LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Special education teachers go to work every day expecting to be hit, punched and kicked.
"It's part of our job description," said Kami Finger, executive director of special education for the Lubbock Independent School District.
But Finger, a former teacher, told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (http://bit.ly/1gX3QhZ) that she believes it's a gift — a calling that stays with special education teachers even on days when some feel like pulling their hair out, or they had a student try.
LISD recently allowed A-J Media to tour the district's special education classrooms and facilities — a tour that revealed the bond between a special needs student and his or her teacher.
It's a relationship parents David and Jennifer Taylor rely on when they send their daughter Ashley, 14, to seventh grade at Irons Middle School every day.
David Taylor remembers parking in front of his daughter's elementary school a few years ago and walking around the building toward the playground. He saw boys playing basketball, girls playing tag and another group of kids climbing the jungle gym.
But what he saw next broke his heart, Taylor said during a recent interview at the family's home. Ashley was playing on the sidelines. By herself.
When the Taylors adopted Ashley, she was 2. Over the next year and a half they adopted her younger brother and sister, now 10-year-olds Grant and Brooke.
Ashley was small, malnourished and had been neglected, Jennifer Taylor said, so they knew she'd have developmental delays. They suspected fetal alcohol syndrome, but Child Protective Services told the Taylors Ashley's birth mother had not consumed alcohol during her pregnancy.
When Ashley was 5, however, she was diagnosed with FAS at about the same time Grant was diagnosed with autism.
Because of FAS, Ashley has bipolar disorder, brain damage and neuromuscular damage. She also struggles with anxiety issues, her mom said. In 2010, Jennifer Taylor wrote a book about her experiences with FAS and called it "Forfeiting All Sanity," using the same first letters of the syndrome in her title.
"She's one-on-one care 24-7, pretty much," Jennifer Taylor said of her daughter.
But Ashley wasn't getting that at her elementary school, and the Taylors eventually pulled her and her siblings out of the school district they were in.
Jennifer Taylor tried homeschooling all three children, but Ashley said she grew bored easily and that it wasn't what she had expected.
That's when the Taylors considered putting Ashley in LISD.
It was like magic, David Taylor said of their first visit to Irons. Immediately, Ashley was greeted by familiar faces and had friends to eat lunch with on her first day of school.
The Taylors' first admission, review and dismissal meeting with school staff solidified their decision to let Ashley attend.
"Every one of those teachers at Irons wanted to know what our thoughts were and what they could do to help," David Taylor said, adding he doesn't quite know how to explain their feelings after that first meeting.
"What we realize now is how important it is to have a school that has been there, done that and has an established program," Jennifer Taylor said. "I mean, it makes a huge difference."
School districts are required to provide service to special needs students ages 3 to 22, and LISD is serving about 3,200. Each student in special education has an individualized instruction plan, something the Taylors said has really helped Ashley.
Some students are in general education classrooms with special accommodations. Others, depending on the severity of their disability, are pulled out of the general education classroom throughout the day for specialized instruction designed around the students' needs.
The Taylors said Ashley falls into that category. She takes choir and other classes with "mainstream kids," her dad said, but her afternoon is spent with a teacher or teacher's aide in the special education program.
Some schools also offer structured learning classrooms for special education students whose disabilities impact learning, putting them on a lower academic level than their typical peers. These classrooms contain multiple grade levels.
In addition to studying academics, students in structured learning classrooms learn basic life skills.
In Zoe Bradley's kindergarten through second grade special education classroom at Maedgen Elementary School, students are learning how to take care of pets, fold washcloths and set a table — daily chores the students can help with at home.
"The main thing is you do the same thing every day," said Bradley, who has been a special education teacher for 31 years. "They do not get tired of it."
Students with autism or other disabilities thrive on a schedule, Finger said. Some of those same students don't naturally talk to other people, so greeting and approaching others is another skill they learn at school.
LISD also offers vocational training to special needs students who have completed high school credits but cannot yet graduate.
At the Vocational Transition Center, young adults train in various jobs — such as cosmetology, maintenance, computer graphics, horticulture and automotive — and often use those skills in the community through various ways during their training.
They also learn how to do laundry, balance a checkbook and dress for a job — again reinforcing life skills they'll need after they age out or graduate from the program — and broader concepts like following directions and safety guidelines.
"We try to throw as much in front of them as we possibly can because we don't know what they're going to be doing," said Mike May, lead teacher at the VTC.
He and his staff help students look for jobs in their field of interest.
Ashley has good days and bad days, she said — just like many other special needs students in LISD classrooms.
Ashley has not been violent in a long time, and she has never needed to be restrained at Irons, her parents said.
"Vocal outbursts and a lot of tears. That's what we deal with a lot," Jennifer Taylor said.
But each child is different, and special education teachers have students who are more prone to violence than others.
Verbally de-escalating a situation is always the first step, Finger said, and teachers learn how to hold a supportive stance so the student feels respected during an outburst.
Physical restraint is always the last resort.
Restraint — which the state defines as "the use of physical force or a mechanical device to significantly restrict the free movement of all or a portion of the child's body" — is only permitted when the child's behavior poses a threat of imminent and serious physical harm to himself or others, or property damage.
There are four control positions that can be used. No position should use more force than is required to address the problem. Restraint is meant to protect the health and safety of the child and others, according to state guidelines.
Anytime restraint is used, teachers document the entire incident. In addition to keeping them accountable, it helps with tracking students' behavior — what is and isn't working — as well as their tendencies in certain situations.
"You have to know the kid," Finger said.
Jennifer Taylor said her daughter's teachers are good at picking up on Ashley's warning signs.
"There's times when she does lose control and they can take her out in the hallway and calm her down or take her to the counselor's office, and she knows when she is getting upset," she said.
Despite the challenges teachers in the field face, Finger said the job is rewarding.
When she interviews candidates for teaching jobs in the special education department, she looks for specific qualities.
"When we interview them, we ask, 'What's your passion?' I look for creative and innovative in taking expectations for typical students and them knowing how to modify so children with disabilities can reach their potential," Finger said.
Anyone can say he or she has a heart for children with disabilities, but it takes a special person with a special calling to work with them day in and day out. Finger said she looks for teachers who don't just "talk the talk but walk the walk."
Jennifer Taylor calls them "mama birds."
The Taylors are "scared to death" of what happens after Ashley finishes eighth grade and aren't sure what the future holds for their daughter's education, but for now they're praising God for what Irons has done for their family.
The once timid Ashley who dreaded going to school and being alone now has a budding social life and an academic environment in which she thrives — which makes her dad happy, knowing he won't find her alone on the playground anymore.
"She's experiencing school the way she should get to experience school," he said.
Information from: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,
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