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By Leah Asmelash

Leanna George never planned to advise the state on the needs of children with disabilities – she just wanted to help her two children, both on the autism spectrum.

Their school system didn’t seem to have the right methods of handling children with disabilities, which George experienced first-hand with her eldest daughter, who is now 14. Her personal advocacy turned into something she never predicted, now she’s moved beyond changing things at her children’s schools to shaking things up at the state level.

George is the chair of the Council on Educational Services for Exceptional Children, a 24-member advisory committee that informs and educates the North Carolina Board of Education on unmet needs within the state’s special education programs.

“We comment publicly on proposed rules and regulations, we advise on developing evaluations and data, we advise on the development of corrective action plans,” George said.

One of the council’s priorities for 2017 is finding the gaps in training for teachers who identify kids with special needs.

Significant disproportionality

In December of last year, Congress added an amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law originally enacted in 1975 that guarantees children with disabilities a free specialized public education.

The amendment – Equity in IDEA – attempts to erase widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color who have disabilities in an effort to promote equity.

The Equity in IDEA amendment is intended to insure that all kids are treated the same in and out of special ed classrooms. Photo credit: Pfc. Lee Hyokang (IMCOM)

“One of the big things right now is, we talk about significant disproportionality… things like that,” George said.

Significant disproportionality refers to the fact that in some schools or districts, more kids of color are assigned to special education classrooms.

Addressing this issue requires a state to examine districts to see if they disproportionately identify students into certain special education groups.

The Equity in IDEA amendment also addresses the discipline of students with disabilities and requires states to see if certain races or ethnicities of children with disabilities are disciplined in more frequently or more harshly.

George said the problems the council tries to solve go beyond just one child.

“It’s not just my child or our children, it’s all the kids across North Carolina,” she said.

Changes ahead

Nancy Johnson, who works for the Exceptional Children Division of the Department of Public Instruction and consults with the council, presented on the Equity in IDEA amendment during Wednesday’s meeting. Johnson and her colleagues at the Division wanted to explain how the rules and regulations are changing.

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She outlined how the state will change the way it measures the number of children who are labeled as needing special education. Changes to how the state prescribes in- and out-of-school suspensions for those kids are coming too.

“[The amendment] is requiring districts to look at their data and figure out why would it be that African-Americans or Hispanics or white students are more likely to be in that category of disability or in special education, or more likely to be disciplined in that manner,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said she wanted the council’s advice on how North Carolina should measure success, discussing topics such as the number of kids at risk for discipline and what constitutes reasonable progress from year to year.

“I’m going to explain to you what we do correctly, and what options we have for changes,” she told the council.

When the council meets again in September, they’ll give her their feedback.

Johnson said it’s important for them to ensure that kids with disabilities are given the same opportunities as all other kids.

“Making people conscious of what’s going on with relation to identification of the student with disabilities, how they’re being placed in programs, how they’re being disciplined, is very important, I think, to ensuring that all our students with disabilities achieve their potential and achieve success,” she said.

George said these kids need access to quality education, services and support.

“This is not just because, ‘Oh this is a nice thing to have.’ This is what will empower them to be productive citizens as they move forward into adulthood,” she said.

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Leah Asmelash

Leah Asmelash is a rising junior in the Journalism and Mass Communication program at UNC Chapel Hill, and is NC Health News' 2017 summer intern. She's studying studying global studies with a focus on international...