The Challenges of Inclusion
The rights of students with disabilities must be honored—but that can be a tough balancing act when behavior affects the school.
Eleven-year-old Bill Hutchison is in the fourth grade in Dickerson, Maryland. He has three brothers and sisters. He likes to watch the Disney Channel. He enjoys playing his toy electric guitar. And this past February, his elementary school asked a judge to issue an order keeping him out of the classroom.
According to court records, Bill—who has Down syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—has bitten, struck, tripped, and attempted to strangle teachers and other staff members at his school, Monocacy Elementary, in the past year. After those incidents, Frederick County Public School officials took an unusual step: They applied for a 10-day restraining order to prevent the boy from entering the school.
Court action was not the school district’s first course of action. The decision turned upon the conflict between the school and Bill’s parents about whether inclusion was working. School officials say no. They believe Bill would be better served in a special education school. Bill’s parents, Michelle and William Hutchison, want their son to stay at Monocacy with a new behavior plan that plays on Bill’s strengths.
While officials cannot comment on a case that is before the courts, Pam Pencola, director of special education and psychological services in Frederick County, says, “It’s very rare that students are not able to have their needs met in an inclusive environment. We believe in providing a safe learning environment for all students, and we’re highly successful in most cases.”
The Monocacy Elementary case highlights the delicate balance that school administrators must strike as they ensure the rights of students with disabilities to learn in the least restrictive environment while maintaining the learning community for the school as a whole. The issue is of growing concern as more students with serious behavior issues are being placed in mainstream classrooms.
Many Have Benefited
Although disputes such as the one at Monocacy Elementary grab the headlines, inclusion has been a success for most. “The lawsuits, in the scheme of things, are few in number when you look at the millions who have benefited from these laws,” says David Riley, executive director of the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative in Newton, Massachusetts. “This is challenging, and culturally we have a long way to go.”
Jonathan McIntire, a director of exceptional student services for schools in Orlando, Florida, agrees. “It’s assumed that a lot of these kids are bad guys, but often the behavior is a manifestation of their disability.”
Experts suggest that inclusion works best with the right supports in place: a school-wide emphasis on positive discipline, proper training, adequate funding, support in the classroom, and strong communication. Above all, shaping the behavior of all children rather than policing misdeeds can set the groundwork for successful inclusion. Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association (NEA), says that for the most part, schools are doing a decent job in balancing safety and inclusion. But he would advocate more professional development for teachers, support staff, and principals.
Despite the overall success of inclusion, expected changes in public policy acknowledge that school safety is important. The disciplinary provisions in the 2004 amendments to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) are expected to give schools more flexibility to transfer kids who become physically dangerous into an alternative placement, says Russell Skiba, chair of advocacy and government relations for the Council for Children With Behavior Disorders and professor of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Many school districts are backing away from zero-tolerance policies, however. These can have a negative impact on students with disabilities, and it’s hard to prove that the behavior in question was a manifestation of the disability. When expelled or suspended, the students are left high and dry without needed services.
Although most teachers and experts support the goal of inclusion, many are increasingly pushing for modifications, or “responsible inclusion”—especially when faced with aggressive or violent kids. “Special education has been its own worst enemy,” says Ron Nelson, associate professor and codirector of the Center for At-Risk Children’s Services at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “We have pushed for inclusion, even though we don’t know how to make it work.”
Some kids’ mental health needs are beyond what a general education school can deliver, says Nelson. “Schools have become the de facto mental health provider for children, yet they are not set up for that.” Through implementing a positive behavior model that emphasizes routines, clear expectations, and proper supervision, most kids can be successful, says Nelson. But not all.
Diane Connell, professor of special education at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire, agrees. Full inclusion isn’t always the way to go, she says. While normalization is important, placing kids with disabilities in general education settings may not be in the best interest of the child when the classroom is not set up to meet the child’s special needs. “Student needs should take priority,” she says.
Phil Hatlen, superintendent for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Austin, says he has an aversion to total inclusion because it is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education that doesn’t take into account the diverse population of children with vision impairments. “Responsible inclusion means the child goes into a regular classroom with the skills needed to participate,” he says.
The Child’s Best Interests
Cases such as the Hutchisons’ compel all school professionals to work together with families for the best outcome for each child. “If a parent feels they are not being listened to and people are just pushing them aside,” says the NEA’s Weaver, “they get the impression that the school is uncaring. If they felt listened to more, they might not resort to certain actions.”
Michelle Hutchison says the relationship between parents and schools doesn’t need to be adversarial. “Just because a parent challenges a child’s education plan doesn’t mean they are challenging you,” she says. “I’m simply pursuing every avenue to find out what is best for my son.”
“When you deal with our children, you are dealing with our hearts. Schools need to know that,” says Sherri Trapp, whose 12-year-old son, Tyler, is autistic. “Our children are just as special as all the other kids.”