08/27/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

When Protection Hurts: Educating and Empowering Students of All Abilities

On Tuesday, the Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a Dear Colleague letter outlining the all too familiar negative effects of bullying. The piece focused on students with disabilities, who experience significantly higher rates of bullying than their typical-peers. In the letter, OSERS reminded schools of their "obligation to ensure that a student with a disability who is the target of bullying behavior continues to receive FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) in accordance with his or her IEP (Individualized Education Plan)".

That obligation might seem obvious to most, but there's more to it. We all know bullying harms students. But, is it possible that efforts to prevent or end bullying could also deny students' educational rights, particularly their right to be included?

In order to protect a student from a bully, efforts may be made to address the behavior and/or to remove the student (either the bully or the bullied) from the situation. The DOE letter reinforces that removing a student with a disability from a general education placement is an inappropriate solution to bullying.

Our instinct as educators, parents, and even peers, is to protect. We want to clamp off the source of hostility. But, protection can be a slippery slope to isolation.

This issue runs beyond bullying. For individuals with disabilities, the protective instincts of their community, schools, and even family members, can unintentionally limit potential, promote isolation, and emphasize disability over ability.

I grew up with Kelsey, my cousin who has significant disabilities. Kelsey's parents have had to push through protective instincts throughout her life to promote independence, inclusion, and fulfillment. I'll never forget going to the Great Escape amusement park as a kid. Besides Kelsey's front of the line service, my memories recall the frightened look on the faces of the roller coaster operators as Kelsey's dad lifted her into the ride. Kelsey looked quite different from the average 12-year-old rider. To the operator, it may have even looked unsafe. But somewhere along the way Kelsey's parents took a (well researched, safe) leap and put her on a roller-coaster. If they had stopped when natural protection instincts kicked in, we may have never seen Kelsey smile and clap for 'more! more! more!' at the end of a ride.

I directed my first Unified Theater show when I was 15. At the end of one of our first rehearsals, a parent whispered in my ear that the choreography was too difficult and that his daughter, who had a disability, wouldn't be able to learn it. His heart was in the right place. He was protecting his child from failure. He didn't want her to look bad in front of her peers. But his protective instincts put limits on his daughter's achievement. We decided to let her try it. She (better than many of her cast-mates) rocked the choreography perfectly on production night.

There are times when protection might be our only option, times when safety and emotional well-being are at high risk. But, there are other times when we need to support risk-taking. In adolescence, studies show healthy risk-taking promotes neurological development and personal growth. We should make every effort to teach young people of all abilities how to navigate and address situations that are hostile or uncomfortable. We should let them try new things. When protection is necessary, support students in making their own decisions about the level and kind of supports they desire.

We must protect our children and stand up for our community members with disabilities. But, we must do so in a way that is intentional and empowering.

Don't let support stifle achievement. Don't let protection be the enemy of inclusion.