Having parented a child with special needs, I understand the frustration of dealing with a public school system when your child is struggling. But lately, a specific “special needs” child has been terrifying my child, and it’s making me rethink the whole issue of special education and mainstreaming.
Somewhere in the process of providing for special needs children, the public school system in our area lost sight of the goal. In the name of obeying the letter of the law — and avoiding referrals that could cost the district millions of dollars since they’re responsible for providing for any child whose education they can’t handle within the school — they’ve carved out a kind of unofficial “do not disturb” zone around some kids with special needs. And that’s putting other kids at risk of serious bodily harm — not to mention completely failing the special needs kids it’s supposed to be protecting.
We got a reminder of that recently when the mother of one of our 7th grader’s classmates called to ask if our child had told us anything about what happened to their son (I’ll call him Dylan, though that isn’t anything close to his name) during gym class. Yes, I said, I had heard that Dylan had run afoul of the gym class’s resident “special” student — a 260-pound, 6′ tall 8th grader who is on the autism spectrum and has anger issues. This young man (I’ll call him Ringo, though that isn’t anything close to his name) frequently loses his temper with classmates who “look at him funny”, “get into his space” by walking too close to him, or “bother his stuff” by accidentally touching the door to his locker.
Ringo is quite verbal — using a string of profanities and threats that include phrases such as:
- “I’ll put your eyes out with this pencil.“
- “You’re gonna squeal when I break every bone in your body.“
- “I’m gonna squash you like a bug.”
Those are specific, credible threats made by someone who might be capable of carrying them out. If they were made by anyone except Ringo, they’d result in immediate disciplinary action, and could result in criminal charges if the threat was followed by any kind of physical assault — even if the assult didn’t actually include eye-gouging or bone-breaking.
He also throws articles of clothing, school ID cards and anything else left within his reach onto the overhead lights, the tops of the banks of lockers, or into urinals or toilets. He frequently disrupts the organized sports the kids are required to learn — kickball, volleyball, baseball, basketball, etc. — with a variety of behaviors from throwing the ball at his own teammates or blocking the field by throwing his arms around his head and screaming.
The truth is, every parent of a 7th or 8th grade boy who is unlucky enough to share a gym class with Ringo has heard at least one horror story about his behavior. The coach, however, has told the kids that because Ringo is “special”, there is little that can be done. According to the coach, “there really isn’t any way to control his behavior — he just can’t help it”. His classmates say that they were advised to “just leave him alone, and stay out of his way”. The threats? “He doesn’t mean them — just stay out of his way.”
So for the six months since school started, the other kids have developed their own ways of coping with Ringo’s outbursts. Some form a kind of herd, where most turn their backs on him while one kid in the center of a huddle keeps watch. Others have started wearing their gym clothes under their regular clothes or changing in a boy’s bathroom instead of the gym locker room (even if that earns them a tardy notice) to avoid having their clothing ruined. Ringo is completely isolated and ignored in the class.
Finally, however, Dylan got tired of being cursed at and threatened, and he responded to one of Ringo’s verbal assaults with a muttered, “Leave me alone, man.” The result was an attack that had to be broken up by the coach, and left Dylan bruised and bleeding. Luckily, no serious damage was done, but Ringo’s reputation as a threat is now secure, and kids are even more stressed and afraid than before.
Ringo was given an in-school suspension, and a teacher’s aide was assigned to walk him to and from gym class, and remain with him in the locker room while he changes by himself. Every other kid waits in the gym, while he “dresses out”. This cuts the total class time for everyone from 45 minutes to about 30 minutes, every single day.
It’s Not The Kid’s Fault
Let me be quite clear here. The meltdowns and bad behavior this child exhibits are not his fault. He isn’t a bully or a bad kid. He’s an adolescent struggling with the usual hormonal changes while also struggling with a bewildering world that makes no sense to him because of autism. So he has created a set of “rules” for himself to help him make sense of the mysteries he encounters every day. He doesn’t understand why the other kids act the way they do any more than they understand his behavior.
When he has a meltdown, it’s because the noise and sensory overload — smells, sounds, movement — of so many boisterous boys in the small locker room create an environment he can’t handle. I feel sorry for him, for his parents, and for the teachers who aren’t trained to help him.
That said, his problems shouldn’t be allowed to endanger my child, or any other child (including him). He should never have been put in that environment in the first place. It isn’t safe for anyone. No one was seriously hurt this time. But what happens when Ringo explodes at a kid who’s carrying a knife or gun? When a group of kids gangs up on him? When he seriously hurts another kid? When someone’s older brother, father, or gun-toting uncle decides to come after Ringo or his parents after one of these “misunderstandings”?
The school is at fault here, for inadequately providing the help and support this child’s “special needs” require. But they’re likely afraid that if they admit that Ringo needs a full-time aide to stay with him to minimize his frustration and help him cope, they’ll not only be on the hook for the salary of that aide, but may find that they can no longer “mainstream” Ringo, and will need to place him in a (more expensive, safer, more appropriate) environment such as an enclosed classroom or private school — and his parents may or may not want to accept that “accommodation”. And, of course, if they provide this kind of help for Ringo, what about the other kids in the school with similar problems?
It’s About to Get Worse
The situation for special needs kids in our state has always been bad. Some schools use the 504 accommodation rules and the ARD (appropriate resource development) process as an excuse to keep “problem” kids out of magnet school programs, AP classes and extra-curricular activities where they can “bring down the averages” for other kids or “limit the scope of activities” for other kids.
More schools use them as an excuse to put the burden of dealing with special needs children on classroom teachers instead of paying the cost of sending them to private schools set up to handle a student with a specific diagnosis. Imagine being a teacher with 27 kids in a class, and getting your class assignments to discover that 16 of your students have some kind of ARD or 504 restriction. That means you have to develop special materials for them (such as audio tapes of classroom notes) or take special steps (such as emailing homework assignments to their parents, writing the instructions down in their agenda for them, giving them extra time, etc.) to accommodate their learning differences.
Then imagine that you have five or six classes a day, and that a third of all your students (50 out of 150) are designated for some kind of accommodation. Throw in the usual classroom management problems you have with adolescents, and season it with one or two kids like Ringo who have periodic meltdowns. When you put it into that perspective, it’s no wonder so many teachers burn out so quickly, and leave the profession for another career.
Things are going to get worse for special needs students this year, however, since our state legislature removed the provision in the state’s mandatory testing law that allowed them to take “modified” standardized tests. This year, for the first time, all students — regardless of disability or learning disability — will have to pass the STAAR test. For many special needs kids, that can mean that they will be held responsible for material they were never taught. If they read at a 3rd grade level, but are in a 7th grade modified curriculum program, suddenly they’re being tested on material that is 4 years ahead of their reading level.
I shudder to think what would have happened to one of the special needs children in my family had this happened before graduation. It took a mix of modified and regular curriculum (including exemptions from some of the standardized tests), but our special needs child was able to graduate with peers, and is now a working young adult. But I don’t think the outcome would have been nearly so positive if we’d been faced with annual “must pass” standardized tests that covered the “normal” curriculum.
What’s Fair to All?
One of the reasons this problem is so complex is that Americans truly feel that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” — not in the Brown vs. Board of Education sense, but in the sense that the only way for a child with dyslexia or autism or cerebral palsy to thrive is for them to be “mainstreamed”. Clearly, not every child with a learning difference or a medical diagnosis needs to be segregated to a “special” self-contained class — but some do need a different learning environment.
And, as Ringo’s situation shows, some kids who can be successfully mainstreamed at some points in their school career can’t be successfully mainstreamed at other times. This young man is too big, too angry, too scared, and too out of control. He’s a danger to himself and to other kids, and he needs far more help and supervision than the school is able to provide.
But who’s going to pay for it? Our area has several schools that are set up to handle students like Ringo, but they’re expensive. The law says that if a school can’t provide the resources a student requires — whether that’s changing diapers or a catheter for an incontinent pupil to providing a full-time interpreter or aide for a student who needs one or any other accommodation they need as a result of their diagnosis — then the school must pay for the required resources. Even if what the child needs is an expensive private-school education or specialized medical help, it’s the school district (not the parent) that is supposed to pay for it.
The problem is that school districts (like any business) go to great lengths to avoid “unnecessary” costs. So their in-house experts are ready and willing to testify that the child doesn’t really need anything more than the school can provide, and it’s expensive and time consuming for parents to hire their own experts to fight the system. Frankly, fighting is beyond the ability of many parents, who lack the knowledge and resources required to understand what their child needs, or what kind of help might be available out there.
It’s unfair to Ringo to be placed in a “regular” gym class that clearly overwhelms him. And it’s unfair to other kids to be confronted with a bigger boy who is constantly angry and intimidating. Yet the school district has no authority to waive the gym requirement for Ringo — it’s a mandatory class, and without the required gym credits, he can’t be promoted.
Frankly, I think he should simply be exempt from the gym requirement since he clearly can’t handle the stress it causes. If he has to get a gym credit, it would be fairer (and safer) to everyone for the district to arrange for Ringo to meet his gym requirement through private physical education training at an outside facility. Many kids — from dancers to martial artists, ice skaters to circus performers and gymnasts — already skip school PE by substituting the outside activities. Hours in the gym are hours in the gym, after all, and the procedure for having a coach or instructor fill out the required paperwork and submit it to satisfy the gym requirement are well established and clear.
So why hasn’t this option been offered to Ringo’s parents? Perhaps it has, but I would be willing to bet that the district hasn’t offered to pay for it as they are required to do by law. I feel sure that the school district is concerned that if the school refers Ringo to an outside facility for gym, it might give the boy’s parents the idea of asking them to pay for other things, too.
And what about all the other “special needs” kids in the school? Covering the cost for one child isn’t that bad — but what if there are four — or a dozen — or more? Money shouldn’t be the deciding factor in what kind of education a child gets, but in the U.S., it certainly is for most children.
The answer seems relatively simple to me, and it costs the district nothing. The answer is for the legislature to take the sensible step of allowing local school administrators to determine when a specific child’s disability requires modification to the school curriculum. If Ringo handles his other classes fine (he seems to do so), but can’t handle gym, why can’t they simply waive the gym requirement for him and use that time for study hall or something else — maybe even allowing him to go home early, if that’s what his parents prefer?
There has to be a way to keep my child safe, while reducing the stress on kids like Ringo. He is, after all, just a boy. He’s not a bully (although you might be hard-pressed to convince some of his classmates of that). He’s just a boy who can’t handle the stress that gym class puts him in. So why can’t we simply allow schools to do what they did for years until the politicians started micromanaging things?
When I was a kid, the principal had broad powers to make “adjustments” that best suited the kids in his school. Whether it was allowing more excused absences than normal because of an illness or making allowances for a child who couldn’t handle being in a darkened room for a film, no one questioned the decisions the local school made to help their own students. Now, there’s a 10-absence rule in our state that requires kids to go to truancy court and explain to a judge why they missed more than 10 days — even if the school knew quite well that the reason for the absence was an extended illness or the death of a parent or that the child was cast in a movie that took 30 days to film and included an on-set tutor to keep them up to date on schoolwork.
I think it’s time to go back to the idea that “local autonomy” has its place, and the teachers and administrators who know the children best should make decisions about their education instead of politicians who care more about being reelected than helping a specific child. Is that so unreasonable?