Out of the Shadows: How public schools are failing mentally ill kids

A closer look at how, despite grant funding, many kids are still slipping through the cracks

October 20, 2011

Erica Hunter

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Nykea and Artie McGriff have struggled with Chicago Public Schools to provide adequate education for their son, Arthur.

Arthur McGriff looks like a typical seven year old.

He’s a bit tall for his age and acts like a little gentleman. But at the age of seven, he’s just learning how to dress himself and, unlike most kids his age, doesn’t look both ways before crossing the street. 

"He is functionally at about 3 years old, so that’s very difficult we’re still potty training," said Arthur's mother, Nykea Pippion McGriff.

Learning is hard for her autistic son. "Arthur cannot count. You know he can count one to 20 kind of sporadically but less than 50 percent of the time. He does not know his abc’s. He can’t read, can’t write."

Yet, somehow Arthur is in second grade. Granted, his days in class aren’t filled with typical second grade tasks like learning new spelling words. His work is much simpler.

Out of the Shadows explores the fractures in mental health care for children in Illinois and illuminate how it affects our youth.

"He is working on writing the letter “A” for the school year. Last year we worked on hanging his coat on the hook," explained Nykea.

Nykea and her husband Artie McGriff say their son isn’t progressing academically because the evaluation process takes too long.

"We were actually referred by a daycare provider to CPS’s early intervention and that process took about a year and a half. We took all of our information that was required to our home school three separate times before they actually got us into the system and actually referred us to an evaluation," Nykea recalled. "And, the only way we actually got the evaluation is I continuously called the office specialized services and just kind of really stalked them out."

Many of the families interviewed for this series express similar frustrations, and not just with Chicago Public Schools.

Parents often struggle through the process that outlines a child’s plan for progress. An Individualized Educational Plan or Program or IEP identifies resources a special needs child would require to succeed in their education.

These interventions are modifications and accommodations teachers make inside and outside of the classroom.

Noemi Ramos is a CPS social worker. "If you have a student that kind of gets upset a lot and it escalates, maybe just working out with the teacher some kind of cue where they can have 5 a minute kind of period to calm down and having that basic communication between the teacher and the student will prevent the child from escalating," she said. "Something simple as that can be very successful for a student."

But some children need much more help. Their rights are protected by the 1997 Disabilities Act that mandates students with disabilities start their education in a mainstream classroom. They must be offered supplemental aids and services as needed. Special classes or separate schooling with other disabled children or even a special therapeutic day school becomes an option only after exhausting all other options. And only if the student's IEP team deems it necessary.

Jim Shriner is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois--Urbana Champaign. Shriner says money and resources prevent most schools from providing for students with special needs, and that IEP’s aren’t foolproof.

"The most effective teachers use the IEPs to check their instructional priorities to make sure that accommodations are provided as needed," said Shriner. "They’re not effective if they’re cut and pasted from a goal bank that is pre-written without the student’s individual needs in mind and just presented and shoved in a drawer once their signed and approved. If it’s used and shared and referred to periodically they can be very effective."

In Chicago Public Schools, 52,000 students have IEPs.

The McGriff’s son, Arthur, is now one of them.

But Nykea’s not sure it’s working. "It’s just ludicrous when you read some of these goals. And given the fact that we’ve spent so much money with private therapists getting all these reports and provided those reports to the school system and it’s like they just took those reports and stuck them in a file somewhere. I mean, they obviously didn’t read through them.  I mean he’s been promoted to second grade and like I said he can’t read, he can’t write, he doesn’t know abc’s. I mean what kind of system is this?"

Speaking generally about individual needs for special education kids, CPS nurse, Onna Ford Kendrick defends more relaxed goals.

She says a child’s clinical diagnosis may differ from their educational one. "Sometimes the child can function effectively in the classroom with the support of outside services and medication," said Kendrick. "They do fine, it’s the same as adults, there are many people working with us everyday who have a diagnosis that we may not know about because they’re working effectively in a work setting the same applies to a child. Just because you have a mental health diagnosis does not mean that you cannot function effectively in the classroom in the school setting as well."

The McGriff’s think a therapeutic school is the key to Arthur’s success. But therapeutic day schools can be costly. They range from $150 to $600 per day for a child.

The cost of these schools is why some parents, like the McGriff’s, think school districts delay the IEP process.

"I think they’re trying to show, he’s great, he’s happy," said Arthur's father, Artie. "They even said that he’s a leader in his classroom which is really tough for us because we know that he can’t communicate well enough to be the so called leader, so we’re like curious how is he a leader. We just feel like it’s just babysitting for us right now at CPS, it allows us to be at work or something like that, we don’t feel like he’s learning anything there."

CPS officials would not comment on this case. Nykea worries about the time that’s being wasted fighting the system. "I think that's really what the CPS system relies on--is that parents just give up, get frustrated and they deal with whatever's given to them and that certainly is not going to be the case for my child!"

The McGriff’s realize they have a long road ahead of them if they want Arthur to have a fair chance at a good education and ultimately a good life.

But Nykea won't give up. "At the end of the day, we're looking for our child to be able to make a meaningful input into our society."

Join the conversation: Ask experts about mental illness in our live chat.

Clarification: Ms. Onna Ford Kendrick’s quote regarding the possibility of a special needs student succeeding in a mainstream classroom did not directly reference Arthur McGriff’s case. In the full interview, Ms. Ford-Kendrick was actually responding to a question about accommodations identified in Individual Education Plans. Chicago Public School officials, in fact, would not comment on Arthur McGriff’s particular case.