A federal statute enables bright, capable students to goof off
“The attempt to prevent our kids from struggling for fear it might save their permanent records is, instead, scarring them for life.” (Heather Choate Davis, author of Elijah & the SAT)
Madison was in her high school class for 10 minutes before wandering out. She didn’t return, which was nothing unusual. She drops in and out of class regularly without a word to anyone. Sometimes she returns, but other times she’s absent for most of the period.
Her teacher (my husband) doesn’t know where she goes. Madison’s psychiatrist has diagnosed her as having an anxiety disorder, so her teachers have been told to allow her to leave class any time she feels anxious. When she misses assignments, it’s the responsibility of her teachers to make sure she has enough extra time to finish them.
Currently she’s nine days late turning in a project that was supposed to take 18 days. That means her teacher has to give her nine extra days to make up the work, one day for each day missed.
But the recent week-long spring break doesn’t count toward those makeup days. Neither do weekends, despite the fact that Madison was on a vacation with her parents before spring break and missed several days due to sickness later. Only official school days are considered legitimate makeup days.
Madison is bright and capable, but she has a 504 classification, which means she receives special accommodations under the federal civil rights 504 statute that bars discrimination against children with disabilities.
Another diagnosis and another 504
Jeremy also has a 504. His doctor diagnosed him with IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder), an impulse-control disorder causing sudden episodes of unwarranted anger. The disorder is characterized by hostility, impulsivity, and recurrent aggressiveness.
Jeremy “acts out” in class, sometimes shouting “Fuck this school and every fucking asshole in it!” His father has told the school to ignore these outbursts because “It’s beyond his control. He gets frustrated when he feels stressed and part of his condition means he has no filter.”
Andrew, another 504 student, was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). People with OCD get frustrated if everything isn’t perfect. When Andrew got upset about an assignment, he smashed his computer.
My husband probably went against school policy by requiring him to buy another computer, but Andrew came up with the money, my husband purchased the computer, and Andrew hasn’t had a temper tantrum since then.
Getting into the best colleges
I’ve changed the names of these students, but the situations are real. My husband teaches in a high-income area and the school is high-performing, ranking right up at the top of schools nationwide. Parents are affluent and students are competing to get into the best colleges.
The school has some good things going for it. It’s diverse, with a lot of students from outside the United States whose parents have come here to work in the technology industry.
It’s a state of the art school with a beautiful, expensive building, an amazing Culinary Arts department and a laptop for every student.
Some students can already write advanced computer programs and a few have won state-wide competitions. A lot of them participate in extracurricular activities and make top scores on the SAT.
But beneath the success, there’s an undercurrent of dysfunction. Several students have committed suicide, leading to school-wide sessions on suicide prevention. Over a third of the students are on medication for mental or emotional health. The absentee rate, especially before and after holidays, is astronomical.
When a doctor diagnoses a student as suffering from a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity, the student qualifies for special accommodations under the 504 statute.
Adequate accommodation could mean overlooking disruptive behavior, allowing extra time to complete homework assignments and tests, or providing a different, individualized curriculum that isn’t as difficult for the child to master.
When my husband taught in a low-income area, there were plenty of disruptive students and plenty of students who wanted to wander out of class, but there were no visits to psychiatrists and no 504’s.
Teachers were given free rein to demand a certain level of accountability, and students flourished when more was expected of them.
Due to the three-hour commute, my husband eventually transferred to his current school. For the first several years, he taught a lot of students with 504 classifications. This year he decided to teach all AP (Advanced Placement) classes. He figured AP students wouldn’t require special treatment, since AP classes count as college credits and add several points to a student’s GPA.
He was wrong. Everybody wanted to be in these classes because of the extra GPA points, but parents still demanded special accommodation. This was a source of contention, because the curriculum wasn’t supposed to be modified or “dumbed down” if a student wanted to earn college credits.
Most of the students are bright. They could complete the work if they weren’t missing so many classes, on their cell phones or socializing with friends. Madison (the girl who keeps leaving class) is extremely social when she’s there.
Some students earn B’s and C’s despite their behavior, but they’re upset when they don’t get A’s. Their parents are upset, too, if the number of irate emails sent to teachers is any indication. Having B’s and C’s on their record might not get them into the best universities.
A good statute with unintended consequences
My husband and I support the federal rights 504 statute ensuring that schools can’t discriminate against children with disabilities. We are beneficiaries of the statute, since our severely autistic grandson needs special accommodations. He’s incapable of doing what other kids his age are able to do, and in a different era would be kept out of public school.
But like a lot of things that start out good, the 504 statute has morphed into something that enables bright, capable students to goof off.
Parents would probably be surprised at how their children rose to the occasion if more were demanded of them. Why is working during spring break or on a weekend considered a hardship when the student has just returned from the Bahamas or from a European vacation?
How is allowing a student to wander in and out of class helping her work through her anxiety issues?
Why should a teenager be allowed to disrupt class with angry, negative outbursts that resemble a toddler’s tantrums (except for the profanity)?
If teenagers have emotional and mental issues, they should get the help they need. But failing to teach self-control and accountability is harming more than helping them. It’s human nature to get away with as much as we possibly can. As we get older, we develop values that help us curb those tendencies. How are we helping children develop values and strength of character if we make allowances for everything they feel like doing?
Children should learn that the grade you earn is the grade you get.
They should be taught that it isn’t respectful or acceptable to disrupt class with uncontrolled outbursts.
And they should understand that you can’t go through life making excuses and blaming others; education is an opportunity that comes with some requirements.
There are still a lot of good parents and good teachers. But the other ones are making the most noise and demanding the most attention.
My church minister once said, “School teaches children to make a living. We teach them to make a life.” Parents who believe they are helping their children succeed by enabling them not to fail might want to ask if they are teaching their children to make a life.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
— Helen Keller