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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Special Needs Assistants and Synagogue Liability

Dear Shana,

We have a family that recently joined our congregation. They have a special needs student and are asking for a one-on-one assistant to be with their son. When I spoke with the mother she was somewhat vague on the child's diagnosis. He has had major seizures, has neurological concerns, etc. The mother told me that she does not expect him to learn to read Hebrew but wants him attending classes and that he's an oral learner. He does not run off, but if frustrated will chew his clothes and might strike out especially when around very young children. He attended a Sunday class (with his older sister) and did well. We would like to help the family and I have a college student willing to assist. But the rabbi and I are concerned about liability and the need for a policy. Can you help?

It would be helpful to know an exact diagnosis, not to label the child but to educate the staff. For example, if the child is on the autistic spectrum, you would want to use a structured, visual approach to learning and behavior management. If the child has Fragile X, there are other considerations. So a diagnosis would be enlightening in terms of planning.

As far as a liability form, there are some schools that use them. I developed a behavior policy with members of my consortium, but I don't think it included a release form. I will ask my network and see if anyone has something applicable.

The key here will be to educate your teachers, aides, administration, and possibly other parents. It is a wonderful opportunity for inclusion, but can backfire if it's not done correctly. You might also want to speak to the child's weekday teacher for ideas and tips.

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