OBSTRUCTION IN THE MAINSTREAMHANDICAPPED KIDS CAN PROSPER IN REGULAR SCHOOL CLASSES--SOMETIMES AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHER STUDENTS
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.
Two federal laws, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1988, decreed that those children had a right to be educated with nondisabled children in their neighborhood schools. And though the laws never mention "mainstreaming" or "inclusion," they do stipulate that every child be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.
In Arizona, those laws have greatly affected the way special needs students are educated. In 1985, about 85 percent of those students attended schools aimed specifically at the handicapped. In other words, they were segregated from students in "regular" classes.
By 1992, 83 percent of those handicapped students were attending public schools.
Many schools and teachers are making noble efforts to accommodate this shift, and some of the more lauded programs turn up in unlikely places--in Casa Grande and Kayenta, for example, school districts with children from low-income communities with low tax bases.
If the laws on educating the disabled worked ideally, what constitutes the "least restrictive" educational environment would vary from child to child, according to his or her Individualized Education Plan, a series of goals and outcomes decided by teachers and parents, with input from school psychologists and administrators. The laws envisioned "a continuum of alternative placements" that would provide choices for teachers and parents with regard to the student.
Not only would such a system be more dignified than past special ed efforts--more humane for disabled children, and more convenient for their parents--but it would provide social benefits for everyone concerned.
Disabled kids eventually grow up and live in a world of nondisabled people. The social effects of placing a disabled child in a nondisabled class can be immediate.
"If you take one acting-out child and put him in a regular environment where the kids do not act like that, that kid will not act out," says a middle school special education teacher from the Paradise Valley school district. "He benefits from it behaviorally if not academically."
The regular education students show a surprising amount of empathy. They know that Richard can do math, but can't follow the rest of the academic subjects; that Tommy's grampa has to come take him home if he acts up in class; that Martha just sits and smiles and can't talk. They take it all in stride--up to a point.
As a middle school special education teacher from the Cartwright district says, "Regular ed students are going to grow up to be the people who make decisions about the special ed students."
This idealized version of inclusion, however, is not the reality of special education in Arizona or the rest of the country.
Now that inclusion has come to special education, children with learning disabilities are being mainstreamed into regular education classes. And educators across the Valley and the country say the teachers of those classes have no training in special education.
As a result, both teachers and special needs students are lost. Meanwhile, the curriculum for nondisabled kids has gotten watered down, so the special needs kids can succeed. Conscientious (or beleaguered) teachers end up spending a disproportionate amount of time with the special needs students, to the exclusion of the majority of the class.
The problem is not limited to a few Johnnys here and there.
Last summer in Huntington Beach, California, a federal judge overruled a lower court order that removed a violent 6-year-old with a "communications disorder" from a kindergarten class. A school district in Virginia is trying to remove a disruptive autistic 9-year-old from a school. Here in the Phoenix area, a West Valley teacher recently had her jaw broken by an autistic elementary school student; she refused to talk about it for fear of losing her job.
Magazines and journals for schoolteachers bring up other similar cases in Texas and Ohio and Delaware. Spokesmen for a national teachers' union point to problems in Baltimore and Louisiana and Las Vegas.
The problems involve not just seriously disruptive children, but also those special needs students who are being overlooked and undereducated. And the problems extend to nondisabled children, who are being virtually sacrificed to the ideology of inclusion.
The success and failure of special education programs vary even from school to school within a single district, depending on the principals and psychologists involved, the budgets available and the nature of the disabilities suffered by students within a given neighborhood. But teachers are unhappy, afraid that they are not being allowed to reach their students.
Pullout classes once catered to children with low IQs--children who might once have been described as retarded but trainable. Those children are being placed in mainstream courses, and the pullout classes are now filled with disabled children who function at extremely low levels. Teachers who once taught reading to the mildly retarded are now changing diapers and otherwise tending to medically fragile children--tasks the teachers were not trained to do.
The trainable disabled, who have normal or near normal intelligence, are increasingly being mainstreamed. They obtain the social benefits of inclusion. But the child who sees double with one eye and reverse with the other may well need several explanations and a special ed teacher's bag of tricks to learn to read.
"It isn't going to happen with 35 children in a [mainstream] classroom," quips one middle school principal.
And so a backlash against inclusion is building among special ed and regular education teachers alike. None of the teachers New Times spoke with would allow their names to be used for fear of retribution from parents or school administrators. But those teachers feel handcuffed by small budgets and by administrators who hide behind the smiley-face rhetoric of inclusion and equal rights.
"Remember that children or adults with disabilities are just like everyone else--except that they happen to have a disability," reads one handout from an pro-inclusion advocacy group. Such aphorisms, however, are misleading. They confuse equality with equal abilities.
Children with learning disabilities are not just like everyone else when it comes to learning. Whether they are in mainstream classes or not, they still need extra help, which most teachers are happy to provide--if it is within their abilities.
But inclusion ideology does not recognize that disabled children can overwhelm mainstream teachers. As one college education professor stated in a professional article, inclusion only fails when "a key professional or parent in the environment unintentionally was blocking the way."
After all, this is America, where even Forrest Gump can grow up to be a war hero and a successful businessman.
And it is this idealization of inclusion that makes teachers most angry.
After all, in the ideology of inclusion, it's the teachers' fault if Forrest or Johnny or any other student doesn't succeed.
"I come home some days and think, 'I didn't even talk to the good kids today,'" says one regular education elementary school teacher in the Paradise Valley district. She spends much of her day dealing with a child who has an emotional disorder. He stands up in class and threatens to rape her.
A middle school special education teacher in the same district says, "The entire campus is worn down. At the end of the day, all we feel is sad."
Public school teachers in the 1990s have to teach more than readin', 'ritin' and 'rithmetic. With no more guidance than a mandate sent from above, they also have to teach drug awareness, AIDS education and Black History month. All the while, they must fend off parents who want silent prayer in the classroom or the word "God" stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance, and placate others who oppose sex education or think that Earth Day is part of an environmental "religion" from which their children should be exempt.
Class sizes are increasing to an average above 30 students, while budgets are stressed. Teachers have less preparation time and more classroom time.
Now, as part of this mix, teachers also must teach increasing numbers of special needs children in regular education classrooms. In the elementary school, this combination of students works relatively well because the children spend the entire day in one classroom. Often, classes that include special needs students will be staffed by one regular education teacher and one special education teacher. In other cases, a paraprofessional is available to work one-on-one with children who have learning disorders, when individualized help is needed. That aide helps nondisabled children at other times.
But as children get older, the differences between disabled and nondisabled students become harder to overlook. The eighth grader with an emotional disorder who tries to make friends by farting in class or picking his nose is likely to be taunted. The autistic high schooler who grabs a girl's breast in the lunchroom may get knocked on his behind.
At higher grade levels, the learning gaps also become more noticeable. In middle school--seventh and eighth grades--students have different classes for different subjects. Special ed teachers often specialize by subject matter, becoming special ed English or math teachers, and their certifications specify which learning or emotional disorders they are to work with.
There are varying levels of inclusion in Phoenix-area middle schools. In some, children with learning disorders are placed either in "pullout" classes that focus on their specific needs, or tossed into the mainstream. There are no options in between.
In other schools, schedules might be mixed and matched, depending on the students' abilities. In these schools, regular education teachers are expected to make separate lesson plans--modified curriculums--for special needs students.
And in still other schools, special ed teachers are expected to follow special needs kids through their regular ed classes, meeting with them one-on-one to keep them up to speed. This last arrangement is a teacher's nightmare. The special ed instructor might have responsibility for as many as 25 students, who could be in five different sections of seventh-grade English, taught by three different regular ed teachers.
In the end, the special ed teachers find themselves spending fewer class hours with each student than when the special needs children were taught all at once in pullout classes.
Many teachers and parents are questioning the wisdom of inclusion at higher grade levels.
"Does it really help their self-esteem to be sitting in a classroom day after day and know that they're the only one who really doesn't understand?" a middle school teacher from Paradise Valley asks.
One mother from that school has a child with normal intelligence and a learning disorder. She had him placed back in pullout classes because he was crying at night, telling her that he was "stupidest kid in class."
That move brought other problems. The child with a learning disorder had to deal with the severely handicapped students who were above their heads in the pullout class.
"I do believe these [severely handicapped] kids deserve an education in their neighborhood school and I do believe in special ed classes," the mother says. "But I don't believe these kids can come in here and take away the rights of the other kids. My son couldn't learn because the kids were going crazy, flipping desks upside down, throwing stuff, taking away 20 minutes of a 40-minute period."
Before inclusion became policy, another middle school teacher taught children with low IQs to cook and clean and take care of themselves and to use money, while she taught them how to read and write.
"Next year I'm getting kids in diapers and wheelchairs that need to be positioned," she says with fatigue in her voice. "I have four in diapers now, but I have kids coming up that are going to call for special training, not the academics I'm used to.
"They're going to need to be positioned on the floor and taken off their wheelchairs in a certain way, and I don't know how to do that."
Once, she taught school; now she teaches teenagers with infant intelligence to drink from water fountains and push open doors.
"I'm spending a lot of time with the kids in diapers in the bathroom and doing toileting skills," she laments. The educable children with low IQs are still in her class. She just has no time to teach them.
Meanwhile, other retarded, but educable, children have been moved into classes for higher functioning students.
"My regular students might be doing fractions, while these kids are counting blocks," recalls a special education high school teacher who recently left the Deer Valley district.
"The parents and the school district decided it would be appropriate for them to be in my classroom. I didn't mind, and maybe socially it was good. The problem is when I needed to work one-on-one with a child counting sticks. That pulled me away from the 15 I was teaching fractions, and they needed extra help, too."
And the inclusion policy has affected the education of nondisabled children.
"The learning disabled kids may have a fourth- and fifth-grade math level, and they're going into a seventh- or eighth-grade math class," the teacher says. "If those teachers modify their curriculum, they're taking seventh- and eighth-grade kids who are college bound and forcing them to do third- or fourth-grade work."
Not all attempts at upper-grade inclusion result in disaster.
Nancy Morgan's son, Danny, has Down syndrome and attends a middle school in the Washington school district.
"My son was in a self-contained class for nine years, and a lot of the kids in his class were autistic," she says. "And because it was all he saw all day, he came home rocking his head and flapping his arms. He didn't stand a chance of learning anything. Within a month and a half at the regular school, he stopped flapping his arms and walking around on his toes, because he didn't see that anymore."
Danny attends regular academic classes in which teachers personally adapt the curriculum to his abilities. His mother sees that he gets instruction in life skills--such as housekeeping, personal care and job training--in an after-school program.
She sees all of this schooling as socialization, preparation for Danny to lead a fulfilling adult life.
"My son is not going to get a job based on what he knows academically. He's going to get a job based on how he acts socially," Morgan says.
"This is the first time since Danny was born that I have been able to be just his parent, and not his advocate, and not his teacher, just his parent. I can't tell you what that means to me after 15 years."
But Danny is not disruptive, and Nancy Morgan is unusually supportive and realistic.
A North Phoenix middle school teacher recalls a wheelchair-bound child with cerebral palsy who attended his eighth-grade English class a few years ago. She couldn't speak, and never responded to questions on her facilitator board, though she would smile warmly when he spoke to her. The other children in class were always kind to her and would wheel her up to their desks to include her as best they could in class activities. And though she was not the least disturbance to the classroom, the teacher agonized over whether he was reaching her, and if there weren't someone better trained, who could help give her the best education possible.
Severe problems arise when parents deny their children are significantly disabled. These parents might push a Down syndrome child through college, or refuse to accept that a child has been violent with other children. These are parents who have been driven to radicalism by years of stonewalling by school district administrators.
"Most radical parents become radical because the district denies them," says Beth Bader, also from the American Federation of Teachers.
They want their children in class, and they see inclusion as a matter of civil rights.
Renaldo Fowler is a staff advocate at the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and an effective expert in the legal ramifications of special education. He is the person to call if you are unhappy with the school placement of your special needs child.
Fowler is a well-spoken young man with a gentle matter, but when asked whether special education policies take away from nondisabled students, he grins condescendingly.
"I kind of smile because many of the arguments I hear from people talking about special ed in that way, they're the same arguments that they made for African American children," he says. "They're almost parallel, and that's why I think it's almost amusing. But the law says that every child is entitled to an appropriate education."
On closer examination, the comparison falls apart; children of color were discriminated against because of their race, and if their socioeconomic backgrounds may, in some instances, have affected the skills they brought to the classroom, that deficit had little to do with their native intelligence or cognitive abilities.
To say that a deaf child who is sent to a special school to learn sign language has suffered discrimination seems a leap of logic. It seems equally illogical to use civil rights rhetoric when deciding whether to remove an emotionally disturbed child--a child who is a danger to himself and to other children--from a mainstream classroom.
But in these politically correct times, just the mention of civil rights can cause teachers and school administrators to back away from hard questions.
"They are making [inclusion] a civil rights issue because then it's much more morally indefensible to say it's not a good idea," says Bader. "Our take on it is that the civil rights issue is the access to an educational program."
If school officials want to make changes in the placement of a special needs child, there are procedures to be followed. In fact, inclusion is a morass of procedure and bureaucracy.
For example, Fowler, the civil rights advocate, points to three loose-leaf notebooks. They are filled to bursting with rules and regulations pertaining to special needs student. Teachers are supposed to follow those rules, and know them by heart.
One teacher from the Cartwright district quips, "The running joke is 'Do I put the kid in special ed or do I save a tree?' There's so much paper, and everything is in triplicate, and no one reads it and no one gives a damn."
If parents and educators cannot agree on placement, the case can be brought before hearing officers. Eventually, parents can sue.
Since 1991, such lawsuits have been decided overwhelmingly in favor of parents seeking inclusion for a handicapped child. Courts have consistently ruled that schools have not done everything possible to accommodate a child in his or her current school placement.
Most of these lawsuits involve disruptive behaviors.
Beth Bader, the AFT spokesman on special education matters, says, "The parents want their children treated like every other child--except when they get in trouble. If their behavior is bad you can't get rid of them. You can't expel them or suspend them for exactly the same behavior that a nondisabled child gets suspended for.
"You have to go through a whole long process in order to do discipline. You have to keep the child in school. You do all the papers, you pay the lawyer, you jump through the hundred administrative hoops, and you still might not get it. Why bother in the first place?"
Phoenix-area teachers and administrators are quivering beneath that threat of litigation. They're leaving the profession; they're angry at the parents, and at the very special needs students they once committed their careers to teaching.
They worry that the anger they're feeling will spread, causing a backlash by the parents of nondisabled kids.
"Within the next couple of years, the parents of regular children are going to turn around and sue," says a special education teacher from the Cartwright district, "because their children's civil rights are being infringed upon.
"They're not getting the educational structure they need because the teachers are spending time with the special needs kids.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Alleged Arizona Terrorist Charged with Supporting Islamic State
Fri., Sep. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Sep. 11, 7:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
- Sheriff Joe's Pot Connection: Campaign Guru Chad Willems
- Video: Downtown Scottsdale Melee Shuts Down Street