April 23, 2012

It is universally accepted that mental illness is a disability. It is just as much a disability as those physical conditions which can be more easily seen with the eye and more readily identified. However, those suffering from the devastating effects of mental illness frequently go unidentified, often drawing our scorn instead of the support we eagerly provide to others. NYS Education Law requires all schools to actively identify and locate disabled children, but in the case of children with developing mental health issues this process can be a challenge that even those high schools with the best of intentions are ill equipped to address.

NYS Law also disallows any disciplinary action in response to behavior resulting from a disability; however the process of obtaining disabled status is essentially unknown to anyone other than school administrators and does not require anyone, under any circumstances, to educate parents about the process of applying for disability status which provides access to the critical services.

Jerry’s Law seeks to correct this deficiency by educating parents about the process of applying for the resources available to children with disabilities. Instead of solely relying on the judgment of school administrators, Jerry’s Law would mandate that schools advise parents of their right to request an independent review by the Committee on Special Education. In order to maintain the economic feasibility of Jerry's Law, the conditions which will trigger the advisement of these rights will be limited.

In the event that a school feels that a child’s behavior is so problematic that it merits the intervention of the school superintendent for disciplinary purposes, that child and his or her parents will be advised that if they feel that the problematic behavior is the result of a disability, they have the right to apply to the Committee on Special Education for disability status. In this manner those children who suffer from emerging mental health disorders will come under the review of those best qualified to determine the appropriate course to address the needs of the child and the community as a whole.

The challenges faced by those with emerging mental health concerns are well know to the medical community, as teen suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. The prevalence of this growing concern resulted in the National Health Organization classifying teen suicide as an epidemic. However, the reality of mental illness is often overlooked in our society until it impacts our own life. Jerry Clark, the child whose death inspired the law bearing his name, took his own life on April 27, 2010. Jerry was regularly seeing a therapist and taking medication in an effort to address his emerging mental health problems when the school he was attending identified him as a problem. The schools response to this child was limited to a variety of disciplinary actions which further distanced him from the positive elements in his life. Counter to the repeated pleas of his parents and the evidence they provided, the school never deviated from a punitive model of behavior modification. These pleas went as far as to specifically request that Jerry be removed from the mainstream school environment and be allowed to complete the required course work at home, with the aid of a tutor. It was only after Jerry’s death that it was learned that such benefits are extended to disabled children through the special education program. Jerry’s parents were unaware that in order to secure these services for their son they were required to submit a written request to a specific person designated by the school. The current process unnecessarily limits the identification of children with emerging mental health concerns to high level school administrators. Those administrators are often ill equipped to meet the challenge. By informing parents of the process of securing the services these children need, the parents will be empowered and will prove to be an ally to the school in their state mandated effort to identify and locate disabled children.

In the case of Jerry Clark, the record clearly shows the efforts the parents made to make the school aware of Jerry's condition. It remains unclear why school officials failed to take note of the situation and proactively advise the parents of the alternatives that were available to them.

At a time in which funding is limited and standard test scores determine the merits of a school, did the school seek to resolve this “problem” through the most expeditious and least costly means available? We can only speculate. The punitive model provides a course well known to the school, one which can quickly bring about a conclusion which alleviates the school of burdensome children. It is a reasonable approach for an administrator to take, timely, inexpensive and predictable. However, as a society it is a course with long term costs and consequences. We certainly can count the number of student suicides and imagine the pain suffered by these children and their loved ones, but how do we calculate how many lives have been diminished because of a schools failure to provide the necessary support? How many have suffered without becoming a suicide statistic? Not only could intervention at this critical time enhance the quality of life for those affected, consider the long term cost of non action. The vast majority of children suffering from mental health disorders do not commit suicide, instead they become adults. They may learn to cope with their disability, or as is often the case, they may become a burden to society for the rest of their lives. Some of these children end up in our criminal justice system; still others may end up unemployed, homeless or otherwise in need of public support.

Shouldn't we be following the sage advice of one of Americas Founding Fathers-- Benjamin Franklin, who said: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

It seems inappropriate that we provide Miranda rights to criminal suspects, but do not provide “Clark rights” to children with suspected disabilities.