Jerry Clark was a solid student and a standout wrestler at Voorheesville High School before he committed suicide in 2010 after his mental health deteriorated.
Clark’s family believes the school district didn’t make the right decisions in handling him, and they set about getting a law passed through the state Legislature that would require schools to advise children and their parents of their right to have the child evaluated for mental disabilities, which would allow them to receive special education.
It took the Clarks four years, but their perseverance paid off when “Jerry’s Law” passed both houses of the Legislature this past summer. The bill still had to wait on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk for approximately five months before it was signed into law last week, but it’s officially on the books.
This law is a game changer for parents of children who demonstrate behavioral issues such as lashing out at fellow students or crying for no reason. In the past, school districts would simply address the incident without looking into the underlying reasons why the student acted up. Now, school districts must take any possible underlying conditions into account when a student faces a suspension of more than five days and let parents know they have the right to have their children evaluated for possible mental health issues, as well as options for having their children enrolled in special education services, such as home tutoring.
Traditionally, school districts have deemed special education necessary for students who have demonstrated developmental and physical disabilities. But these services can also benefit children diagnosed with mental disabilities, such as bipolar disorder. Being in social situations can create a variety of emotional responses that are considered outside of the norm, such as blatantly disregarding the rules or physical confrontations. While it’s not ideal to pull any child out of the general student population just because he or she acts up, it may be a sign that they need more specialized attention that they wouldn’t get in a regular classroom.
Certainly, the option to enroll a student in special education services is better than simply punishing the student arbitrarily for more than five days. It will allow the student to continue receiving the education he or she needs, while also taking away the stress of socializing with other students. It’s something school districts should encourage, rather than relying on the parents to ask about it.
Jerry Clark’s parents claim they never received that information, which might have helped keep their son engaged in his schoolwork and possibly life in general. Now, with Jerry’s Law on the books, hopefully other parents won’t see their children fall through the cracks because they were unruly in school.