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Locked Away: Moving Away From "Mainstreaming"

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012 at 12:01 AM

Many parents and schools are finding that public schools aren't meeting the needs of special ed kids, leading to a movement away from "mainstreaming."

Brady Spencer sits with her son Brendon. Brendon has Asperger's, ADHD, and mood disorders. A few years ago she decided to take him out of his local public school, where he would often be sent to the hallway or a spare office during class. He now goes to a charter school for special needs kids.

Brady Spencer sits with her son Brendon. Brendon has Asperger's, ADHD, and mood disorders. A few years ago she decided to take him out of his local public school, where he would often be sent to the hallway or a spare office during class. He now goes to a charter school for special needs kids.

The use of special rooms to isolate students for behavioral problems is in some ways an outgrowth of a longstanding movement to integrate special needs students into “regular” school.

For three decades, federal law has required “mainstreaming” of students with disabilities and behavioral problems. Before that, schools didn’t have to accept special-needs kids, leaving them out of public education. Parents revolted, arguing that their children deserved the same schooling as anyone else and that mainstreaming would benefit everyone: Special-needs kids could learn to act like the other kids, and those kids could learn a bit of empathy by going to school with students different from them.

Seclusion rooms evolved as a way to handle disruptions in class. They were intended to be used when students posed a physical threat to themselves or others.

Now, many parents of special-needs students are opting to move away from mainstreaming their children in public schools.

[audio href="" title="Locked Away: The Move Away From Mainstreaming"]Some parents of kids with disabilities are deciding public schools can't meet their children's needs.[/audio]


The reasons why are complicated, but in at least some cases, it’s because parents have objected to the use of seclusion rooms as a disciplinary tool instead of a way to keep their kids safe.

Brandy Spencer is one of those parents. Spencer knew her son Brendon spent much of his time at school standing in the hallway. What Brendon didn’t tell her is that sometimes he would be put into a spare office where he sat in the dark.

That’s why, two years ago, she decided to pull him out of Crestwood Elementary in Mantua.

“They’re not equipped to handle kids like him,” says Spencer.

Dealing With Disruptions

Spencer’s son is diagnosed on the autism spectrum with additional emotional and behavioral problems. Spencer acknowledges that sometimes means episodes of rage where he kicks and hits things around him. He once tried to choke another child who was bullying him.

When the emotional outbreaks disrupted class, school officials thought they were doing the right thing by putting him in a room to calm down.

Officials at Crestwood Elementary say they feel bad Brendon Spencer felt secluded. But, they say, special needs students like him often have trouble communicating their feelings, which can make it tough to figure out what works and what doesn't.

“I feel bad that he feels like he was secluded, that he feels like this was a horrible experience because if we would have known that, if we didn’t think that was helpful, we certainly wouldn’t have put him in that situation,” says Brooke Pellets, the pupil services director at Crestwood Elementary. “But when you see a student removed and you let him calm down, you think it’s working, and students with autism have a hard time expressing their feelings so we wouldn’t know.”

These sorts of problems and miscommunications are typical, says Sue Tobin, a lawyer with the Ohio Legal Rights Service.

“A lot of these kids weren’t in public schools 10 or 12 years ago and these folks working in these schools aren’t trained to appropriately address the behavior,” Tobin says. “You basically have a perfect storm of kids with more significant needs and people who aren’t trained to address their needs.”

Mandate To Serve

Paul Gibbony is the pupil services director at Troy City Schools. He says every time a special needs child enters the district, the officials and parents must make a difficult decision; to keep them in the public school or send them on to the a county program.

Legally, public schools have to take these kids. In 1975, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law mandates that public schools provide special-needs children with a free and appropriate education in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

But the number of students with special needs is skyrocketing.

Ohio schools have 80 times more children diagnosed with autism today than in 1995 and almost twice as many kids diagnosed with emotional disturbances.

School officials say they often struggle with these populations -- not so much with teaching a child, but with caring for health issues that can sometimes be very complex.

Paul Gibbony, the pupil services director at Troy City Schools just north of Dayton, says his district enrolls students that need tube feeding and catheterization.

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Every time special-needs students enter the district, administrators must decide whether to mainstream them in regular classes or send them on to the county special education center.

It’s not an easy decision.

“We feel like we have a strong obligation to try to serve those kids first and foremost in our local schools in our local classrooms,” Gibbony says. “However, you always have to try to navigate where the individual rights of that kid to be included in a class supersedes the rights of the other kids if those kids and their situations create a disruption to the process that compromises the education for all kids."

Gibbony says schools cannot mainstream all special-needs students who come into the district. Many parents are reaching the same conclusion.

“I think you’re seeing some of that push for mainstreaming being backed off,” says Marla Root, an advocate with Autism Ohio and the mother of an autistic boy. Instead, many parents opt to put their children into a behavior management system, a program that teaches students how to cope with their needs, and wait to mainstream.

‘Everything Is Just Right Here’

Brendon Spencer plays the steel drums in the band at Summit Academy. He says at this new school, he fits right in, and he no longer acts out in class.

Brendon Spencer, the student secluded at Crestwood Elementary, now goes to Summit Academy, a charter school in Akron where 90 percent of the students have special needs. The program prides itself on teaching self-control techniques, mainly through mandatory martial arts classes and band, where Brendon plays the steel drum.

“Everything is just right there,” says Brendon. “Nothing at all is wrong. I feel safe there. I don’t feel like I’m going to get bullied today, someone is going to hurt me.”

And there’s no risk of him getting put into a seclusion room. The school doesn’t have one.

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