In the previous article about Texas and their problem with Special Education, we told you about an investigation conducted by the Houston Chronicle regarding the 8.5% cap to special education students in Texas, leading to tens of thousands of kids dropping out of the education system. What we know is that initially the Texas Education Agency (TEA) denied having restricted special kids from attending normal schools. However, following the release of the investigation’s results, the US Department of Education reacted and ordered the TAE to end these practices. After that, the institution agreed to stop auditing schools which give access to more than 8.5% students with special needs.
To prove someone’s guilt, official documents, records and data are needed. But a human’s moral compass needs only one story… the story of a 16-year-old teenager from Texas, whose life was in danger twice; the future is yet to come. This happened because he was denied the rights he had by law – counseling or special education services.
“Alston Jeffus was a happy child. Nicknamed “Little Dude” by his grandfather, he embraced the conservative culture of Deep East Texas. He loved to fish, hunt and camp.
It was not until sixth grade, after his parents had divorced, that problems arose. He failed the state reading test that year and was given detention for failing to do homework, school records show. Gradually, Alston began to resent authority. He still got good grades, motivated by his desire to stay on the basketball team, but he grew out his hair, started to talk back to his teachers and regularly received detention for being disruptive in class.
Then, in October 2015, Alston’s girlfriend broke up with him and he tried to overdose on his AHDH medication.
This is how the story of Alston Jeffus and his supportive family begins. Fortunately, that day his mother found him and took him to a hospital. Another suicide attempt followed. After these events, he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, and he was taken to Texas’s largest mental hospital – North Texas State Hospital. That sounds unfair and absurd given the fact that by federal law the boy had the right to special education services. He did not have such.
Five months after his stay at the hospital, Alston’s family rejoiced – they thought that he would go back to school and his life would be normal again.A few hours after driving Alston home to Frankston, his mother made a call she had been anticipating for months. She could not wait to tell Frankston High School that her baby was back.
Alston would not be returning to school, the principal told her. At least, not until he spent three months at a disciplinary school 30 miles away.
The Jeffus family did not realize that by law, Alston could not be punished for a suicide attempt. Nor did his parents recognize that his five-month stay in a psychiatric hospital and bipolar diagnosis were obvious signs that he should have been evaluated him for special ed. Alston knew he would not go to the disciplinary school, though. He announced that he would drop out, take the GED and find a job.
It’s indeed stunning how many things can happen because of one decision. A decision that has neither been officially announced nor justified – the 8.5% target for special ed students in Texas. Because of this cap, most schools have declined evaluation and special services to kids with disabilities. Unfair as it is, it could lead to much more dreadful consequences – losing the most precious thing we have, our life.
Luckily, things have started to take a turn for the better for Alston and his family.Over the summer, Alston’s mother saw an opportunity. She had landed a job at the local mental health center, and at a training session, she heard about Disability Rights Texas, a group that helps special needs families. She called.
Eric Kwartler, a South Texas College of Law clinical teaching fellow who works with the group, decided to take the case. He wrote to Frankston ISD to ask that Alston be let back into high school and evaluated for special education.
When the district hesitated, Kwartler filed a legal complaint alleging the district had violated federal law by failing to conduct an evaluation when it clearly was warranted.
Faced with the possibility of an expensive fight, the district agreed to conduct the evaluation and to immediately let Alston back to school with counseling and tutoring, according to a settlement agreement. The district also agreed to train the entire Frankston High School staff on special education law.
The counselor promised to work with Alston to catch him up on his credits so he might be able to graduate on time next year. Last month, Alston returned to school for the first time in a year. Recently, he played in his first basketball game. He scored nine points.
Despite the “happy” ending, this case leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouths. What if things haven’t turned out this way? What about all the bullying and criticism that came with this? What if Alston’s mom wasn’t that lucky? What would happen? A third suicide attempt? How many thousands of disabled children suffer the same fate without the “happy” ending?
Many questions leading to one answer: the 8.5% target should be removed as soon as possible!
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.