Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Special Education and Beyond: Critical Safety and Cost Considerations for State Policymakers


Special EducationThe following AMSD Guest Blog Post was submitted by Sandy Lewandowski, Superintendent of Intermediate District 287 and 2015 Superintendent of the Year.


The recent Star Tribune series revealing the complexities of life for adults with disabilities shed light on an important issue. Equally important is the difficulty of children with mental health issues to access the services they need. These children come to school with mental health needs either unmet or inadequately addressed, and the public education system is struggling to help them.


I am Superintendent of Intermediate District 287, a school district that serves students with unique needs and challenges. My students come to school with increasingly complex special education disabilities and extraordinary mental health needs. As a result, over the past decade, public schools have become the frontline of children’s mental health services for our State.

Over the past decade, public schools have become the frontline of children’s mental health services in… Click To Tweet

Among my students are children who assault staff every day and children who are assaulted regularly in their homes. My staff works with children who have been sexually abused and those who are perpetrators of sexual assaults. I have students who threaten to commit suicide and others who threaten to kill staff. There are students who hear voices, have psychotic episodes and who have no conscience or empathy for others. There are adolescents who are homeless and mentally ill; some of them will threaten and curse my staff, yet the only safe place they have is school.

There are students who are homeless and mentally ill; some will threaten my staff, yet the only safe… Click To Tweet

The shift of responsibility for children’s mental health services from State and County-provided services to public schools has happened without policy discussion and without sufficient funding. As a result, public schools have become the de facto mental health system for Minnesota’s 125,000 students who receive special education services, at least during the school day.


Each year, Minnesota schools spend $600 million in regular education funding to subsidize special education costs. This gap in funding, known as the special education cross-subsidy, is a significant reason school districts face funding challenges year after year.


It’s our moral and ethical responsibility to serve these students well, but it’s also the law. Yet, neither the state nor federal governments reimburse school districts for anything close to the true cost of services.


The cost to serve students with severe disabilities can reach over $100,000 per student per year. I often struggle to balance the special education needs of students and their right to a public education with the rights of staff to work in a safe environment.


Despite a focus on safety and the best efforts of highly-trained professionals, it is not uncommon for my staff to be injured by the students they serve. These injuries include broken noses, knee caps kicked out and blows to the head. In the first eight weeks of school, my staff were injured 43 times. In stark contrast, Anoka Metro State Hospital had 46 staff injuries due to patient aggression in all of 2014.


Regardless what a student has done the day before, he or she has a right to a public education and will be back in school the next day in most cases. Students return to school not only because they have considerable protections under the law; they return because other providers are unable or unwilling to serve them. Public schools are at the apex of the failure and underfunding of our systems that support students with disabilities.


The efforts of school staff are extraordinary. We have some of the most skilled educational professionals in the region. I am humbled by their resilience and ability to bounce back each day; at the same time I know that some feel depleted.


A staff member said to me recently, “It’s a sad day when we’re hoping a student will do something bad enough to be detained—but not so bad that he ruins his life—in order to hopefully get court-ordered treatment.”


It’s a sad day, indeed. The current magnitude of student needs is the highest we’ve ever seen, and the responsibility of public schools to provide the range of services these students need is unprecedented.


Our students deserve better. They deserve a commitment from all of us to do our parts to meet their mental health and educational needs by providing schools with the resources they need. There is much work to be done; an excellent start would be the State fully funding districts’ special education costs.

Special Education and Beyond via @sandylewan @District287 Click To Tweet

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