Graduation: A bridge, a safety net, and a misguided goal

You have a child with a disability. Maybe it is cerebral palsy, maybe autism, some condition that will require them to have special preparations for “the real world.”

You spend twelve years doing your best to have them reach graduation. You fight for them to have all the services needed to access the curriculum. You tell the IEP team you want your child to graduate with his or her peers. They get special attention and instruction on how to pass the state exams (MCAS, NECAP, …) all with the goal of graduating. The special education teachers and team are so proud as school benchmarks are reached. Somehow your child makes it to graduation and receives a diploma. How incredibly proud are you?

If in fact your child is capable of holding a job, no matter how low-level, or living on their own, that is wonderful. But what if he does not have the proper skills. She may have graduated school, but may not be fully capable of living on her own, or holding any job. Then what?

The moment your child receives his diploma, the school district’s responsibility ends. No more services, no more information, no more help. In many states, there is no state agency that will help with adult services until age 22. In Massachusetts, the Department of Developmental Services may start planning for your young adult before, but there are no services before age 22.

If in fact your child does not receive a diploma, the school district, your home district, is still responsible for many services. This responsibility goes until age 22.

Chapter 766 is the Massachusetts law which guarantees the rights of all young people with special needs (age 3-22) to an educational program best suited to their needs.

See the Mass General Laws for more.

What happens after grade 12? There are many possibilities. Your Local Education Agency (LEA) (a commonly used synonym for a school district) may have a bridge program. This can be a special education classroom that continues to teach life skills to those students who did not earn a diploma. This can continue until age 22, until the school district and parents decide the young adult is ready to move on, or until the parents decide to take the student out of school. There may be other transitional programs available for those students who have basic life skills but need more support in a work study type of program or otherwise learning basic job skills. Possibly a socialization program is what is needed. It is the responsibility of the home school district to support the student to enable the types of skills necessary. The district may need to find an outside program that is the correct choice for the student, and as is the case with students in grades K-12, this might be an “out of district” placement.

This type of transitional or bridge program is the safety net built into the law. If a special education student at the end of 12th grade is not ready with regards to a basic education, or life skills, or living skills, then they can, and should, continue under the local school district until adult services can take over. They may attend graduation with their peers …

Students with disabilities; participation in high school graduation ceremonies and activities without award of high school diploma. Read the law here.

If a student receives a diploma at the end of 12th grade, and is not capable of life skills, or is not socially or emotionally prepared along with the proper education or training to be on his or her own, they are set up for failure, as is the family. Many families push for that graduation and diploma, only to find themselves faced with four years of no support services for a young adult who cannot be on his or her own. Where will the young adult live? Who will care for them during the day? What will happen?

The safety net is pulled out from the family due to the great desire for the student to “graduate with his or her peers” when in fact the day after graduation, they are in a very bad place with no support system at all. For four years.

A lot to think about. A vital discussion for parents and educators. You cannot just look at K-12, you MUST look at the years beyond. And plan how to reach a well thought out goal in your child’s best interest.

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