During a recent discussion with a special education liaison, I learned about a student with a peanut allergy getting a 504 plan. Although I didn’t doubt the legitimacy of the student’s health need, I did wonder how this need would be so intense that it would interfere with his educational program. What accommodations could be made for an allergy? Wouldn’t a school-wide ban on peanut products suffice? Don’t many schools already have such bans in place? How urgently needed was this plan?
The conversation got me thinking about the gamut of specialized services. Special education covers a remarkably broad spectrum of needs. What needs aren’t covered by special education services under the IDEA are often covered via 504 plans through the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act have given schools the ability to write 504 plans for conditions that wouldn’t have warranted services when I was in high school. Looking back at my high school behavior and performance, I wonder if I would’ve qualified for some kind of services had today’s criteria been used then.
Students have to demonstrate a need for services to qualify for an IEP or a 504 plan. The need is based on a disabling condition’s interference with access to the general education curriculum. Tense battles are fought between parents who believe their children need services and school officials who insist the children don’t need them according to established criteria. Perspective varies about these cases, as some might find the parents to be unrealistically demanding and selfish while others might find the school officials to be insensitive and cheap. The balance would depend on the circumstances of each specific case. Could my family have made a case for me getting services? If so, for what services would I have qualified?
I really didn’t struggle at any point during school. To the contrary, I found school to be easy from the elementary grades through high school. It was a disruption in my day rather than a worthwhile pursuit. I routinely made honor roll, sometimes even high honor roll. I did this without exerting much effort. I led a functional teenage life, balancing school, relationships with friends, participation in sports, playing in a band, and holding a job. On paper, not much appeared to be wrong.
Appearances were somewhat deceiving. By high school, I had the worst possible attitude about school. I didn’t care about my performance. I hated having to attend. I had friends, but I disliked almost everyone around me. Actually, I disliked the whole of existence. Nothing was wrong in my life, but I was surly and discontent. This isn’t unusual for a teenager, but some of my discontent went much deeper than what was typical.
My sense of humor was a window into my simmering bitterness. It didn’t raise red flags then. It may have landed me in psychiatric care today. Without being too specific in such a public forum, I’ll admit having made jokes about violent acts and doing so in exceptionally poor taste. Some of these I made in writing. Others I made out loud in mixed company. At the time, the students and staff members who heard me just ignored me. I don’t think others would ignore such comments today. I think some of what I said then would now be considered akin to terroristic threats.
I wouldn’t have qualified for services solely based on the statements I made. I may have been either arrested or given a battery of psychological evaluations, though. Perhaps I would’ve been considered to have an emotional disturbance, but more likely I would’ve been found to have a drastically dark idea about what is funny. This may have led to the discovery of more pressing issues had the evaluators decided to probe far enough. Although I was never diagnosed as such, I almost certainly had some kind of mood disorder. Teenagers are moody. Many have depressive episodes. I was more than just moody. I was generally sad from early adolescence into adulthood with only brief interruptions of slight happiness. Even during the happy spells, I wasn’t so much happy as I was less miserable. I was exceedingly anxious, but I hid this well. I had a need for order and a set of private rituals that combined to resemble an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I frequently thought about suicide, though I never came close to acting on it. I was a bit of a mess inside.
This collection of maladies could have made me eligible for outpatient psychiatric services, but not necessarily for any services in school beyond an occasional chat with a counselor. As mentioned, my grades were good enough. To get specialized services, I would’ve needed to struggle with accessing the general education curriculum. Maybe I did struggle, though. I’m nearly certain I would’ve have been a much stronger student had my attitude not been so foul. My attitude might not have been so foul had I not been experiencing whatever combination of mental illness or personality disorder I faced. My condition(s) interfered with my potential performance. Would my parents (and a psychiatrist and an attorney) been able to petition for some form of specialized services even though I was doing well enough? Could they have claimed I really wasn’t doing well enough? Would they have had a case for getting me accommodations to address my apparent need?
These questions raise many more questions. How does one determine if a student is doing well enough? Criteria exist for determining whether or not gaps between potential and achievement are wide enough to require intervention, but could parents argue that the criteria are too exclusionary? In the opposite sense, when is a performance discrepancy really due to a disabling condition versus poor motivation or attitude? What if poor motivation or attitude are symptoms of an underlying condition? Examining such concepts in the most esoteric sense could lead to nearly facetious notions. One could conclude that almost any young person could qualify for some form of service. The student with the peanut allergy did. Why not provide services to students like me who seem to be allergic to being in school?
Established criteria for assigning services work well when sensible people use them. No, I shouldn’t have ever had services. Some attention from a therapist may have helped, but I turned out fine without this (I suppose). My parents wouldn’t have thought to petition for services, but even if they had known to do so, they shouldn’t have. I was keeping afloat academically. My mood wasn’t a disabling condition. Claiming it to be so would’ve been unnecessarily demanding. I’m not certain how often today’s criteria allow students who don’t need services to get them. This definitely happens sometimes, but needy students get denied quite often as well. The law is definitely generous, but in practice, the decisions are up to teams and their ability to act rationally.