Not So Special Education

I stood in the hallway shaking as tears streamed down my 10-year-old face. My teacher, apologizing as he did so, dug into my pockets and patted me down. I was scared, humiliated, and confused. Why would anyone accuse me of stealing a turtle? I didn’t even like them. I had one, briefly, as a pet and it died. When Tracy brought hers into my fourth grade classroom, I didn’t even try to hold it. Now it was missing and I was the only kid anyone remembered sharpening a pencil near the turtle’s plastic terrarium. So I was the prime suspect. And even though Mr. Blackburn told Tracy that I didn’t have the turtle, no one believed him.

It didn’t help matters when Rickey was caught showing the turtle around at his special school that afternoon. Rickey was a Down’s syndrome kid and the Kansas City School District was pioneering an inclusion program that had him spending mornings with us “regular kids” and then going to a special school in the afternoon. Rickey was my friend and so Tracy figured I had passed her turtle to Ricky for safe keeping. I was viewed with suspicion for the rest of fourth grade. I tried talking to Ricky about why he did this to me but it was hopeless. As the smallest kid in my grade and the newest kid, friends were always hard to come by. Besides, my grandmother babysat Ricky and his brother after school every day so I was stuck with him as a friend.

I was reminded of this episode recently while reading about a 10-year-old autistic boy who was arrested for assault. His mother recorded the whole incident and several commentators raised a ruckus over what an outrage it is to have traumatized this boy. I have a different view; one shaped by years of working directly with or alongside special needs kids of all kinds. But before I express that view, I want to clarify my beliefs on educating special needs kids. Otherwise, one of my three regular readers might get the wrong idea. I am totally in favor of the inclusion law (least restrictive environment) and I think we don’t spend nearly enough money on special education. Of course we don’t spend enough on regular education either but that’s a different argument. I want kids with special needs to get a chance to become productive members of society. Furthermore, “regular kids” benefit from spending class time with SPEd students.

That being said, the entire situation with Luanne Haygood and her son is a perfect example of why schools need laws to protect them from parents like her. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, little Johnny had meltdowns in school that resulted in a teacher’s aide getting physically assaulted on more than one occasion. Mrs. Haygood claims that the school expelled her son and she was homeschooling him. I know for a fact this is a blatant lie. Federal law protects her son from being expelled due to his autism. The school insisted on putting little Johnny in a more restrictive environment to protect staff and other students and Mrs. Haygood refused. Instead she “homeschooled” him but had to bring him to the school for annual testing. At this time the police executed a warrant for little Johnny’s arrest. He was handcuffed and taken to juvenile detention overnight.

Obviously, the police and the school could have and should have handled things differently. I am sure the child was traumatized by the event. He screamed he didn’t liked being touched, (which is not quite true since there is a photo of him clinging to his mom while there are kids who won’t even let their parents touch them.) However, I find it odd that this child’s trauma is more special than the thousands of black and Hispanic kids who are traumatized daily by gun violence, something the state of Florida has tried to prevent pediatricians from even talking about. But let’s stay away from that.

My question is what about the teacher’s aide and the other students? Don’t they deserve protection from little Johnny and his meltdowns? It is a shame that there aren’t enough special education teachers to properly educate all of the children who need them. SPEd requires a master’s degree and therefore a higher level of pay. And thanks to all of the laws pushed by special needs kids’ parents and passed by Congress, there is an inordinate amount of paperwork that has to be produced for each child. School districts simply don’t have the money to hire all of the teachers necessary so aides are hired to watch and work with the students. Basically, the teacher teaches lessons and then the aide does the follow up practice. Teachers function as much as coaches as teachers.

What adult should be forced to put up with being bitten, hit, and kicked for minimum wage? And why should other students be subjected to the screaming fits and watching adults being assaulted by an out-of-control child? What about their right to an education? The laws protect the special education kids but the adults and “normal children” not so much. Worse are parents like Luanne Haygood. Her refusal to put her child in the best learning environment (which would have been more restrictive) as well as her overprotectiveness are just as responsible for what happened as the actions of the school and police. There is a narrative in this country that parents know what’s best for their kids and are best suited to provide for them. This is obviously false or we wouldn’t need child protective services, (another agency that is way underfunded.)

I taught in an all-white suburban school district for thirty years. At least 25% of my parents did not do what their child needed to be successful (provide supervision, homework help, etc.) and another 15% to 20% spent more time arguing with teachers than working with them. Obviously my experience is not enough data to support a broad conclusion. But I hear the same complaints from other districts and from teachers around the country. And I know there isn’t enough legal protection for the adults and nonspecial needs students who are forced to share scarce resources.

It’s an age-old dilemma. What is desirable versus what is practical? Most of society refuses to fund education the way it needs to be funded to provide the best education for all students. So how do the resources get divided up? It may seem heartless for me to say that “regular kids” should get the bulk of the time, money, and attention, but I think it’s just practical. And the same law-makers who created protections for special needs kids should give equal protection to the rest of the school.

In the long run, who has given society a greater return on its educational investment: me or Ricky? My son, who works at Lockheed Martin, or his classmate Carl who made high school honor roll for learning to tie his shoes but can’t hold a job as a bag boy? It is a tenet of Christianity to take care of the lowest members of society. It is a noble sentiment and one I agree with. But in absence of voter support, hard choices need to be made. But I won’t hold my breath.