problem is not hopeless. There are clear solutions to reduce the threat to all students, experts say.

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The South Florida Sun Sentinel last month heard from officials -- from the governor to mental health providers to the Broward schools superintendent -- calling for intervention. The comments came in response to the newspaper’s series revealing the frightening number of emotionally disturbed kids with access to guns who routinely threaten the lives of teachers and classmates.

Protected by state and federal disability laws, violent children can remain in classrooms until they seriously injure other students.

Among the solutions cited by elected leaders and education experts:

  • Look anew at state and federal laws that protect disabled students, but have inadvertently handcuffed school officials in an era of escalating school violence.
  • Improve mental health care in schools and better integrate it with family counseling.
  • Train emerging teachers in how to handle special education students.
  • Improve tracking of violent kids in schools.
  • Increase spending to properly support behaviorally disabled students in school and provide the therapeutic services they need.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said the Sun Sentinel’s investigation raised important questions about whether laws originally intended to protect students with learning disabilities are making it too difficult for schools to discipline and deal with dangerous students. She intends to take up those issues when the 2020 Legislature convenes on Jan. 14.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat, declared that the newspaper’s report “should alarm Floridians and all Americans” and shows a desperate need for programs to stop bullying, foster social inclusion, assess threats properly and prevent violence.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said it’s been “one huge challenge” to balance the rights of emotionally disturbed children against the need for all kids to be safe. He thanked the newspaper for raising awareness of the problem, which he said exists at schools across Florida and the nation.

I think it’s long overdue for the state Legislature to put together a task force to really look into this issue and come up with some serious recommendations,” Runcie said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office said his team is reviewing “various options,” including recommendations proposed by a statewide grand jury he impaneled to examine school safety after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Gov. DeSantis is concerned about school safety. The Sun Sentinel series demonstrates he was right in convening the grand jury to analyze specific measures being taken by schools to secure student safety,” spokeswoman Helen Ferré said.

Said Democratic State Rep. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, a former schoolteacher: “We have a lot of work to do.”

Florida Made It Worse

Some lawmakers support taking a second look at a 2013 state law that gave parents of special needs children veto power over school officials. That law came with an unintended consequence, the Sun Sentinel found: It made it harder for schools to remove violent, disruptive children from classrooms.

The law was championed by two lawmakers who have young family members with Down syndrome, and was meant to ensure that schools don’t exclude parents when deciding on a child’s services or placement.

Lawmakers did not envision the law making it harder for schools to move dangerous students to separate therapeutic schools, with small class sizes and counselors at the ready. Under the law, if a parent objects to such a change for their child, the school system must seek the approval of a judge.

Essentially what happened is the balance of power shifted away from the schools and educators to the parents and students, making it far more challenging to do what we always believed is best: find the most appropriate environment and placement for students," Runcie said.

State Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, said a lot has changed in the six years since the law was passed. “I would agree it probably should be revisited,” he said. “We’re living in a different world now."

Jones cautioned that he would not want any change to hurt students who would benefit from remaining in general classrooms. But, he said: “If we find them to be a risk to the schools, that is a totally different issue.”

Counselors, Not Just Cops

Every school in Florida is required to have an armed guard but many are lacking in mental health professionals.

Even before the Parkland shooting, the top concern of school districts was student mental health care, said state Sen. Bill Montford, D- Tallahassee, who is CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. The association has been lobbying the Legislature for more mental health counselors and resources for schools but was not successful until after the Parkland murders.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott approved $69 million for mental health assistance for schools in 2018. DeSantis upped that to $75 million this year and proposes an increase to $100 million next year.

That amount would still be far less than the $180 million currently budgeted for armed guards and other school safety measures."

Montford said he’s optimistic that the governor and Legislature will address the issue now. “I sense we recognize the problem and, doggone it, we’re going to do something about it," he said. “We can solve this.”

In most Florida schools, the first point of contact for mental health help for students is the school counselor, formerly known as the guidance counselor. They assist children with scheduling and college applications, but increasingly help children through emotional and behavioral problems.

There are not enough school counselors in Florida. Last school year each counselor had an average of 461 kids to tend to, according to the state Department of Education, and that’s nearly twice the recommended caseload of 250. Some schools have no counselors at all.

The high caseloads make it extremely hard for counselors to build relationships with students, gain their confidence, understand their issues and respond appropriately, advocates say.

There’s also a dire need for more school psychologists, family therapists and social workers. Typically they serve multiple campuses and are spread too thin.

The number of mental health counselors in schools is “woefully inadequate, “ said Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri, chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which has studied the issue extensively. "The resources are not enough. It’s unrealistic to think we’ll have a better result without putting more resources in place.”

He said the state especially needs more case managers who can navigate the health care bureaucracy and coordinate mental health resources for families.

“I can’t stress enough how important that is. If these people could address and deal with and fix their problems on their own, they would. They can’t," he said.

Tension Over Mainstreaming

Some leaders in education say the federal law protecting disabled students, passed 44 years ago, needs to be rewritten in this era of escalating school violence.

The 1975 law makes no distinction between students who are dangerous and those who aren’t. When a student is labeled with a severe behavioral issue like Intermittent Explosive or Oppositional Defiant disorder, he is protected under the law the same as a disabled student with Down syndrome. Both have a right to be educated in regular classrooms unless it proves impossible.

When a school system wants to remove a violent disabled child from those classrooms, the layers of documentation and data-keeping required under the law can take months -- and during that time, other children have been severely injured, the Sun Sentinel found.

Gualtieri acknowledged the limitations of the existing law, but said school districts also have a mistaken perception that “they have to be hands off” with special education students.

Congress hasn’t revisited the law in 10 years, but a review by the Trump administration is under way.

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and an executive editor at the journal Education Next, is among those favoring reforming the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Petrilli called for “flexibility” so schools can more easily deal with a dangerous student who carries a disability label.

The Parkland shooting shows that the system is broken,” he said. A “correction” of the federal law is in order to “balance the interests of all kids.”

The law -- and the government’s consistent failure to allocate money for it -- has created an adversarial relationship between parents “who literally have to fight the system” to get services for their children and school districts that do not have enough money to offer special services to every child who needs them, Petrilli said.

The law was built on the idea that the federal government would pay 40 percent of the cost to educate disabled children, but that never happened. Now, Petrilli said, school districts are akin to insurance companies controlling costs by limiting care.

A bill before the U.S. House would gradually increase federal spending for disabled students, from $12 billion to $43.3 billion. The bill has 141 sponsors, almost all of them Democrats. A version in the Senate has 14 sponsors, and all but one are Democrats. In the past, similar bills have failed.

No Guns for the Disturbed

An alarming number of emotionally disturbed children have access to rifles and assault weapons, the Sun Sentinel found. That must stop, leaders told the newspaper.

State Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, said the Legislature needs to consider bills that would help prevent guns from getting into the hands of dangerous children, but the Republican-controlled Legislature hasn’t been receptive.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami-Dade Republican, sponsored legislation to encourage more states to pass a red flag law, as Florida did, allowing law enforcement to petition a judge to keep a potentially dangerous person away from guns.

LaMarca said the red flag laws make communities safer.

Even the most ardent supporters of the Second Amendment that I talk to realize people who are dangerous shouldn’t have a way to perpetuate their bad ideas,” LaMarca said.

A proposed ballot question in Florida in November 2020 would ask voters to ban possession of assault rifles. It would provide a way for current owners to legally keep them.

The schools aren’t involved in the gun debate, but Runcie said access to weapons is “an emerging issue."

“We’re averaging what, one to two school shootings a week in the United States, still?” he said. "And the data shows they’re getting their firearms from home. So yes, it is a huge concern.”

Something’s Wrong at Home

Any work to repair the broken state of children’s mental health, many said, must include healing the entire home. Mental health providers are asking the state to send more teams into homes of kids with behavioral disorders.

A lot of children with mental health challenges, the parents have more challenges than the student,” said Montford. “How do we get help to the parent?”

Broward Commissioner Nan Rich, a former state senator and current chairwoman of the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, said the mental health crisis can’t be solved without it.

That’s “an incredibly important and vital piece of the puzzle," she said.

Shevrin Jones, the state representative, said the state should provide money for family counseling.

“There is a level of violence that is happening in our schools that is going further than just putting therapists and counselors in our schools,” he said. “Some of these children have and are experiencing childhood trauma that we, as a Legislature and leaders within the community, we cannot shy away from."

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