Emphasizing that student mental health and the success of students with disabilities demand critical attention because of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a virtual summit in May to highlight ways schools, colleges, and communities can support students with these special needs.
“As our communities recover from the pandemic, it’s vital to support our students through their journey from early education to K-12 classrooms, to college and to careers,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona during opening remarks. The half-day event brought together education leaders, disability advocates and coordinators, special education professionals, and others to discuss new and ongoing challenges affecting students with disabilities and students with mental health issues.
“The pandemic has challenged and continues to challenge the disability community,” Cardona said, adding that for most students, educators, families, and advocates were able to “collaborate, innovate, and limit disruptions for students, establish needed routines, and replicate essential therapies in virtual environments.” But work remains to be done, and it “isn’t just to return to the baseline. It’s to take bold action to address the inequities that have existed in our education systems far too long,” he said.
“Together, we can make education the great equalizer we know it can be: uplifting the value every child brings to their classrooms and their community,” Cardona said.
“No conversation about people with disabilities is complete without a discussion of civil rights,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. She stressed that “OCR stands ready to enforce our mission to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for all students, for every person who needs us.” Lhamon asked webinar attendees to share the message that “OCR is open for business.”
Citing the Biden administration’s $3.3 billion increase to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as “the largest two-year increase to the program in 20 years,” Assistant Education Secretary for Policy and Planning Roberto Rodriguez said the funding helps “prioritize the supports and services our nation’s students with disabilities need to succeed in school and in life.”
During a session on meaningful school inclusion for students with disabilities, Mita Bhattacharya, the mother of a special needs high school student, explained why including disabled and nondisabled students together in classrooms at the earliest grades is essential. “If we want our students with disabilities to be equipped with the tools to be independent adults in the community, they need to be included with their neurotypical peers from the very beginning of their lives.”
Bhattacharya, who also is a family resource specialist with SPAN Parent Advocacy Network in New Jersey, added, “My child belongs in the community. He deserves to have the experience of being accepted and welcomed for who he is.” And her son and other students with disabilities are not the only beneficiaries of meaningful inclusion. Their peers and their teachers also benefit, Bhattacharya said. “They understand my son’s challenges and learn how to support him. It improves their friendship skills, and most importantly, it teaches them how to respect others.”
Mental health crisis
Despite being exacerbated during the pandemic by the loss of loved ones, medical conditions, financial hardships, social isolation, and learning disruption, mental health challenges can still go unacknowledged—essentially a “forgotten disability,” said James Kvaal, undersecretary of education. On college campuses, students, faculty, and staff often hide their struggles. “It’s time they receive the support they need to take care of their mental health.”
In sessions addressing adolescent and young adult mental health, speakers echoed concerns about the nation’s youth mental health crisis. Day Al-Mohamed, director of disability policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council, cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that in 2019, even before the introduction of the pandemic, one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40 percent increase since 2009.
Speakers noted the sharp rise in suicide rates among those ages 10 to 24, which increased 57 percent from 2000 to 2018, according to the CDC. Particularly glaring is the rising rate of suicide attempts by Black children, especially Black girls.
Richard McKeon, chief of the Suicide Prevention Branch at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said that the new 988 National Suicide Prevention and Behavioral crisis dialing code is one long-awaited success in the effort to increase crisis care services across the nation. Like the dialing code 911 for medical emergencies, by dialing or texting 988, people will be immediately connected to the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The new suicide and crisis lifeline phone number became operational nationally on July 16.