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McKnight Introduces Legislation to Protect Rights of Students with Special Needs, Promote Mental Health Awareness

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight has introduced a legislative package aimed at protecting the rights of young people with special needs and raising awareness about mental health disorders among children in New Jersey.

The first measure (A-4411) would prohibit local boards of education from barring students with emotional or behavioral disorders from participating in summer programs they offer for students residing in the school district.

“Often when emotional disturbance causes a student to act out, the result is disciplinary action that essentially punishes the child for a condition that is beyond his or her control,” said McKnight (D-Hudson). “The challenges that young people with emotional and behavioral disorders face should not preclude them from engaging in the childhood experiences available to their peers.”

The bill was referred to the Assembly Education Committee.

The second measure (AJR-133) would designate May as “Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Awareness Month.”

“For more than two decades, the federal ‘Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’ has guaranteed students access to a free, appropriate public education, which expanded the possibilities for so many children who otherwise may have been excluded from public school programs. Unfortunately, however, the complex language and processes involved in special education continue to make it difficult for parents to be full partners in planning their children’s curriculum,” said McKnight. “Our state must do more to ensure these parents are well-informed and empowered to advocate for their sons and daughters.”

More than 200,000 students with disabilities in New Jersey have an IEP, a specialized education plan which contains critical details about the education that a child will receive, including: a statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, measurable annual goals and a description of how a child’s progress toward achieving those goals will be measured, details of the special education and related services that the child will receive, any individual accommodations necessary to measure the child’s academic achievement and functional performance, and, for special education students, generally beginning at the age of 16, measurable postsecondary goals related to training, education, employment and independent living skills.

The legislation was referred to the Assembly Education Committee.

The third measure (AJR-142), which was referred to the Assembly Women and Children Committee, would designate the first week of May each year as “Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.” During the week, the state would make a concerted effort to support the work of national and local groups advocating for children’s mental health. Similarly, the fourth measure (AJR-145), which was referred to the Assembly Human Services Committee, would designate the month of May each year “Emotional and Behavioral Disorder Awareness Month.”

“Children are, in many ways, more vulnerable than adults to mental illness, and children with mental illnesses have a far greater likelihood of being suspended from school, abusing drugs or alcohol or ending up in the juvenile justice system,” said McKnight. “Enhanced awareness of mental illness in children can help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and improve access to treatment that can help children lead full, productive lives.”