Conversation surrounding disabled student advocacy at VHS engages both staff and students
By Lila Cohen, Deputy Editor, Savannah Butcher, Managing Editor, & Blake Grossman, Reporter
An overview of 504s & IEPs: what they are and how they came to be
This September, as students returned to school, controversy arose surrounding VHS’ ability to support students served by 504 plans and IEPs, along with students with disabilities.
The conversation has brought lots of suppressed issues to light, and has served as an opportunity for disabled students to share their experiences with not only VHS’s student body, but also with staff and administration.
“I think what happened this fall — students forcing a discussion around [student disability advocacy] — is really important … it’s a teacher’s job to figure out where we’re not serving students well, but if we don’t specifically ask the students, then we’re doing it blindly … I think … having student voice’s [present] in [the way] 504s and IEPs are being implemented [is really important] … [It] seems [to me that] that’s been a missing piece,” VHS math teacher Lisa Miller said.
Staff are looking at this conversation surrounding disability justice as an opportunity for positive change.
“When there’s a conflict, there’s always an opportunity to have [a] conversation to seek a better, deeper understanding of the issue,” Vashon Island School District (VISD) superintendent Slade McSheehy said.
Today, 10 percent of VHS students are served by 504 plans, the product of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which was the first disability civil rights law passed in the United States. 504 plans grant students with disabilities the right to reasonable accommodations and seek to promote equal access to education. These accommodations are personalized to combat the barriers of a student’s disability, including things such as extended time on tests or assignments, preferential seating, the ability to take breaks from class, and access to modified content.
To be on a 504 plan, the student must have a documented disability which affects their ability to access educational opportunities. It is important to note that not all students with disabilities have 504 plans.
The Rehabilitation Act paved the way for the enactment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA — previously known as Education for All Handicapped Children Act — which passed in 1975, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed in 1990. The ratification of IDEA was the first time disabled students were granted the right to a public education under federal law.
Another 12 percent of VHS students are served by an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Similarly to how 504s are a product of Section 504, IEPs are a product of IDEA. And as the name suggests, IEPs are specifically tailored to individual students.
“So we look at it like [this]: with a 504, the finish line of a class is the same as everyone else’s finish line, and we’re providing support that helps a student get to that finish line. With an IEP, the finish line might be different.” VHS counselor Tara Vanselow said.
IEPs and 504s are two completely different tier three support systems that VHS offers.
“There are three tiers. [A] tier one support is something that everyone gets. SMART period is a tier one support [because] every student has access to SMART. [A] tier two support is designed for someone who is using [a] tier one support … but it’s not helping, they’re still struggling, their grades are low, or their attendance is poor … [If that] doesn’t work … we [now] need to consider something more significant … Examples of tier three supports include 504s [and] IEPs,” VHS principal Danny Rock said.
Public schools receive no federal funding to support students with 504 plans but are legally required to evaluate and support the students who need them. School counselors are responsible for acting as the case managers for students served by 504s, and they, along with teachers, are the ones primarily supporting these students. IEPs however, are handled through a schools’ special education department, which receives funding from the state and the federal government.
Even though funding is fairly proportional to the district size, support systems for students served by 504 plans and IEPs, as well as students with other disabilities, differ heavily between small and large school districts.
Kathryn Coleman, VISD Director of Student Services, has been a special educator for 35 years and recognizes the challenges that come with being a small district.
“Like every school district, we have a variety of students with a variety of needs. Figuring out how to meet all those needs is very challenging and difficult … In larger districts, the resources look different. There might be an entire group of people whose job it is to do nothing but work with kids who have much more significant disabilities. This isn’t true on Vashon,” Coleman said. “Our students that have much larger, very obvious differences are very few. There is no [other] place that that’s happening — [students are getting extra support] right here in the classroom that [general-education students] are in. It’s happening in the middle of the building.”
And it’s at VHS, in the middle of the building, that VHS special education teacher Beth Solan says that teachers do their best to accommodate all students.
“I would say, of any district I have ever worked in, the desire of teachers to meet students where they are has been, hands down, [at] the highest level [here at VHS] … Teachers in [this] district want to [make accommodations] and meet kids exactly where they are … in order for them to be successful,” Solan said.
Since VHS is a small school, there are sometimes unique opportunities to support the needs of all students.
“I think… one of the things that I’m proud of in this school is that we’re no longer trying to do this ‘separate but equal’ [approach]. It’s never going to be equal. Having students of varying abilities in a general education classroom is awesome because those kids have a lot to offer other kids, and I think they should be with [teachers whose] expertise is that content area, whether it’s social studies, math, or language arts. And then [general education teachers are] supported by the special education teachers [on] how to… support [these students and] help them be successful,” Miller said.
VHS culture creates a unique echochamber
Being a small school of approximately 550 students not only affects VHS’ funding, but also creates a unique and sheltered culture. The small student body allows change to happen fast, but also for rumors to spread quickly. Despite Vashon preaching diversity, VHS can be a hard place to have needs that diverge from the majority of students.
“Vashon is a very hard place to be different. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, and while we are very tolerant, caring, and work hard to lift all people up on the island — there are lots of great examples of this — the truth is most [students] are able to be successful [at VHS] without having to get extra help. If you need extra help, that can be a very lonely and frustrating experience on Vashon,” Rock said.
Wendy Axtelle, a senior at VHS and founder of the Disabled Student Advocacy club (DSA), sees this isolating atmosphere as an example of “freak culture.” Axtelle is visually impaired and has experienced this culture first hand throughout her time at VHS.
“You hear students judging you. You hear students talking about you behind your back; you see the looks like, ‘what’s wrong with them?’” Axtelle said. “You very much get this vibe of what people call freak culture, where people try to make you feel like a freak, which is not a good thing.”
Freak culture can develop into more severe bullying if left unchecked.
“I haven’t experienced any [physical bullying], which I’m very grateful for. But I know lots of students who have and I’ve experienced the [bullying] that comes with having a disability,” Axtelle said.
When students ask for 504 or IEP accommodations at VHS, it can feel like they’re getting put in the spotlight.
“Lots of students can’t… pretend they don’t have a 504 or an IEP. Because you have to advocate for yourself so much, everybody knows. You’re getting called out, and people know that you’re not like them, and people like to attack people who aren’t like them,” Axtelle said.
Katherine Kirschner, a senior at VHS who identifies as disabled, is a strong supporter for more disabled student advocacy.
“I think that [the administration] needs to do a better job of advocating on behalf of students. [This] applies to most marginalized students. [Marginalized students] are the ones who have to fight for things they’re already being disadvantaged over,” Kirschner said.
Kirschner hopes to see more administrative support for students in order to level the playing field.
“I would love for administrators and staff to recognize that disabled students aren’t disabled on purpose. We’re not trying to get some slack, to get these accommodations so we don’t have to do anything. We’re asking for things that make our lives more livable, in a way that should be basic for all students,” Kirschner said. “I want us to start prioritizing those needs in a different way, and recognizing that it shouldn’t be the marginalized group’s job to advocate for themselves all the time. We’re really good at it because we get all the practice, but we shouldn’t have to. I like to see my friends have a day off, where people [automatically get] what they need.”
Staff agree that students shouldn’t have to advocate for their basic needs to be met.
“I think it’s really wonderful … when students are advocating. I don’t think it’s great when they have to advocate for themselves,” said Solan.
When using the social model of disability, the reliance on self-advocacy is seen as a shortfall of the community. The model was created by a collection of disability rights activists in the 1970’s through 80’s, and the phrase was coined by Mike Oliver in 1983. Instead of disability being a personal problem, the theory instead says it is a shortcoming of society for not being able to accommodate all people.
“VHS very much prescribes to the social model of disability. If you’re not one of the few students at this school that [this school] works really well for, then you’re going to be considered an outsider,” Axtelle said. “Whether you identify as disabled or neurodivergent, or if you have a 504 or IEP, if you’re considered an outsider to the school, you’re often going to be considered less than the people [who thrive at VHS].”
Axtelle thinks VHS could be a part of a larger movement supporting disabled student advocacy.
“This isn’t just a small group of students that are having this problem. It’s a universal thing, and we have to have a universal structural change,” Axtelle said.
Moving forward with disability advocacy at the forefront at VHS
One of the most propitious strides towards disability justice at VHS, and one that connects students and staff, is the newly-formed DSA. The club, led predominantly by Axtelle, is a place where disabled students and allies can discuss issues and possible solutions at VHS.
“[The DSA] has only had one meeting so far this year, so we’re still new, but an idea I’ve heard is [to have] a meeting once or twice a semester with counselors and staff to listen to student input and for students to hear from teachers about how things are going from their side. We talk a lot about student advocacy, but we also need to hear from teachers because some information that should be [publicized] is still behind closed doors,” DSA member Ari Officer said.
The DSA is looking forward to connecting with each other as a community.
“The greatest tool we have right now is each other. It’s long overdue that we allow students — especially marginalized groups — to advocate for themselves and work with each other. I think the most important thing is to allow students to work together, unite, and work with the administration. [VISD] could try to implement universal design[s], but they’re not going to work unless we get the students involved [because] no one knows our situations better than we do,” Axtelle said.
Some students are hoping the DSA can bridge the gap between staff and students by encouraging administrative members to incorporate Universal design for Learning (UDL) into general-education classrooms.
Coleman is a strong advocate for UDL and highlights that its principles benefit all students.
“The classic example is the curbs and the cutouts in the curb that allow people with mobility issues to be able to get up and down on the curb easily, or the ramps in front of buildings,” Coleman said. “[It] turns out … that [people who] don’t have mobility issues also benefit from having ramps in the building and cutouts in the curbs. If you take that concept and overlay that into education there are strategies that we can use in the classroom that help students with a variety of different challenges be able to access their learning. And it’s something that everybody else can use as well.”
As the administration works to implement practices such as UDL, the DSA continues to build community.
“[DSA] is about creating a community for students that have been excluded from every group,” Axtelle said.
Vanselow calls attention to the staff’s readiness to collaborate and solve issues with students.
“Staff really, really care and want students to feel like they’re seen and heard and cared for, and [we want them] to get what they need. It’s hard to hear [students say they aren’t] feeling seen and heard, but that’s just an important part of the conversation. [It reminds us that] we need to do better. We’re willing to take hard feedback, take it to heart, and make the changes we need to make,” Vanselow said.
The administration’s current task is to consider what meaningful changes will support all students.
“Part of our job [is asking ourselves,] ‘what support [can] we provide that everyone needs right now?’ There’s so much stress and anxiety for youth right now that we need to be looking at. …What universal things can we implement that are going to support students?” Vanselow said.
Some students are dissatisfied with the actions taken by the administration, complaining about a lack of followthrough. Rock is a common target of flak from the student body.
“There are students here who cannot stand me, and that’s just part of the deal. I don’t like it. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s the truth, and I certainly don’t ever seek to create that dynamic,” he said. “I will say that if I think that my presence is problematic for a given solution, [then] I do try to push others forward and step back myself because sometimes good leadership means getting out of the way. Sometimes, not being front and center is the right move …[However,] if you’re part of an organization, and the leader is not leading the change that they’re seeking to have happen, [then] it’s going to have a hard time happening.”
Rock is interested in working with students on figuring out how to strive for equal learning opportunities.
“At the end of the day, I want disability justice. I fundamentally care about disability justice, both personally and professionally. I’m super interested in having our whole school move forward in this way [together],” he said.
Axtelle shares this vision and thinks there is a long way to go.
“I genuinely think we need big changes. Our whole education system, as a country [and] globally, is not built [to serve] all students. [On Vashon], we’re a small community, and in small communities you can really see [the issues that specific groups of students face]. We’re small. We’re isolated. We could make changes, but we just don’t. I want to see change in the administration. I want to see them support students more. I want to see them listen. I want to see change in the student body,” Axtelle said.
As staff and students come to agree that change is needed, staff looks to students for direction on how to best solve these problems.
“The youth [are the people] that push change in our world because [they’re] able to see things from a different point of view than those of us who have spent more time being entrenched in the systems … I hope that where we’re headed is a place in which we can have these conversations to move forward and not to get divided and move apart from each other,” Solan said. “It’s so important to have hard, difficult conversations around all kinds of different privileges and opportunities … but I hope that we can use these conversations and have [them] in grace and compassion … in an effort to make it better.”