Exclusion

I was reviewing my blog post just last week, when I talked about how warm and friendly our little town is. And it made me sad, because this week, I saw a very ugly other side to our little town, and my stomach felt like there was a big, heavy stone in it.

I’m not really going to talk about what divided our little town—or rather, the town’s elementary school. It’s a very charged topic right now and in fact has made national and international news, and frankly, it has people so heated that I don’t even want to get involved. But I need to sum it up briefly so you understand the context of what I do want to talk about.

In Theo’s school, there is a child who has serious behavior problems, and a group of parents banded together to try to get this child removed from the school. The child apparently comes from an “unfortunate situation,” and the angry parents fear his “violent outbursts” and called the major news outlets to have them do stories on it. Naturally, those stories spread, and it’s now been reported on worldwide. On the other side of the argument are parents like me, who think, “Okay, this child needs help. But do we need to band together and get the child thrown out of school? This is a child—eight years old. The worst that has happened is rock-throwing. This is not a case of a child bringing a deadly weapon to school.” The angry parents staged a walkout for the “safety of their children” and contacted the news; the other parents sighed and said, “This has gone too far. I care about my child’s safety just as much as you do, but this is not the way to handle a situation with a child.” And there was name-calling and all sorts of ugliness.

I largely stayed out of it. The child isn’t in Theo’s grade, and Theo has not been affected. Even if he had, though, I can’t imagine I would’ve joined the angry parents who want the child removed. But they were so vehement that those of us who felt differently were a bit afraid to speak up. But there came a point where I had to speak. And that point was when a teacher in our district (but not in our school, thank god—just in our district) posted this on Facebook:

Just so you all know, the district is on a kick to be as inclusive as possible. I have several ‘special ed’ students in my class. I can’t go into details, but I can tell you that this trend is going to continue until parents speak up. Loudly.

She went on to say that she wasn’t even sure how she was qualified to teach “those students,” because she’s not a special ed teacher.

Okay. The call to action to parents to “speak up loudly” against “special ed students” being in mainstream classes…I’m not okay with that. Not at all. I will fully agree that some children cannot thrive in the mainstream and need specialized education. Absolutely. But a sweeping statement about parents needing to speak up about “special ed” kids in mainstream classes? That’s painting with an awfully broad brush. And a disturbing brush—after all the work parents of kids with special needs have done to try to give them the opportunity to participate in the mainstream, a statement like that is a real setback.

At the same time, I live in a small town and didn’t want to pick a fight, having seen firsthand how angry parents can suddenly turn on a family. So I tried to stay calm in my response—I simply told her that some students with disabilities do indeed thrive in an inclusive or mainstream environment, even when the teachers aren’t specially trained, and that parents of kids with special needs usually evaluate the situation very carefully before deciding on where they think their child will do best. Sometimes that’s special ed, and sometimes it’s in the mainstream, with a mainstream teacher. I ended by saying, “I cringe when I see people make sweeping statements about kids and special ed” and went on to say that it was disappointing to see this attitude from a teacher of all people, because as parents, we hope that our children’s teachers will believe in them—after all, a teacher is supposed to believe in her students!

We had a back-and-forth discussion in which she sort of backpedaled, but not really. And then she posted another comment thanking the parents who had contacted the district about getting the student removed and said, “I watch with great anticipation as to the precedent this will set.”

I see. So clearly my encouragement to not simply view all kids with special needs as requiring placement in a segregated environment meant pretty much nothing. Lovely.

The thing is, unless this teacher changes schools, my kids will never have her. She does not teach at one of the three schools they will attend for elementary, middle, and high school. But she is part of our district, and she obviously has no qualms about speaking her mind about “those kids.” And I fear her attitude spilling over to others in the district, too.

Inclusion isn’t something I push for because it’s in vogue or because I’m in denial about my son’s abilities. I push for it because I could present you with study after study showing that children with mild to moderate intellectual disability (as Sam has) thrive in an inclusive or mainstream setting. Children with disabilities who are given as many opportunities for inclusion as possible do better in school, but perhaps more importantly, they more successfully live independent lives. And as Sam’s parent, it is my job to set him up to be as independent as he can possibly be, because I won’t always be here to take care of him!

And frankly, many of these same studies show that the typically developing kids who are in class with kids with special needs also do better in school. They develop more empathy, but perhaps more surprisingly, there are actually studies showing that they achieve higher reading scores. I don’t know why that is, but some studies have shown that. And if I were writing this for anything other than just my little family blog, I would dig up those studies and share them with you. But since I’m lazy and this is just a post for family and friends, you can take my word for it that they exist—or go Google it, and you’ll find them.

But maybe most important of all, there is a real stigma around “different.” (And wow, have we ever witnessed that in our little town this past week….) If kids with special needs are kept out of the mainstream, that stigma will never go away. We need to challenge that perception by demonstrating that our kids are just like anyone else in fundamental ways! I mean, we’re all unique, but in fundamental ways we’re all the same. And my child with 47 chromosomes is no different—fundamentally, he is the same as your 46er, as we refer to them.

It’s not in my nature to force Sam’s “sameness” down people’s throats to force them to include him. Frankly, I think the way I can best help break down the stigma is just by treating Sam like any other child and letting him be like every other child. And part of that is mainstream education, for as long as he can successfully participate in it. But to do that, I need teacher buy-in. I need the teacher to believe, as I do, that my son is as capable as anyone else. And by and large, I have been able to get that so far with both of my sons. Theo’s “special need” is more subtle than Sam’s, and it’s easier for him to be accepted into the mainstream, but the fact remains that he does still have that whole “autism” label with him, and there is a bit of a stigma with that. But still, for both Theo and Sam, I have found that most teachers follow my lead and realize that I want my kids to be accepted and treated like everyone else. And I’m grateful for that.

So to see a teacher do exactly the opposite—to see her label “those kids” as different and not belonging in a mainstream classroom—was a bit of a punch in the gut. And I do not want to see that attitude become more common. Many people told me I ought to report the teacher for the comments she made on Facebook. I’m not going to do that—for one thing, she’d know it was me because I’m the only person who spoke up to her; but second, I have no interest in jeopardizing someone’s job. But I am going to write a letter to our principal about the situation and express my belief that we should continue to allow children with special needs to try to participate in mainstream classes. It may not always work, but what then? Well, that’s what emergency IEP meetings are for. That’s when you pull together the child’s team and say, “We’ve tried, but this isn’t benefiting anyone. We need to try another approach.” That’ll happen with some kids, I’m certain. I know that not every child is most successful when put in the mainstream. But I don’t want to see it become the default (again!!) to throw “those kids” back in segregated classrooms. We worked so hard to move beyond that model; I don’t want to see us go back.

So there it is, people. Exclusion is apparently alive and well in our district, however much I hoped it wouldn’t be. The fight continues.

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