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NBC’s Parenthood Should Address Special Education Questions

This is a guest post from Debbie Bookstaber, an elected member of her local school board, and my co-editor on

In a recent episode of NBC’s new show Parenthood, a character who was recently diagnosed with Aspberger’s Syndrome is kicked out of his public school for a disruption in the classroom. Throughout the rest of the episode, his parents push to get him accepted at a private school where he will thrive. (Click here to watch the full episode.)

In the episode, the local public school told the parents of Max, the character diagnosed with Aspberger’s Syndrome, not to return to school. They had to find him an appropriate private school, apply for admission and obtain the financial resources to send their son.  At the end of the episode, Max is admitted to a private school, and everyone is happy. But I had a nagging question about how special education is portrayed. The public school administrators in the episode showed a lack of empathy and did not appear to provide any guidance or assistance to the parents. It looked like they could just expel Max without regard for his future or educational rights.

If I were a parent of a special needs child watching this episode, I might assume that I had no legal rights if my child were asked to leave public school.  In this TV show, Max’s parents were able to pay for his private school education. Parents watching at home might assume that- had Max’s parents been unable to pay- their child would be denied an education.

I’m an elected member of my local School Board, and the experience has given me insight into the legal process regarding special needs placements.  Federal law requires that special education students be provided with an education that is appropriate for them. Many states has additional protections for special education students as well. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is a federal law that protects the rights of students who qualify for special education services.

If you or someone you know is in this situation, don’t allow anyone to force you into giving up your rights to a public education. Get familiar with the IDEA law. There are many online resources available. has a good basic guide on Special Education and the Law. Most states also have a guide to special education rights. Many parents receive advice from special education advocates or get referrals from the ACLU’s education specialists.

I want parents to know that they aren’t alone. NBC’s Parenthood showed a broken educational system which gave up on a family in need. I do not doubt that many parents have experienced such callous behavior, but it does not have to be this way. Please reach out for support if you are in this situation. There are people willing to help you and who will advocate for your child’s educational rights.

Photo Credit: Max Burkholder as Max Braverman — NBC Photo: Mitchell Haaseth

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Written by

Candace Lindemann, Yale, BA, Harvard Graduate School of Education, EdM, is an educational consultant and published writer. She enjoys new learning experiences with her children, ages 6 and 4 and 1.5.

Filed under: Featured, Guest Post, Special Needs · Tags: ,

2 Responses to "NBC’s Parenthood Should Address Special Education Questions"

  1. JonsBabydoll says:

    As someone who has a young relative with special needs, it is heartwarming to see Max portrayed so well. That being said, you speak of the legal rights that the Bravermans’ have [I know, they are fictional, but just follow me out here]. The Bravermans haven’t told Max that he *is* special needs. Many parents in their situation haven’t told their children. When children like Max are on the fringe, it can be hard to explain. So thrusting them into a classroom for special needs kids in a public school isn’t the right solution. My family member is in a public school special needs program. I’ve volunteered my own time at her school, as well two other schools’ special needs programs. While they are great, some special needs children shouldn’t be there. Some high functioning special needs kids’ needs aren’t addressed in public schools. They can be shuffled between ‘regular’ classes and special needs classes, but really, that only alienates them further. I know the point you were trying to make, because not everyone knows their rights, but really sometimes fighting for the private school, finding the funding is what is best for children.

  2. Debbie says:


    Excellent point. Parents know best what works for their child. In some cases, it is possible that private school is the best solution. I do worry that parents aren’t aware of the resources available to them. In many states, the local school district will pay for a private school placement if the child cannot be serviced properly in the public school environment. But if you don’t attempt to work through the system, you’ll never get funding for an alternative placement such as private school. Some parents may have the means to pay for private school on their own, but many parents would need outside help. I think the most important thing is for parents to be involved and to research their legal rights. I’m so glad that Parenthood has put a special needs child on TV. Watching the show will really raise awareness of the issues families of special needs children face. Thanks for commenting!