Girls who struggle with mental health issues, including but not limited to: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, conduct disorders, and panic disorders, are being stigmatized even further in the educational system. They are not qualifying for the specially designed instruction they not only need, but deserve and have a right to receive at their schools. These girls are able to lean-in, show up, or simply make it through the day and a more clearly defined system of who qualifies for specially designed instruction will help girls, in the long run, both academically and mentally.
Last week, I saw first-hand how the system can work for girls with mental health issues.
There was a meeting to determine eligibility for a high school junior named Jill. The team convened to determine Jill’s needs included: her parents, Jill’s private psychologist, an intervention specialist, the Assistant Principal, the Principal, the Director of Pupil Services and me – the Special Education Advocate for Jill. There was much trepidation for this meeting on Jill’s family’s part, as they were unsuccessful during her 6th-grade year to seek specially designed instruction for her. Her mental health issues did not qualify her for help and Jill continued to struggle. Jill and her parents felt the system failed her and it had been a challenging six years since the initial attempt. This is where I came into the picture. They hired me to be her advocate and walk them through the educational process.
As I entered the large, cold room with Jill and her family, I could feel the defeat of four years ago looming in the air. I steeled myself to disagree with the districts findings and them denying Jill again. The meeting opened with the Director of Pupil Services pulling out a form and reading from it verbatim. I could not believe what I was hearing. The Director stated, “If Jill exhibits one or more of the following criteria over a long period of time and to a marked degree, she will qualify for an Independent Education Program (IEP).” The Director continued by stating, “The team is required to describe the behavior, including the frequency, intensity, and duration of her behavior.”
I found myself speechless. In my more than 20 years of advocacy work, no district has ever engaged the team with a clear definition and description of what qualifies a student without including many qualifiers and gray areas that have to be deciphered through and interpreted for families. I found the tension in my body dissipate as the realization that Jill was getting a fair shot to qualify for specially designed instruction. This district eliminated the emotion and vagueness, instead creating a fact-driving dialogue. I sat back in my chair and let Jill’s exhausted, yet astounded, parents answer some questions for the first time.
The questions asked – Does she have:
1) An inability to learn, which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors?
2) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers?
3) Inappropriate types of behavior or feeling under normal circumstances?
4) A general or pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression?
5) A tendency to develop physical systems or fear with personal or school problems?
Based on the answers, Jill qualified. I left the room astounded, and her parents were relieved and thrilled. This approach worked. I hope more schools follow this school’s lead, demystify the process, and help more kids in need.