Parents must learn how to make the special education system work for their children
By Dwight Hobbes
Perception is a powerful thing. For instance, when people perceive problems with mental health, learning disabilities or other conditions that may negatively affect thinking and/or behavior as a reason to look down on, stereotype or shun someone, people with these conditions may as well have leprosy. Or it may be a ripe opportunity to take advantage of an individual whose problems have made them vulnerable.
Perceive it as a fact of life and you realize human beings contending with such a difficulty are exactly that, no less human than yourself and entitled to the same respectful consideration. Which is how the National Alliance on Mental Illness (
NAMI) renders itself a significant community resource, improving perception by providing information that helps make a difference in the minds of “normal” people.
Cynthia Fashaw, Children’s Programs and Multicultural Outreach Director at NAMI Minnesota, is committed to making that difference. As an experienced professional of more than 10 years with Minneapolis Public Schools and Hennepin County Medical Services, not to mention as a hands-on parent, she’s devised a syllabus to approach the education of students who have, as Fashaw describes it, “challenging behavior, learning disabilities or mental illness.”
She is particularly concerned with improving the perception and treatment of African American youngsters with mental health conditions. Sitting in the conference room at NAMI offices in St. Paul, she emphatically states, “If you have a child in the system with a mental illness — and yes, I use the term freely — [they historically have not received] the kind of help they need to succeed and go on to college.”
Considering how perennially complaints of warehousing and social promotion are lodged against or on behalf of Black public school students in general, the issue is all the more salient for children of color with special needs.
“I have a [daughter] that has a mental illness,” Fashaw continues, “and what I went through, even though I [worked in the school system], was unbelievable.” Since Fashaw had trouble getting help for her daughter, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulty other parents encountered.
“Our kids weren’t receiving the full extent of services that would guarantee [educational] success or even come close to looking at success. Our kids aren’t making it. White kids have the same issues.”
Fashaw sums up, “I am an African American parent who worked in the school system with homeless and highly mobile students who were not succeeding academically, emotionally or in general in the school system. I spent years attending special education meetings with parents, and seldom, if ever, did I see children receiving the level or scope of services the law allows.”
Contrary to stereotypes of dimwitted menials being stuck pushing a broom around, people who have disabilities that affect their thinking and/or behavior have gone on from diagnosis and appropriate aid to hold highly skilled positions, including editors and doctors who have the mental health condition bipolar disorder or who have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
What to do? For one, you can’t get help if you don’t realize your child needs it. Accordingly, Fashaw notes the importance of discerning “how to tell when behavior isn’t typical kid behavior.” From there, the more well-informed one becomes and remains, the better equipped to safeguard the interests of the child.
Fashaw goes on to outline basic concerns that she says “should raise a red flag for African American parents, such as challenging behavior, what’s normal and what requires [close examination]; strategies to work with [the school toward resolution]; when strategies fail, what’s next; assessment and special education, what it is, who qualifies, accommodations and modifications.” She plans to address all of these concerns in a series of articles to run weekly in the MSR.
Fashaw also notes that parents need to inquire after adequate information on emotional behavioral disorders, specifically regarding “common situations to be aware of and what should be considered when making a decision about placement.”
Placement, after all, can well be a life-defining move by a mother or father with which the child must live. There’s also the matter of “supports for students who need help but are not eligible for special education.”
A chronic concern in public schools wherever there are Black students is what Fashaw notes as “school disciplines. The rules, your responsibilities and rights. Who to contact if you disagree with a decision or services.”
Anyone’s son or daughter need not be mentally or emotionally challenged beyond that well-known, still-mysterious fact of life called adolescence in order to be dysfunctional. When that son or daughter isn’t White, administrative patience too often tends to run short and lead to expedient options such as special-ed classes and related segregation that, opposite of empowering the student, worsens his or her situation. Including leaving an institutionally documented stigma.
Suffice to say, Cynthia Fashaw, Children’s Programs and Multicultural Outreach Director at NAMI Minnesota, thrusts a spearhead, pushing to provide information to parents from which their children stand to benefit. MSR readers would be wise to watch upcoming editions for Fashaw’s guide to navigating the convoluted terrain of special education. If you don’t have kids of your own who could be affected, pass this vital information on to those who do.
NAMI Minnesota can be contacted at 651-645 2948 or at 800 Transfer Road, Suite 31 in St Paul.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.