Public schools are NYC’s main youth mental health system. Where kids land often depends on what their parents can pay.

Public schools are NYC’s main youth mental health system. Where kids land often depends on what their parents can pay.

On Staten Island, a middle schooler with a hair-trigger temper was in a fistfight every week. In north Brooklyn, a ninth grader cut class for months before he tried to commit suicide. A few miles east, where Brooklyn meets the marshlands of Jamaica Bay, a 13-year-old ended up in a psychiatric emergency room after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down her school.

These kids all had two things in common: First, they were part of a growing cohort of students with serious mental health and behavioral problems that got in the way of their education. And second, they lived in New York City, which meant that their problems became, at least in part, the responsibility of the city’s school system.

Under federal law, school districts are required to provide all students, including those with mental health and behavioral problems, a “free and appropriate education.” In theory, this means that when a student is struggling to learn, districts must conduct assessments, create individualized plans and, if a child’s needs can’t be met in public schools, pay tuition for a private school — all at no cost to kids or their families.

In practice, however, what happens to students in New York City’s special education system often depends on the personal resources a family brings to the table. At each step of the way — identifying a disability, creating a service plan, deciding where a child will learn and who will pay for it — a family’s ability to spend its own money can secure a completely different outcome from the city’s public education system.

In the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, thousands of parents tap their personal funds to send children to private schools for students with disabilities and then sue the city Department of Education to reimburse them for tuition or other services. The schools these kids attend often charge well over $100,000 a year. Many offer the trappings of elite boarding schools, with bucolic settings and promises of advanced college prep. At some, students ride horses as part of their therapy.

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