Many of America's juvenile jails would be empty if the public schools obeyed federal law and provided disabled children with the special instruction that they need. Instead, these children are allowed to fall behind. When they act out, they are often suspended or expelled, which makes them more likely to commit crimes and land in jails where they can count on even less help.
This pattern seems to be repeating itself in Texas, judging from an eye-opening report prepared for the Texas Youth Commission's ombudsman. The report says more than 40 percent of the students in custody have been identified as having disabilities that make them eligible for services and protections under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. Children's advocates believe the percentage is even higher and that many of the disabled have not been diagnosed.
The Texas system has nearly four times as many students requiring special education services as a typical school and three times as many students with learning disabilities. In addition, it has nearly 18 times the number of emotionally disturbed students as a typical high school. These numbers are all the more alarming since the system's educational services are generally poor and especially bad when it comes to the disabled.
According to the report, the Texas system is "basically devoid of what current educational research has consistently identified as 'best practices' for instruction." There is little or no direct instruction by teachers. Children are routinely asked to essentially teach themselves through "self-directed reading" - even though a substantial percentage have limited reading skills. The special education staff, such as it is, is poorly trained and woefully under strength.
The State Legislature will need to do at least two things if it hopes to correct these problems. First, it needs to require localities to provide disabled children with the school services they are entitled to under federal law, instead of just dumping them onto streets. Then lawmakers must strengthen the educational programs within the juvenile system itself by hiring better-trained employees and providing stronger central oversight.
Texas has both a moral and legal obligation to remake a system that is crippling, then writing off, the state's most vulnerable children.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company