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With 1,700 special education jobs unfilled, families of students with disabilities feel at risk

Liz Schlemmer

Susan Book knows just how bad things can get when a child doesn’t have a consistent, trusted special education teacher. Her son Emerson is 11 years old and autistic. He identifies as a student with disabilities.

“I credit autism with his absolutely amazing creative brain,” Book said. “He comes up with song parodies and jokes off the fly that just make us laugh.”

When Emerson was in third grade in the Wake County Public Schools, his special education teacher resigned midyear. Over the next two years, he was taught by a series of substitutes, switched programs, and saw two more teachers leave.

Emerson explains why he doesn’t like subs.

“They do stuff differently that I'm not used to, that makes me mad,” he said. “Sometimes they are not used to kids with autism, and they might make me write instead of dictate.”

One aspect of Emerson's autism is that he has dysgraphia. It means he struggles with physically writing things out, and he gets really frustrated when he has to write. The best solution for him is to dictate his responses to homework and have an assistant write his answers. His mom says without a qualified teacher or aid, his needs were not being met.

At one point, his special education class was taught by a general education teacher.

“My son actually had a teacher who had never dealt with his issues before in his life,” Book said. “It was a constant struggle to educate the teacher in real time, while my kid was struggling.”

Book says when Emerson’s needs were not met, he started having severe behavioral issues.

“He was acting out in school in fairly bad ways that it's really hard for parents to talk about,” Book said. “He didn't trust anyone in that building, and when that happens, things fall apart.”

Emerson's struggle spiraled into a mental health crisis. For months, he went on "home hospital," which means he was learning mostly from home supplemented by tutoring at his school in the afternoon.

All that happened right before the pandemic started and before teacher shortages exploded. This year, teacher and staff vacancies continue to plague North Carolina public schools late into the fall semester. Some of the hardest positions to fill are in special education.

In the first week of November, a WUNC analysis found public schools in North Carolina had listed a total of more than 10,000 vacancies on their online job boards. About 17% of those were in special education — including teachers, trained instructional assistants and specialists like speech pathologists.

"It can feel very vulnerable and very scary to not know how to help your own child."
Susan Book, mother of Emerson

Emerson is doing much better now, with a consistent teacher and one-on-one teacher assistants who help him write, but Book still thinks about all the students like him who may not have a qualified teacher or aid this year.

“I worry a lot for those families, because those kids bring all of those anxieties and all of those frailties back home with them,” Book said. “It can feel very vulnerable and very scary to not know how to help your own child.”

Inspired by advocating for Emerson, Book has become an activist for public school funding. She co-founded Save Our Schools NC and is a member of Every Child NC.

Book said she's grateful Emerson attends Wake County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and one of the best funded, but she believes what her son experienced is now playing out for students with disabilities across North Carolina.

Latonya Burney is the director of exceptional children services at Robeson County Schools, which currently has 20 vacancies for licensed special education teachers, out of a total of 135 typically employed by the district.

Those jobs were always hard to fill, but Burney says this year it’s harder than usual.

“We've had a lot of retirees, some teachers just did not return back or went to other districts,” Burney explained. “That has caused a strain on our department. It's been difficult trying to put qualified teachers in those positions.”

Burney said it’s especially difficult for rural and lower wealth counties like Robeson to compete for teachers during a shortage.

WUNC spoke to about a dozen educators across the state about what these vacancies mean for them. Many did not want to share their names or schools. They described classrooms in crisis. Some described how general education teachers are spending more time responding to students with special needs at the expense of other students because there aren't enough TAs. Some special education classes have long-term substitutes, or not enough adults in the room to adequately monitor the class while also helping kids with disabilities go to the bathroom.

Burney says her team is taking on larger caseloads and feeling overwhelmed by the number of students and the mountains of paperwork that must be completed to document their progress.

“It has to get better,” Burney said. “I'm hoping that it will get better.”

Liz Schlemmer

When families feel their students' special education needs aren't being met, they can file a complaint with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“The other option is to file due process, which I always say is a nice word for lawsuit,” said Stacey Gahagan, an attorney focusing on special education law.

Every student with disabilities receives an individual education plan or IEP. It’s like a roadmap that lays out what support the student will receive that year. The plan is crafted by a team that includes the child’s teachers and family, and often specialists from the school district like a school psychologist or attorney.

"My biggest concern is that the vacancies are going to start driving the decisions that are made for the students, rather than the students' needs driving the decisions."
Stacey Gahagan, attorney focused on special education law

Gahagan’s first career was as an educator, and after attending law school she served as an attorney for a school district. Now her clients are families of children with IEPs and special education teachers.

Gahagan says if schools can't meet the IEP, they risk potential lawsuits.

“At the end of the day, the obligation is to meet that IEP, and to provide the appropriate services,” Gahagan explained. “That need doesn't go away just because there isn't a person to fill it.”

As an attorney, she says school leaders should be very worried if they can’t meet students’ needs. As a former educator, she’s also worried schools may simply cut corners when writing an IEP based on the available resources.

“My biggest concern is that the vacancies are going to start driving the decisions that are made for the students, rather than the students' needs driving the decisions,” Gahagan said.

Emerson's plan, for example, says he should have his own TA throughout the day to help write out his answers. Without one available, he would still be in a self-contained special education classroom. But with a one-on-one TA, he now goes to math, science, and English classes with his peers.

His mom Susan Book explains that it is his civil right under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be in the least restrictive environment possible, preferably a mainstream classroom.

She says it's vitally important to Emerson’s overall social and emotional well-being and education to have access to general education classes.

“The first time my kid said, 'bro,' I was actually excited. It was like, 'Oh, my goodness, he totally learned that from school.'” Susan said. “My child was modeling other children, and that was really important for a kid who struggles socially.”

Susan says Emerson’s story underscores just how damaging it is that more than 1,700 special education jobs across the state are not being filled this semester, and that qualified teachers and professionals are not in classrooms educating kids like hers.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.