Lawmakers and Educators Seek More Special Education Training for All Connecticut Teachers

Mar 3, 2015

Part of the problem many districts face is that some parents aren't aware of their child's disability.

Should all Connecticut teachers get more special education training? 

The idea has been put on the table by a group of educators, lawmakers and other professionals, with a goal to help teachers identify students with disabilities earlier, so that they don't fall behind in class or develop behavior problems.

Connecticut teachers are already required to get 36 hours of training in special education techniques, but the proposed changes would add other skills, such as social-emotional learning, assistive technology, differentiated instruction, and cultural competencies. It would also give teachers more training on their obligations under federal special education law.

But some worry that teachers are already tasked with doing a lot, and that giving teachers these additional skills could lead to fewer students being identified for special education, since teachers might try to teach these kids on their own and not refer them for an evaluation.

Julie Swanson is a parent and special education advocate. Swanson, a member of the working group that is proposing to give more special education training to all teachers, said it's good for teachers to have extra training, but it shouldn't replace the need for timely identification if a student appears to be disabled in some way.

"Now, it might not just be over an academic learning issue, it could be over an emotional issue, a behavioral issue, a social issue," Swanson said. "So if there were more understanding of what some of those issues were, and that they really should be red flags that say 'Boy, we need to make a referral for special education for this child.' That is a positive thing."

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents can request an evaluation if they think their child needs special education services. State law requires a district to evaluate a child within 30 days of parental consent. Part of the problem many districts face is that some parents aren't aware of their child's disability, and some teachers aren't equipped to identify the various signals that could indicate the need for additional special education services.

State Rep. Terrie Wood is one of three co-chairmen on the special education working group. Wood also said that the idea behind giving teachers more special education training was to help with identification. But she also said it's possible that some students might be able to learn in a regular class, because teachers would have a better understanding of how to teach students with disabilities. 

"Possibly, if it's a mild-enough disability, [a teacher would] be able to remediate them in the classroom," Wood said, adding that this would not be the norm. 

"Most often, they'd be referred on to some sort of special ed support program." 

Some critics expressed concern that a special education working group would focus too much on saving money, and not on educating disabled students.

A 2010 study by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance found that the percentage of Connecticut students getting special education services was the lowest of all New England states. The number has since risen to roughly the national average, but this has led to the perception among many boards of education that special education costs are rising uncontrollably.

The special education working group is part of the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies (MORE) Commission, which was set up in 2010 to find ways to streamline services among the state's towns and cities.

The special education working group was formed in late 2013. It was tasked with "how to provide special education in a more effective manner," but some critics have expressed concern that it would focus too much on saving money, and not on educating disabled students. 

Out of 21 working group members, Swanson is one of two non-legislative participants who represents the interests of parents. Member Mike Regan was the special education director in Newtown when Adam Lanza was enrolled there. A few years after becoming a home-schooled student, Lanza shot to death 20 children and six adults before taking his own life in 2013. A report from the Office of the Child Advocate found that Newtown failed to provide Lanza with an appropriate education program, and that it may have contributed to Lanza's psychosis. 

Swanson and Wood said they hope that providing all teachers with special education skills could play a key role in mitigating school violence perpetrated by students with disabilities. 

The working group's suggestions -- which will continue to be explored by WNPR -- are now up for discussion in the General Assembly for possible legislation.