What’s a Teacher to Do About Unruly Students? Call an Ambulance

fgdnyHow do public schools in New York City address disciplinary problems with students? They call an ambulance. Hospital emergency rooms are being used as “timeout rooms” for unruly students and children with disabilities- many times against their parents’ wishes. More than 22% of the 15,130 calls for ambulances placed by schools in the 2011-12 school year were related to disciplinary infractions.  According to the Wall Street Journal, a lawsuit was filed last week in Manhattan federal court by Legal Services NYC on behalf of parents asking that the city be prevented from sending students to the hospital if there isn’t an immediate medical need.  One mother involved in the lawsuit said the Grant Avenue Elementary School called an ambulance to pick up her 5-year-old son four times in three months in the fall of 2012. The mother said that the first time, school staff members told her that they weren’t able to calm her son down and “he had been jumping, running around and hitting people.” In November, she rushed to the school before he was transported and asked if she could take him home, but school and EMS employees said he “had to be taken in,” the lawsuit said. That time, the boy was sent to the hospital for “not listening” and because he “refused to sit on a rug,” the lawsuit said. Nelson Mar, an attorney for Legal Services NYC who is representing the parents, said fire department protocols say that children can be transported by EMS against a parent’s wishes only when the child’s life is at stake, or if it is clear that even a small delay will jeopardize the child’s health. “In some ways the schools are treating the hospital emergency rooms as timeout rooms,” he said.

Dr. David Listman, director of the emergency department and former head of the pediatric emergency department at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, said it is a common problem. “I think these days, schools don’t feel comfortable dealing with these issues,” he said. If students who already have psychiatric diagnoses or are on medication, there isn’t much an emergency room can do, he said. Hospitals, however, are obligated to evaluate students once they are sent. “A parent who didn’t want their child even brought to the emergency room can end up stuck here for six, eight, 10 hours until they can see a psychiatrist,” he said. Robert Ungar, a spokesman for EMS unions, said emergency workers are supposed to respond to true medical emergencies. “Schools should not be wasting lifesaving and rescue resources to resolve their discipline problems,” he said.

Do not blame the teachers. Blame foolish, idealistic lawmakers. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 requires all schools to provide services for children who need special education in the “least restrictive environment conducive to learning.” The law requires that children with disabilities be educated with children who are not disabled to the extent that is appropriate. Philosophies and policies for carrying out the law vary, though. Inclusion is defined by SEA as “the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend.” The philosophy involves bringing support services to the child within the classroom instead of taking the student to the services, and stipulates only that the child will benefit from being in the classroom.

A study released last August showed that the New York City Department of Education is making good progress toward reforms that will reverse a longstanding practice of segregating special education students in their own classrooms and schools, the New York Times reported. The reforms are intended to reverse a longstanding practice of segregating special education students in their own classrooms and schools. Beginning this year, all special education students, except those with the most severe needs, may enroll in neighborhood-zoned schools. Those schools are being encouraged to move more special education students into regular classroom settings, a process known as mainstreaming.

What appears at first glimpse to be good progress might not be, according to psychotherapist Melinda Clayton.  Clayton writes that the real motivator behind downsizing special education classrooms by mainstreaming students with disabilities into general education classes is a desire to save money, not an effort to do what’s best for students with disabilities. “…The cost for specialized services to children with disabilities far outweighs the cost of mainstreaming them into regular classrooms where they are unlikely to receive the specialized services they need…The past decade has seen a push towards downsizing special education classrooms by mainstreaming students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Proponents of mainstreaming argue that to segregate special education children into special education classrooms is unfair and discriminatory. But what’s really behind the push to mainstream? Unfortunately, funding is one of the driving forces behind the current movement to mainstream children with disabilities into general education classrooms. The cost incurred by offering specialized services to children with disabilities far outweighs the cost of simply mainstreaming special needs children into general education classrooms without the specialized supports. As a rule, special education teachers must have advanced degrees, thereby requiring higher salaries. In addition to this, the cost of aides, equipment, and materials for special needs children far outweighs the cost of the supplies needed in a general education classroom. With yearly cuts in funding, districts must look for ways to decrease expenses. What proponents of mainstreaming often overlook, however, is the phrase “conducive to learning”. Children with disabilities cannot be lumped into one category and treated in one specific way. Disabilities range from mild to severe, and incorporate everything from emotional, to mental, to behavioral challenges. Treatment must be individualized to fit each particular student and his/her specific need. Some children can be very successfully mainstreamed into general education classrooms, while others need more specialized services and will suffer as a result of not receiving these services. We are gravely mistaken if we believe equality means that everyone should receive the same treatment. Equality means we level the playing field, and we do this by putting interventions in place that allow children with disabilities the same opportunities that non-disabled children have. We can’t do that by removing supports and decreasing opportunities for success. We do a disservice to these children when we cite “equality” as the reason for removing supports when what we really mean is funding…”

The problems associated with adhering to the law protecting the rights of special needs students versus the realities of inclusion in the general classroom are multi-faceted…as any teacher can tell you. However, the solution for schools-unable or unwilling to address behavioral problems-to ship young students off to hospital emergency rooms without parental consent, demonstrates clearly that the school system is broken.  Imagine the trauma that a young child must experience as he is loaded into an ambulance, forced to sit with people suffering from a broken limb or bleeding profusely or in anguish from a heart attack, and then that same child is forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. What’s a parent to do? Sue.


Lydia Susanne has conducted exclusive interviews with Israeli author Lela Gilbert, activist and lead singer of KANSAS John Elefonte, Todd Daniels of International Christian Concern, and Bob Fu of China Aid, among other notable subjects for PolitiChicks.com.

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