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Special education in Pennsylvania: an uphill battle

Image: “Classroom School Education” by Wokandapix

In 1972, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) was passed. This ensured that every child under the age of 21 with a registered disability had the right to a free, appropriate public education. 49 years later, the climate of special education has come a long way – but there are still schools across the country that choose to push the boundaries of the law.

For students with a severe autism spectrum disorder or who have severe language delays, evidence-based education programs have been making fast progress using the verbal behavior approach. It’s a progress that is ongoing; these classrooms are expected to receive consultation and adhere to the latest research. An applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach is meant to be placed in these classrooms – a behavior program that focuses on positive reinforcement that requires the oversight of a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

The strict credentials for BCBAs prove to be the key – these credentials ensure that BCBAs overseeing the education programs are held accountable for providing high-quality, evidence-based services. However, Pennsylvania allows for a lower behavior consultation certification. A Behavior Consultant Specialist (BSC) certification requires much less training than that of a BCBA, and BSCs are allowed to oversee these programs in Pennsylvania. The BSC certification also requires no training for the specific verbal behavior approach.

One parent, a mother by the name of Tracy Boyd, has been affected by the poor quality of services from her child’s school district that has not been following the latest research. The district, while never receiving BCBA oversight, consulted with the state department of education for several years until they stopped.

“At one point, I was proud that ELANCO sought out consultation from the state,” Tracy said. “They were the eighth verbal behavior classroom in the state – Pennsylvania now has over 500.”

Pennsylvania is behind the curve; nearly twenty different states require BCBA licensing where Pennsylvania does not.

Boyd quickly became frustrated when she learned that her son, Max, had stopped making progress that was startingly well-documented in his Individual Education Program (IEP). The issue arose when there were no interventions put in place to fix his lack of progress. Instead, the IEP was altered to change how is progress was measured without Boyd’s consent or knowledge. Not only that, but the same year that his progress stopped, the school had stopped choosing to receive the free consultation from the state department of education, specifically the Pennsylvania autism initiative with certified BCBAs, that is supposed to oversee autism support programs. The school also told her that they did not believe they needed a BCBA.

“They violated the laws of the IDEA by not providing Max with the least restrictive environment possible,” Tracy said. She uncovered numerous issues in Max’s classroom as a result of poor programming; lack of adequate staff training, lack of proper data collection and programming and a poor behavior management system.

Meanwhile, the district receives tens of thousands of dollars to educate students with autism from other districts that do not have the programming.

For the past year and a half, Max had not met his classroom targets, which members of his IEP team attempted to blame on his absences. Max had repeated doctor’s visits throughout the year, major out-of-state surgeries, and a documented sleeping problem compatible with his autism and Down’s Syndrome diagnosis. At 15 years of age, Max functions between 18 and 30 months of age. Despite this, his IEP team attempted programming where he would be writing checks and filling out deposit slips. Max is non-verbal and cannot identify any numbers.

Tracy is currently pushing for the district to continue to receive consultation from the state, which would come at no charge to the school. The school plans to pursue due-process to fight this, which will be costly.

“It’s unethical,” Tracy said. “I hold the credential of a Registered Behavior Technician and have been working in the field for five years. I know the importance of quality ABA services and it’s difficult for me to swallow.”

The Applied Behavior Analysis Initiative in Pennsylvania has reached out to Tracy and other parents in hopes of bringing this story to local legislators. Currently, applied behavior analysis is the only evidence-based programming for students with severe autism and language delays. Ultimately, the ABA Initiative is on Tracy’s and other parents’ sides who struggle to access to quality evidence-based instruction. The ABA in PA Initiative had Disability Rights Pennsylvania, a law group focusing on disability rights, reach out to Tracy and other residents of the state for disability legal consultation.

Samantha Walsh is a third-year student majoring in special education and English with a minor in Autism studies.

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