Access to Quality Education as a Civil Right
By Kathleen M. Minke
In November, I had several remarkable experiences as NASP president. First, with three NASP staff members, I met with Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, at his request to discuss the ways in which school psychologists can contribute to effective school reform. The following week included our Congressional briefing on “Learning and Social–Emotional Supports for Students Experiencing Family Transitions: Meeting the Needs of Military, Foster, and Homeless Children.” Later that week, I represented NASP at a press conference, arranged by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to draw attention to proposed legislation addressing antigay bullying in school, and attended a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the passage of IDEA. I used to think that policy/legislation is a dry and boring place to spend one’s energy. I came away from the events of these two weeks seeing how wrong I was.
I was thoroughly moved by the stories shared at these events. Speakers at the IDEA celebration included a young woman who is deaf/blind and a student at Harvard Law School, a young man who graduated from the University of Maryland–Baltimore County and founded the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, and a young woman with cerebral palsy who fought ongoing battles to have her abilities recognized. She graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in psychology and English. At the GLSEN event, Tammy Aaberg and Sirdeaner Walker bravely discussed the loss of their sons to suicide, at ages 15 and 11, discovering only after their deaths that they were relentlessly bullied at school. Joey Kemmerling, a high school student in Bucks County, PA, described daily torment as a result of coming out, including being threatened by another student with a knife who said, “Your life is in my hands.” He is transforming his anger and depression into action as copresident of his school’s Gay–Straight Alliance and as a GLSEN ambassador. At our Congressional briefing, I had an opportunity to share a little of Janiva Magness’ story; she avoided repeating a pattern of suicide in her family, in part through the interventions of a caring teacher and foster mother. She was named the 2009 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year by the Blues Foundation and is the national spokesperson for the Foster Care Alumni of America.
These are all people of courage, commitment, and perseverance. Their accomplishments benefit not just themselves and their families; they benefit all of us. But these stories are also linked to public policy and law. Each of the individuals with disabilities noted above would have been denied a free, appropriate public education prior to the passage of PL94-142. It is easy to focus on the difficulties we face in complying with IDEA’s regulations and to forget exactly how important this legislation is in transforming the lives of individual students. And there is more to be done. The proposed Safe Schools Improvement Act will protect all students, including those targeted due to sexual orientation or gender identity, by requiring schools to strengthen their reporting procedures and response to incidents of bullying and harassment. The Student Nondiscrimination Act will protect any student who is discriminated against because of actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation. If enacted, these initiatives might prevent further tragedies like those experienced by Ms. Aaberg and Ms. Walker. NASP is also supporting legislation designed to address the needs of students experiencing stressful family transitions, including the Mental Health in the Schools Act, the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act, and the Fostering Success in Education Act, that will support a greater number of success stories like Janiva’s.
Secretary Duncan describes access to quality education as the civil rights issue of our generation. All children have a right to a safe, supportive, effective school where they can achieve their potential. School psychologists have an obligation to take whatever actions we can to promote the creation of these schools. We can do it by responding to legislative action alerts as NASP members. We can do it by taking leadership roles on our schools’ improvement teams. And we can do it by leading efforts to protect students’ rights at the individual school level. There will be multiple opportunities at the San Francisco convention to develop your advocacy and student support skills (see related articles by Kathy Cowan and Stacy Skalski in this issue).
At the end of the GLSEN press conference, Jay Kovach, who works with Tammy Aaberg, gave me his business card. It included a quote from Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909) that should drive our work: “I am only one. But still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Each day we are presented with opportunities to do some thing that will improve a child’s life chances. What could be more important or more fulfilling? What will you do today?
Kathleen M. Minke, PhD, NCSP, is a professor of education at the University of Delaware.