In compromise on ABA therapy, Colorado bill would require districts to set written policies

School districts would have to craft written policies spelling out whether specialized behavior therapists are allowed in classrooms under legislation that passed the House Education Committee Tuesday.

The bill is much less than what parents of children with autism had hoped for, but they said they’re prepared to start educating local school board members on the benefits of allowing applied behavior analysis therapists to work with students in the classroom.

“Our kids have a lot of different pieces that they need to be supported,” said parent Sandra Mikesell, referring to the puzzle pieces in a heart used as a symbol of autism. “We’re excited to move forward, and we’re looking forward to engaging with school boards.”

Mikesell’s son gets ABA therapy in school from an outside provider, the result of a long battle with the Cherry Creek school district. Her hope is that eventually it’s easier for other parents to get the same services.

Applied behavior analysis therapy is frequently recommended for children with autism. It can help them learn how to communicate and interact with others, gain basic life skills, and, critically, manage the frustration that can lead to angry outbursts. Medicaid and many private insurance companies cover the therapy, but it’s not common for school districts to provide it.

Children often need many hours a week of services, which makes it hard to schedule if therapy isn’t provided at school, and parents say therapy is more effective if the clinician is working alongside the student at school, putting those skills into practice. Rather than distract from teaching, the therapist could be a benefit to the teacher, they argue. And with insurance covering the cost, it wouldn’t cost districts money.

The bill originally would have required schools to allow private ABA therapists into the classroom, provided they underwent background checks and carried their own liability insurance.

But school districts and the state organization that represents directors of special education were opposed. They said it impinged on local control and that school districts need to have the final say in what services are educationally necessary. They worried about having a provider in the classroom who doesn’t answer to the principal.

In the face of that opposition, state Rep. Meg Froelich, a Greenwood Village Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, amended it to instead require that districts adopt a written policy on whether to allow private therapists into classrooms. School boards would also have to hold a hearing on the policy, creating an avenue for parents to lobby for change.

Several Republicans on the committee preferred the original bill as better meeting student needs and respecting parents’ role. State Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican, said it “gutted” the bill. However, the committee voted 8-4 to adopt the amendment.

At that point, the committee voted unanimously to recommend the amended bill. It goes next to the full House and then to the Senate.

“I think passing the bill puts conversations in motion,” state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, chair of the House Education Committee and a Durango Democrat, said to parents who filled the committee room. “You can take it to your school board. Tell your school boards the stories that you told us. If kids are first, which they should be for school boards, this will pass.”