By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Johnny is a seventh grader at a public school somewhere in the Valley. His teachers believe he has normal intelligence, but it's hard to tell because he's autistic, a condition one special education teacher describes in this way: "A racecar whose engine is not hooked up."
Johnny attends classes designed for children with less severe learning disabilities, children who are not retarded, but who, because of poorly understood cognitive problems, cannot easily read numbers or letters. Johnny requires a full-time paraprofessional--that is, a teacher's aide--to tend to him.
According to his school records, Johnny can read at a sixth-grade level.
"We don't see it," one of his teachers says. Administrators have suggested that the teachers have Johnny verbally repeat instructions they give to him. There is a problem, though: Johnny doesn't speak, and when he's asked to respond by pointing to letters on a "facilitator board," he often becomes aggressive.
Johnny exposes himself and masturbates in class. He grunts and moans and bangs constantly on furniture. He bites and pulls hair and grabs earrings and breasts. At least twice this school year, he has assaulted students while at school. He can't help the outbursts; his behavior, however offensive, is an involuntary manifestation of a neurological condition that no one really understands.
"The other children are real good at not paying attention to him," a teacher says. They've learned to stay at arm's length. So Johnny is in the classroom, but he is not really part of the class. The situation is ironic, because he was placed in the class as part of a national educational trend called "inclusion," which requires that special needs children be educated in class with their nondisabled peers.
In an attempt to make inclusion work, the school has not just hired a full-time aide for Johnny, it has bought tape recorders and beanbag chairs and other specialized furniture to accommodate his inability to sit still.
When Johnny erupts, it can take several staff members hours to contain him. Earlier in the semester, those staff members received in-service training to learn how to restrain Johnny without hurting him or themselves; they are documenting their own bites and bruises.
One day shortly before Christmas vacation, Johnny was alone in a classroom with his teacher's aide when he grabbed for her throat. It took five adults to pull him off her, and though Johnny only weighs about 100 pounds, it took a grown man's strength to hold Johnny on the floor until he quieted down. The aide had dropped her walkie-talkie radio, and so it was merely by good fortune that someone walked into the room and saw her and the child rolling on the floor.
Johnny is still in school.
"Should he be here?" the school principal asks rhetorically. "I'll give you my principal's answer: Every child who walks through that front door, I am charged to educate. As long as his parent believes he is getting something here, she has a legal right to have him here. My teachers have not come to me and said it's time for this young man to go."
And court cases from coast to coast have shown that schools cannot easily defy parents who want to keep their learning disabled children in mainstream classes at neighborhood schools. In fact, inclusion almost always wins in court.
"It will probably take that kid [Johnny] really hurting somebody pretty substantially to be moved, and that's a shame," says Marcia Reback, president of the Special Education Task Force of the American Federation of Teachers, which has taken a strong stance against inclusion.
"If that child is benefiting from that placement, I'm afraid the weight of the law is going to go with the kid and not with the way teachers feel about it."
Regardless of what the principal says, Johnny's teachers feel strongly about it. They are afraid he will hurt someone. They know he is extraordinarily disruptive to his classmates. They don't see any evidence he is learning the academic material presented in class.
And these are special education teachers, professionals who, for the most part, got into their field out of empathy for, and with a strong commitment to, the disadvantaged.
"How far do we have to go to give this kid a public education? How much is it going to cost us for his free education?" one asks.
"He's not going to get a little briefcase and hat and get a job," another says of Johnny's inclusion in academic classes.
But it is his right to be there.
"Teachers have no rights, apparently," says a third.
The history of special education is hardly an American success story.
In past decades, the handicapped have been shunted off to special schools or institutions, virtually warehoused. Those who were trainable--children with Down syndrome, for example--might have been segregated into one classroom, regardless of age.
Children with less obvious learning disorders that have nothing to do with intelligence--such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or any number of unnamed cognitive problems that make it difficult to process words or numbers--might have been written off as behavior problems. They were often classified as mildly retarded. Their chances of being well-educated were slim.