Special education rarely has an exit plan. Once a student is caught and reeled in, there are no throwbacks until graduation.
Before 2008, parents had to lawyer up and go to battle against their district to remove their child from special education. As of December 2008, a federal regulation—CFR 300.300—allows parents to revoke consent to special education services. Districts can no longer use due process or mediation to argue why a student should remain in special education.
A kindergartner who needs special education assistance early on for such issues as ADHD, OCD, anxiety, or autism may grow into a teenager with a free and discriminating mind who no longer needs the same accommodations.
Yet the programming stays the same, becomes the shirt that no longer fits; although some goals may change on the individualized education program, the execution, in most cases, remains unchanged—rigid, operating under the assumption that the student thinks concretely, requires shaping, or needs Pavlovian conditioning.
The programming, which should include an exit plan, holds on, unflinchingly, until it either breaks students, or stifles them, or both.
At this point, revocation of consent may seem like the lesser of two evils—even empowering.
But it is an all-or-nothing scenario.
If a child has been raised to think critically about his world, to view life with a fine lens, then one day, undoubtedly, this same child will grow up to be a teenager, open-minded and inquisitive. That teenager may then denounce the programming, deciding he has outgrown it.
And then, it gets dicey.
How do you convince a 16-year-old Renaissance man who possesses extraordinary talents that he requires a small setting to be successful, that he has to earn his way into the mainstream like a smolt who doesn’t have the strength or stamina to swim upstream until he is ready?
In two years, my son reminds me, he will no longer be a minor. He can quit school, join the military, buy cigarettes, move out, or revoke consent to special education. I want out, now. I can do it alone, he says.
Special education should not be a sentence, or a branding. It should never get to the point where it is all or nothing.
The parent, then, is the one who must take the initiative painfully and rescind the special education team’s rights—the very team that supported, guided, and believed in him.
Why does it have to be all or nothing? There needs to be a meeting of minds, a way to coalesce. When the team takes a stance and follows protocol, order is maintained, but at what expense?
There comes a point when there is no option for the parent, who then must revoke consent and hope for the best. The child is plunged into the unknown, swimming upstream before maturity.
It is not the right way.
Special education should not be a sentence, or a branding. It should never get to the point where it is all or nothing. There needs to be authentic dialogue—input from mature students about their needs and what might work for them—something more than platitudes and a “procedural safeguards” packet. Trust is sabotaged, however, when team members dig their heels in, insist on their way, or else.
It never ends well.
After the revocation, the risks multiply. Supports are gone. But the alternative of staying with the team is stagnation, burnout, a cycling of good and bad days until the bad outnumber the good and there is no educational gain.
Revocation of consent is a last resort, a false power for both parent and child. Even after the form is signed, and the teenager is released to the regular mainstream, the team is ever present, monitoring, lurking, waiting for the fallout.
I am sure there has been that one smolt who attempted to swim upstream before he was ready. The odds are stacked even for an adult salmon. There is the strong current and predators. But the most worrisome are the shallow waters; when the fish have no cover, they are at the most risk.
An IEP minus an exit plan leaves the unsuspecting teenager ill-equipped, destined to fail on his own, if he ever gets the chance.
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Special Education Needs an Exit Plan