Thirty years since the Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act passed, Matt Cohen still sees too many kids not getting the
help they need and leaving high school unprepared for what lies
"I think it is certainly better than 30 years ago, but we have a
long way to go," says Cohen, a special education and disability law
attorney with Monahan & Cohen in downtown Chicago. He has a
particular passion for advocating for families with children with
mental health issues.
What is your perspective on how we as a society are
treating kids with mental health issues, including ADHD,
"On a broad level, there continues to be an enormous degree of
ignorance about childhood mental health problems. I think the
schools tend to respond to mental health issues primarily in
relation to the degree to which the problem presents as disruptive
to the classroom rather than disruptive or interfering with the
student's personal ability to function. When the child is
disruptive to the classroom, the schools tend to respond in a way
that focuses on punishment rather than on therapeutic
intervention." Often, he says, kids with disruptive behaviors are
removed from the regular classroom and isolated or kicked out of
Parents probably feel caught?
"… There are lots of stigmas attached to being labeled as having a
disability and there are particularly stigmas attached to having an
emotional or mental problem. So there are many parents who are
fearful of that. There are many parents who are told or may assume
rightly or wrongly that if their child is labeled, they are going
to be put into a segregated special ed program without being aware
that there are lots of situations where the child can stay in
regular ed and hopefully get the support they need.
"… So there are a number of reasons for parents to be worried
about these things. The law is also very complicated, and many
parents aren't even aware that the services are available or that
they have various rights."
How do parents know what to do?
It's rare that there is a single right answer, he says. "Many of
the parents I see have a very good intuitive sense that there is
something wrong … but they don't necessarily know what to do about
it. They start out trusting the schools to be the experts and to
help them do what is needed. Some of the schools are very good and
very honest, but many schools, for reasons of resources and
control, are very reluctant to share information with parents about
what their rights are, about what their options are. The parents
are left to kind of figure it out for themselves."
Isn't that a tough place for parents to
"It's hard work being a parent and it's harder work being a parent
of a kid with a disability, and it's especially hard work when you
assume the schools will be doing what is needed and they
Is the law changing for better or worse?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, last amended in
2004, was supposed to be amended in 2009. Congress is occupied with
health care reform and the No Child Left Behind Act. Cohen predicts
amendments no sooner than late this year or 2011.
Much of the effort in the 2004 amendments focused on decreasing
regulations and giving schools more discretion over what they were
required to do, he says.
"In addition, there was an implicit message in what the law
enacted-that schools were identifying too many kids as having
disabilities." He says he's seeing a lot of cases where schools are
refusing to identify kids as eligible or who are being taken out of
"I think there's a lot of backlash on serving kids with
disabilities that ultimately is making it much harder for those
kids to get what they need. But the reality is that the more we cut
back on serving and helping kids with disabilities at the moment
when they are kids, the more likely those kids are going to be
unable to contribute as meaningfully as taxpayers when they are
adults" or will need more support as adults.
"There's a very important rationale for making that investment
that is not just based on what's right, but also based on good
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