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Students with disabilities are missing school because of staff shortages

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some of the country's most vulnerable students are missing vital learning time. That's because of a severe shortage of special education staff. According to a recent federal survey of districts, schools across the U.S. say special education jobs are among the hardest to fill. NPR's Cory Turner takes us to one remote California district where this shortage is so dire that families and teachers say it's dangerous.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Linda Vang sits at her kitchen table in Del Norte County, her back to a refrigerator covered with family photos. She grips her phone hard, like a lifeline, showing me a series of old videos of her son, Shawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA VANG: The socks are on.

TURNER: There's young Shawn putting on his socks...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANG: Hey. That's pretty good.

TURNER: ...Or learning to ride a scooter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN: (Vocalizing).

VANG: This is just him being silly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN: (Vocalizing).

VANG: He's just so happy all the time.

TURNER: Shawn is now 17 years old. He has autism and is nonverbal. Shawn isn't his real name. It's a pseudonym assigned to him by his attorneys and his mother in a lawsuit against the Del Norte School District. We're not using his real name because he is a minor, and his mother asked us to protect his identity. To understand that lawsuit, you have to know what happened to Shawn on February 28, 2023. Brittany Wyckoff is a special educator at Del Norte High School, and she was there that day as Shawn's lead teacher.

BRITTANY WYCKOFF: I teach a moderate to severe classroom with severe behaviors.

TURNER: As part of his special education plan, Shawn gets his own dedicated aide at school. But in Del Norte, there's a chronic shortage of special education staff, and there aren't a lot of options. Wyckoff says she wasn't comfortable with the aide who ended up with Shawn.

WYCKOFF: I witnessed the staff put hands on students several times.

TURNER: When Shawn got frustrated, Wyckoff says, his aide did not follow procedure. It was snack time.

WYCKOFF: This staff said, no, you're not being calm, and pulled it away.

TURNER: Another teacher later told police Shawn had begun to calm down.

WYCKOFF: This staff continues to just kind of berate on him about calm, calm, calm, calm, calm.

TURNER: So Shawn got more agitated, hitting himself in the face. The aide later told police he began to worry that Shawn might try to bite him because he had bitten other staff before.

WYCKOFF: And that staff member just instantly reached out and choked him, like, a full-on, like, two - one-hand-over-the-other-hand choke. And he just kept saying, like, you won't bite me. You won't bite me. You won't bite me.

TURNER: Multiple staff told police Shawn had not tried to bite the aide.

WYCKOFF: He started moving forward and shoved him onto the desk. It had been almost a full minute. Shawn was turning purple.

TURNER: Wyckoff says she was yelling at the aide to stop and finally pulled him off of Shawn. When the aide was arrested for child endangerment and asked why he hadn't called police, the aide said because he'd been in many similar situations and didn't think this rose to that level. Ultimately, the DA chose not to file charges.

VANG: It is the hardest thing in my life to watch my son go through this.

TURNER: Linda Vang says the incident changed Shawn. Afterwards, he missed two months of school because he couldn't get a new classroom aide. And he's not the only one. The district was and still is in the throes of a special education staffing crisis.

VANG: And it was just week after week of them telling us, there's no staff. There's no staff.

TURNER: A recent federal survey of districts across the U.S. found that special education jobs were among the very hardest to staff, and vacancies are widespread. But what's happening in Del Norte is extreme because it is so isolated, hemmed in at the top of the state by Oregon, the Pacific and some of the largest redwood trees in the world. And that isolation, coupled with low pay, means hiring has been tough, and students like Shawn have been suffering the consequences.

VANG: I feel for him. I'm angry for him. It's hard.

TURNER: In December, Vang and five other families sued state education officials, and later the district, with help from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. The families say this staffing crisis is denying kids with disabilities their right under law to an education.

JEFF HARRIS: We don't come in every day, going, how can we mess with people's lives, right? We come in every day going, what can we do today to make this work?

TURNER: District Superintendent Jeff Harris could not comment on the lawsuit or the incident with Shawn, but he did want to make clear the district is doing the best it can, he says, in an impossible situation. These aides, like Shawn's, make roughly the same pay they can get at the local McDonald's.

HARRIS: It's very, very, very, very difficult when we are trying to bring people on board, when we're trying to provide these services, when we want the best that we can give 'cause that's our job, and we can't.

TURNER: And the problem isn't just hiring people.

WYCKOFF: Sometimes it's not the best fit.

TURNER: Special educator Brittany Wyckoff told us these staff need training and aren't always getting it before they're put in a classroom.

WYCKOFF: So they could know absolutely nothing about working with a student with special needs, and they're like, hey. You got to work with the most intensively behaviorally challenging student. Good luck.

TURNER: Superintendent Harris says the district does provide training but admits they also have to balance that with the need to get staff into classrooms quickly. Veteran staff in the district tell NPR they have seen what happens when students don't get consistent, quality support. They stop making progress or even lose skills.

EMILY CALDWELL: One particular student - he was doing well.

TURNER: Emily Caldwell is a speech-language pathologist in the district. She works with many students who use a device kind of like an iPad to communicate. One student, though, had been working hard to use his own voice.

CALDWELL: We were talking about removing his communication device from coming to school because he was communicating verbally.

TURNER: But the student began losing those skills, Caldwell says, as he was shuffled between inexperienced staff.

CALDWELL: He's not communicating verbally at school anymore.

TURNER: Teachers describe to NPR students losing all sorts of skills, from being able to communicate their needs or be social with peers to using the bathroom on their own. Superintendent Jeff Harris acknowledges this is painful.

HARRIS: When you have a child who can't do something that they were able to do before because they don't have that consistency, that's hard. I mean, that's a knife to the heart.

TURNER: Brittany Wyckoff says students and teachers can also get hurt.

WYCKOFF: We have staff that aren't safe - should not be in classrooms with our most vulnerable children.

TURNER: Both Wyckoff and Emily Caldwell, the speech-language pathologist, say they have repeatedly raised alarms on behalf of their students. It makes Caldwell emotional.

CALDWELL: If - sorry. I just worry. Like, the kids I work with - most of them don't communicate effectively without support. And so they can't go home and be like, hey, Mom. Like, so-and-so held me in a chair today. And so I just feel like if I wasn't there, being that voice and that advocate, who would be?

TURNER: It's unclear what will happen next with the lawsuit. In the meantime, Linda Vang says Shawn is improving in his current life skills class and that he likes the aide he has now.

VANG: I mean, it's hard. It has been very hard the last year. But, you know, we're getting there. I'm doing my best every single day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE RUMBLING)

TURNER: And today, her best is helping Shawn into the back seat after school and beginning the 30-minute drive into Oregon to get a little help that doesn't cost much and is already putting a smile on Shawn's face...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for choosing Dairy Queen. I can take your order whenever you're ready.

TURNER: ...A chocolate sundae.

VANG: All right, can I get a...

Cory Turner, NPR News, Del Norte County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "FIRE + WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.