Rehabilitation counseling student spurs legislation for special education in Oklahoma

Stillion proves the 'power of one voice' can create positive change for others
Abbey Goers | June 1, 2021

Jamie Stillion served as a civilian paramedic for seven years, taught paramedic school and then returned to the military as a medic for six years. In 2017, she decided she could no longer work in emergency medicine. She started a new career as a tech with the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, assisting counselors in the Claremore office serving Mayes County.

"I felt this was a perfect way to utilize my knowledge and experience in a manner that would allow me to continue helping others,” Stillion said. “Once I entered the field, I fell in love with it and never looked back.

Jamie Stillion, vocational rehabilitation specialist and online MSRC graduate student.
Jamie Stillion, vocational rehabilitation specialist and online MSRC graduate student. / Jamie Stillion

In 2019, Stillion became a vocational rehabilitation specialist with the DRS. She recently spurred new legislation for special education in Oklahoma as a result of research for her University of Wisconsin-Stout online Master of Science in rehabilitation counseling degree.

For her Neurodevelopmental, Neurocognitive and Psychiatric Disorders class this past semester, Stillion developed a presentation titled the Sexual Rights and Education of People with Intellectual Disabilities. It was based on an effective pilot program developed by the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute in Saskatoon, Sask., Canada.

“The province had the highest rates of teen pregnancy and HIV, and lowest rates of prevention in the country. Their rates were even higher among populations with intellectual or developmental disabilities, so an initiative was established to improve sex education,” Stillion said.

Stillion's research was inspired by a previous client and his girlfriend, who both have intellectual disabilities. They visited Stillion in the office one day, upset and crying because they'd been to the doctor and found out they were expecting a child.

"Through conversation, I found out they did not realize they had engaged in sexual intercourse because they had never been taught anything about it," Stillion said. "Neither the school nor their parents had taught them anything regarding the topic. If they had any education, they would have been in a better position to be prepared to raise their child."

 

Rehabilitation and counseling Professor DeLeana Strohl.
Professor DeLeana Strohl / UW-Stout

Professor DeLeana Strohl, who instructed the MSRC course, knew Stillion saw a disconnect between what schools offered and what would be beneficial in her state.

"Jamie's goal was to help others see there could be improvements to the educational system for students with disabilities," Strohl said. "She knew a stigma about sex education and students with disabilities still existed and she wanted to help decrease that stigma."

Sexual Education Equality in Special Education Programs

Stillion presented on April 20 to professionals who work with people with disabilities at the Owasso campus of the Tulsa Technology Center. The Oklahoma Department of Education immediately recognized a need for sexual education instruction for special education students and contacted the Saskatchewan Prevention Institute and Saskatchewan's Education Minister's office.

The Department of Education then developed the Sexual Education Equality in Special Education Programs based on the pilot program. Saskatchewan's Education Minister's office donated 10 licenses for its interactive software to SEESEP, under the agreement that additional licenses would be purchased with successful outcomes in the first year. Two licenses will be used in Mayes County schools, where Stillion will provide oversight.

"The 10 schools are smaller to allow for easier and greater oversight, which will allow us to address issues as soon as they arise before moving the program into larger school systems," Stillion said.

SEESEP will be added to each students' individual education plan and reviewed with students and parents. The Department of Education plans to expand the program annually based upon the success of the upcoming school year. 

New funding passed for education

On May 6, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, the legislature, state Supreme Court and educators gathered for a Teacher Appreciation Week celebration. Stitt had signed a bill to increase funding for public education by $185 million for the 2021-22 school year, with $100 million directed to special education, including a portion toward sexual education instruction as a result of Stillion’s research.

After Stitt's educational initiative announcement, he introduced Stillion, who provided an overview of SEESEP on behalf of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services and the Department of Education.

In her research, Stillion discovered that Oklahoma has 77.2% of the number of students in public education as Wisconsin, yet only allocates 33.4% of its educational budget that Wisconsin does to special education.

"Oklahoma historically has low funding for all aspects of education, especially special education,” she said. “Even adding the extra promised $100 million to the special education budget, that brings Oklahoma's budget to 63% of Wisconsin's." 

Wisconsin does not require sex education in schools. The Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States, which focuses on advancing sexual education for social change, reported in a state profile, “Sex education is not currently mandated in Wisconsin, and schools that do teach sex education must stress abstinence. Since Wisconsin schools are not required to provide sex education to students, school districts are left to decide what type of sex education – if any at all – they provide to youth.”

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides a resource guide for school districts on human growth and development and for the general health education curriculum.

The power of one voice can create positive change

Stillion thinks the most important aspect of the sexual education portion of the initiative is that it "removes the paternalistic approach and instills a more autonomous reality to sexual relationships among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"The move has already led to additional legislation regarding special education. A bill passed to include 'Play to Learn' in elementary special education settings, which was previously not permitted in Oklahoma schools,” Stillion said.

Play to Learn allows educators to adapt a more child-centered, play-based learning environment that allows them to promote activities such as movement, creative expression, exploration and socialization.

“All have been found to be effective and beneficial for young students and students with disabilities,” Stillion explained. “There is another bill in process that will prohibit certain special education students from being separated during lunch, which had previously been allowed."

Strohl praised Stillion's commitment to people with disabilities and her desire to learn. "She challenges common knowledge and standard practice, not in defiance, but in pushing everyone to think deeper about what we think we know and accept," Strohl said.

"I love what Jamie was able to do because it shows the power of one voice. Too often, we feel powerless against established protocol, and the powerless feeling leads to inactivity. For Jamie, a sense of powerlessness leads to action," she added.

 

MSRC Program Director Daniel Kelsey.
MSRC Program Director Daniel Kelsey / UW-Stout

"Unfortunately, the educational, occupational and social well-being of people with disabilities is often overlooked or isn't given priority," said MSRC Program Director Daniel Kelsey. "Jamie's commitment to make a change is remarkable and is a good reminder that we can make a difference. We just need to speak up. We really are proud of what Jamie has done."

Stillion is scheduled to graduate in spring 2022. She chose UW-Stout because she wanted something different than other professionals in her state.

"I wanted a different philosophy, a different environment and a different view," she said. "I certainly have not been disappointed. Each instructor has been great and is more than willing to share their knowledge and experiences. I would not change my decision for anything."

Having her master's degree will open a world of opportunities for her in the field, Stillion said, noting her focus will always be the clients.

“I enjoy working with clients and helping them achieve their goals and independence," she said. "The MSRC program provides me with a wealth of knowledge and tools to assist clients on their endeavors."


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