The exclusion of a student from a Jewish day school because he has special needs can cause not only the student but also his entire family to feel marginalized by the Jewish community. In response to this rejection, some students and their parents discontinue the observance of Jewish laws, attending Shabbat services, participating in camps or youth groups, or socializing with Jewish peers. Some parents of children who have special needs do not even apply for admission because they are certain that their children will face rejection. This is particularly true with respect to children who are on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, or who have psychiatric disabilities.
Parents and professionals ask me whether it is legal for Jewish schools to exclude students based on their disabilities: the answer is that it is legal, if those schools do not receive federal funds. This month is Jewish special needs inclusion month. What does it mean to talk about inclusion? Complete inclusion would mean that any Jewish student, regardless of their disability, could receive appropriate special education services at a Jewish day school. In addition to the addressing the more common challenges such as dyslexia and ADHD, Jewish day school staff could be required to meet the needs of students with blindness, deafness, intellectual disabilities, psychiatric illness, autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, executive function disorder, sensory processing disorders, spinal cord injuries, mobility impairment, and other disabilities.
Should complete inclusion exist in the Jewish day schools in the Boston area? These are the arguments in favor: the child who is included will have the opportunities to acquire Judaic knowledge, make Jewish friends and form connections to the Jewish community. He is more likely to participate in Jewish youth groups and camps, and to form connections to post-high school college Jewish communities. His parents are more likely to remain connected to the Jewish community through their involvement with the Jewish day school. As a matter of social justice, every Jewish child is entitled to receive a Jewish education.
There are also strong arguments against the inclusion of all students in Jewish day schools. Public schools are better equipped to provide certain students with the special education services that they require. Unlike many Jewish day schools, public school districts have more resources to hire staff with specialized training in special education, speech and occupational therapy, social work, reading, and applied behavior analysis. Also, unlike Jewish day schools, public schools offer a much wider range of options for placement. Public schools provide special education services within a continuum of placement options ranging from full inclusion to substantially separate classrooms, with out of district placements available for students who require highly specialized services. Needs of some students may include very small classes, with a 1:6 ratio of teacher to students, a secluded room for sensory breaks, access to a full-time on-site therapist, occupational therapy several times/week and by consultation to the teachers, classes taught by special education teachers, ABA services, speech therapy several times/week, social skills groups, modification of a substantial portion of the curriculum, an off-site job training program, a life-skills program, augmented communication, and a myriad of other services.
Parents may not realize that the admission to a Jewish day school of a particular student who has special needs has implications that go beyond the immediate family. Staff may have to acquire additional training, modify their curriculum and methods, and devote extra time during and outside of school to supporting a specific student and his family. Other students may feel the impact of a peer who requires extra supervision from staff. The admission of the student may have a financial impact both on the school and on the larger Jewish community, depending on the allocation of subsidies for tuition and special education related expenses. When one considers the impact of the inclusion of all Jewish children at Jewish day schools, the impact on staff, other students, and the larger Jewish community becomes magnified.
In order for some Jewish day schools to be prepared to include all students, the schools will have to make major structural and staff changes. The schools will have to reorganize their physical spaces in order to provide the very small classes that some students will require. Schools may be required to change their staffing so that each class is taught or co-taught by a special education teacher. In addition, schools may have to reallocate space in order to provide for quiet, private spaces for students who are on the autism spectrum or who have psychiatric illness. Schools may have to hire many more full-time support staff, including social workers, autism providers, and speech, occupational therapists, and other specialists. The question is whether these changes should occur and who should pay. I’m curious to know what you think.
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