Advocates: Special education struggling in New Mexico | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

Special-education students in New Mexico’s public school system are getting overlooked and underserved during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and advocates told state lawmakers Thursday.

As they discussed the many challenges facing kids with disabilities — the lack of in-person and ancillary services and a reliance on untrained parents to teach children learning remotely from home as school campuses remain closed — advocates suggested the state’s special-education system is broken. 

“School districts are struggling to provide special-education needs as it is,” Laurel Nesbitt, an attorney with the nonprofit Disability Rights New Mexico, told members of the newly formed Legislative Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee during a remote meeting Thursday. 

Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, the parent of an adult with a disability, put it in blunt terms. Describing what it’s like to walk into a room full of strangers poised to evaluate your child, she said, “It’s adversarial — it’s you against the world, essentially.”

The pandemic is casting a spotlight on the wide cracks in a system that should be ensuring an adequate education for New Mexico’s 55,000 special-education students, the advocates said. Among the problems they cited are a lack of qualified special-education teachers, delayed screenings for students with disabilities and policies allowing school staffers to physically restrain and seclude students.

An annual teacher vacancy report released last year by New Mexico State University said of 644 open positions for full-time educators in the state, 151 were for special-education teachers.

With schools relying on distance-learning models in the spring and fall this year amid the ongoing pandemic, students in special-education programs are receiving fewer services than usual, and parents are facing more pressure to help them learn — without the skills and training — the advocates argued.

“Most of us aren’t trained special-education educators,” said attorney Joel Davis, who has a daughter with a disability.

He, Nesbitt and Thomson said many children with special needs are unable to understand and access online teaching tools, lose focus and miss the socialization that comes from being in a classroom environment. 

Davis suggested the Legislature create a special ombudsman office to oversee programs and offer parents a place to call for help.

Thomson said she plans to introduce a bill in the 2021 legislative session, scheduled to start in mid-January, that would call for creating a separate budget for special education so it’s easier to track spending on programs and services.

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, a member of the Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee, said she has been getting calls from parents of special-education students who are frustrated with the system. As those kids continue to learn from home, Dow said, they suffer from depression and feel isolated, further impacting their ability to learn.

“We should be able to do more,” she said. “It’s very frustrating to help a child reach his or her full potential when you don’t know how.”

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