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Teacher’s shooting raises questions about services for students with severe needs

Students returned to Richneck Elementary in Newport News, Va., on Monday. The elementary school where a 6-year-old boy shot his teacher reopened with stepped-up security and new administrators, as nervous parents and students expressed optimism about a return to the classroom. (Billy Schuerman/Virginian-Pilot/AP)
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Four weeks ago, police say, a first-grader in Virginia shot his teacher as she delivered a lesson in her classroom, setting off a flurry of efforts to tighten school safety and leading the boy’s family to disclose that he has an “acute disability” and was attending school under a “care plan.”

As more details trickled out, the stunning case has led to questions about how well public schools educate and provide services for children with severe emotional and behavioral difficulties. Under the 6-year-old’s care plan, a parent was accompanying him to class every day before the week of the Jan. 6 shooting, the family said.

“We will regret our absence on this day for the rest of our lives,” the family said in a Jan. 19 statement. The boy had brought a 9mm gun from home to school that day, though his parents said it had a safety lock and was kept on a high closet shelf. Before the shooting, teachers warned of other behavioral incidents including the student’s threats against another teacher and classroom disruptions, according to messages from teachers obtained by The Washington Post.

School officials in Newport News, where the shooting occurred, cited federal privacy laws in declining to discuss the child’s difficulties or the nature of his care plan. Children with disabilities — more than 7 million nationally — often get IEPs, or individualized educational plans that lay out the specialized instruction and services students need.

Experts say the school’s arrangement with the parents, as they describe it, is unusual. Typically, children with intensive behavioral needs are provided school services that may include one-on-one counseling, social-skills groups, behavioral supports, group counseling and assistance from a paraeducator or aide. Many school districts also have intensive-support classrooms with smaller student-teacher ratios and a special-education teacher, helped by assistants.

But even though schools are required by federal law to follow the provisions of IEPs, reality can be different: When schools face a shortage of resources, students with disabilities often don’t get their needs met.

Federal law requires that every student with a disability be given a “free appropriate public education.” For public schools, this means finding the staff and money to help them. Most students with IEPs attend regular classes for at least half of the school day.

With young children who exhibit behaviors attributed to the 6-year-old, “usually the best that schools can do is to provide as much one-to-one support as possible with a consistent and highly trained adult who can provide behavioral and emotional supports and structure,” said Robert Pianta, a professor of education and founding director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at University of Virginia.

Pianta said this can be done in a special education setting or a mainstream classroom, but that public schools go to great lengths to avoid excluding children from typical classes. Federal law requires placement in the least restrictive environment, with the goal of helping students be successful in integrated settings.

One account from a Richneck Elementary School teacher, obtained by The Post, described how the school struggled to meet the needs of children with disabilities. The lead special education teacher was overloaded, and aides were often absent. The 6-year-old did not receive the educational services he needed, according to the account. Before the day of the shooting, he had thrown furniture, barricaded a doorway and told an educator he hated her and wanted to set her on fire and watch her die, according to accounts.

Michelle Price, spokeswoman for the 27,000-student Newport News school system, declined to comment on the boy’s difficulties, saying the information is confidential under law, and did not answer questions about staffing issues at the school or adequate funding for programs and services for students with disabilities.

Melissa Reeves, past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said one of the greatest challenges in schools now is that student behavior and emotional needs increased significantly during the pandemic. “We are under-resourced and understaffed to meet those needs,” she said.

And when school districts do have money — many boosted by covid relief aid — they confront a limited labor pool, with shortages of special-education teachers, aides and school mental health professionals, she said. She pointed out the pipeline of mental health professionals coming out of college and into schools is not producing enough to meet the demand.

“We have kids with severe needs that we are not able to address in public schools successfully because we don’t have the funding and the staffing to do so,” she said.

There also used to be many more therapeutic programs supported by government agencies for students with the most severe needs, she said. Now, she said, “there are very limited options.”

In Newport News, it appears that the first-grader had “severe intensive needs that were well beyond what a public school had the capabilities and resources to meet,” she said.

Some experts note, though, that Newport News is not a small school system and almost surely had resources to marshal. “In my experience, it really depends on the school culture and will to identify and bring to bear the resources that do exist,” said Dan Stewart, managing attorney for education and employment with the nonprofit National Disability Rights Network.

Stewart questioned the idea of bringing the parents to school, rather than using a trained aide, to address the child’s needs. “Most often schools don’t want parents in the building for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “It looks like the school maybe doesn’t have the staffing, or doesn’t have the right understanding of the kid’s needs, to appropriately address what’s going on.”

Schools also have a legal obligation to identify and evaluate students with disabilities, said Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. If student behavior is out of the norm, a “functional behavioral assessment” may be done to explore possible reasons and solutions. For instance, if a young child throws a chair, educators examine what might have triggered it. Is the child frustrated by math problems? Feeling sensory overload? Unable to manage a surge of anxiety?

“All behavior is communication,” Almazan said. “A child is trying to communicate something.”

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Some school districts have tested new ideas to address behavioral difficulties. In Maryland’s Charles County, with more than 27,600 students, school system leaders in 2019 rolled out an alternative school for the very young — children in kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

The backlash was fierce, with many parents and advocates outraged that the district would be labeling children as troublemakers when they’d barely had a chance to adjust to school. Hardest hit would be children of color, they suggested, based on disparities by race in student suspensions.

The alternative school — called Fresh Start Academy — opened in fall of 2019, then closed with the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. It enrolled about five students, with parental consent, officials said. The next year, a new superintendent, Maria V. Navarro, arrived, with a different vision.

In the fall, the district launched a program to help students in kindergarten through second grade by bringing educators who specialize in behavioral supports into classrooms to work with teachers on strategies to resolve issues that have come up. Many young children have had difficulty adjusting to the classroom after the pandemic, resulting in an increase in negative behavior, said Kevin Lowndes, chief of teaching and learning in Charles County Public Schools.

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So far this school year, the approach has been used in the classrooms of 26 students.

“It’s a good way of supporting our teachers and our students at their home school,” Lowndes said. “Having experts in behavior gives the teachers a whole other level of support that we were not able to provide last year.”

Just two young students have participated, with parental consent, in a more intensive regional behavioral support program — called Aspire — that serves students with the most severe behavioral needs in a classroom at one of four of elementary schools.

Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.