Exploring the Paths of Missouri's Special Education: A Primer

Apr 7, 2015

A student uses a communication device at the H. Kenneth Kirchner School in Jefferson City, one of Missouri’s 34 schools for the severely disabled.

Experts and parents alike have been confused on whether Missouri is really the last state to have separate, state funded schools for the severely disabled.

When Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, passed in 2006, the U.S. witnessed a rapid change in special education, including a push for more inclusive education. This meant the closure of many of these separate schools across the country, but Missouri still has 34.

This story is one of five in a series, "Exploring the Paths of Missouri's Special Education." Check for an update next week, where you’ll find a story on the history of special education across the nation, and here at home. 

In Missouri, the state schools aren’t integrated into local public school systems. They are separate, regional schools that serve only students with severe mental and physical disabilities. Stephen Barr, Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said while this may not be ideal, the state is trying to give families options.

“We don’t want to create a separate educational system for students with disabilities,” Barr said. “No one does. But if we’re going to put kids in the classroom we also have a responsibility to ensure that the child can survive and thrive in that educational environment, otherwise what’s the benefit to the child?”

Besides, Barr said, Missouri may be the only state with completely government-funded separate schools, but there are plenty of others with loopholes.

“We are not as different as people may perceive,” he said. “Many other states, at least 20, have regional schools, so they are all around the region and then they contract somebody to operate these schools. But they’re either fully or partially funded by the state.”

Melody Musgrove, who directs special education programs for the U.S. Department of Education, said not all families in Missouri take issue with the separate schools.

“You know if parents don’t want their children in an inclusive setting, I don’t think anyone can force them into that,” she said. “So it depends on the culture and the norms within a state.”

Even though Missouri is a little different, it looks like states nationwide are still having problems properly implementing IDEA.

Tara Heidinger is from Ohio. Her son Corey has moderate autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“Almost three years ago he was hurt at school,” Heidinger said. “There just wasn’t enough evidence. The bruises they said could’ve came from anywhere.”

She said another student stepped up and went into detail about the abuse, but the school waved it off and said the children were making up lies. She said they used the boys’ disabilities as a reason why they would do such a thing.

Estelle Singletary is from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her six-year-old daughter Nadia has schizencephaly, a rare birth defect where there are abnormal clefts, or slits, in the cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Because of this she is nonverbal, confined to a wheelchair and has some other developmental delays; she has also been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.

“When Nadia was 5 years old, I recorded the classroom and found that the employees were eating her food, they let her choke, they were doing name-calling, calling her a cry baby even though she’s nonverbal,” Singletary said.

The video shows Nadia being wheeled into a corner and left to cry after the name- calling. Singletary said after she reported the incidents to the school, she was retaliated against. Because of this, she said she revoked her daughter’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, to get her out of this self-contained classroom.

“Because the IEP didn’t work for us,” Singletary said. “It failed her. Everything failed. The whole system failed.”

Nadia is now in the regular classroom, where Singletary said the teacher doesn’t even hand her a pencil. She said the school won’t give Nadia any accommodations unless she gets a new IEP.

Alice Murdoch is from Alabama. She has two sons with disabilities who both faced challenges in the public school system as well. She said she’s fought for her son’s rights throughout their education.

“For Steven it was more getting a teacher and support personnel that were willing to work with him,” she said. “The little one was more of pushing him hard enough for academics.”

Gwendolyn Brown moved to Alabama after dealing with the special education programs in Florida. She described her son’s education as a roller coaster, where his years in intermediate school were all downhill.

“We were constantly fighting this unending battle that every day it was just a stressful situation and the teachers got to the point that they really didn’t want to communicate with us,” Brown said.

These four moms from different states all have one thing in common: they’ve all had to fight to get their children with special needs the free, appropriate education they deserve.

Their stories are exactly why IDEA was passed, but the language in this law isn’t clear on how schools can and should implement it.

Lara Wakefield works as a consultant for parents struggling to navigate public school’s special education programs. She said while everyone has been so focused on the term “inclusion,” meaning bringing students with disabilities into the regular public school classroom, the idea itself is not written into the laws.

“Inclusion is a philosophy and a concept, it just says least restrictive environment,” Wakefield said. “So that’s all the schools have to do.”

The bottom line is these children deserve a free, public education that suits their needs, whatever those may be, said Missouri State Representative Elaine Gannon.

“These students deserve to be a part of society as much as you and I do,” Gannon said. “We need to make it so that they have access to whatever it’s going to take to make them successful in life.”

So is including separate schools helping Missouri ensure children’s success? There isn’t really one straight answer.

“I guess Missouri’s behind times,” Gannon said. “I don’t know. I’m just going to be real honest with you, I don’t have an answer for that.”

Long story short: special education is complicated.

This story is one of five in a series, "Exploring the Paths of Missouri's Special Education." Check for an update next week, where you’ll find a story on the history of special education across the nation, and here at home. 

NOTE: This story was originally published with a headline that read "Missouri Struggles to Intergrate Special Education Students."