A New Kind Of School Segregation?

Liza Long, author of The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, objects to her psychologically troubled son being taught separately from the other kids:

At first glance, this might seem like an ideal solution: the neurotypical kids get to learn without disruptions, and the students with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities have a safe environment with additional dedicated support from teaching assistants. And since it’s a contained program, it saves the district money in the short term—and we all know how thin most school districts are stretched.

But I would suggest there is an uglier word for this approach to education: segregation.

What is the logical consequence of taking 100 students with behavioral and emotional symptoms between the ages of 12 to 21, 95% of whom are male, and putting them together in a program that will not allow them to earn a high school diploma or to learn to interact with neurotypical peers? In our society, too often the consequence is prison. … By not integrating children with mental illness, which admittedly sometimes manifests through challenging behavioral symptoms like unpredictable rage, into the general school population, we are contributing to the ongoing stigma of mental illness.

Meanwhile, Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD author Timothy Denevi meditates on raising a child while struggling with mental health problems himself:

One of the most difficult aspects of mental illness, especially within the context of parenthood, is finding a way, when it comes to your life and its influence on the people you love, to do more good than harm. In the end you can’t possibly predict what’s really coming: the moment in the future that will dislodge you from the balance you’ve worked so hard to achieve. It might be a random calamity, or one you’ve personally brought about. But the incredible truth is that it’s already on the way. And against such a prospect, what good can something like a therapist or exercise or a low-dosage psychostimulant actually do?

This isn’t to dismiss the idea of effort. In fact it’s the opposite: imagining all the things that could go wrong or right for my family, I can’t help but find solace in action. I’m lucky that there are steps I can take, and that often enough they do tend to help. What matters is the act itself: an expression of love for the most important people in my life. After all, there are many ways to show how you feel; is it so terrible that one of mine happens to take the form of self-preparedness?

Update from a reader:

I think someone at the Dish should have vetted the author before posting the latest Time fluff sympathy piece from Liza Long.  She has a well-documented history of being a mother of a significantly troubled son who writes about him and her experiences extensively, namely with her controversial piece “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

I don’t waste time objecting to how much she’s exposed of her son and her life, because frankly, she bears a huge burden.  But I do object to her advocating for including significantly troubled children in a regular education setting to the disruption of other students, many of whom bear their own burdens of life and trying to get a decent education in school, and also because children who are significantly troubled require a different environment.  Those padded isolation rooms?  They are often used as a last resort for children who are so out of control they throw chairs at other students, hit their teachers, or yell, rock, or endlessly try other ways to calm themselves.

The school staff members who work with these children on a daily basis are uniquely qualified and incredibly devoted to working with these children.  They are required by law to be with a child during their time spent in a seclusion room.  Many times they sit in the room and wait for the children to calm down, they talk to the child and encourage them to express their feelings in a socially appropriate way (because depending on their individual needs, many of these children spend the majority of =their time trying to manage their own emotions and relate to others.  They are not sitting in their seats learning French.)  The staff members will remove themselves from the room – sitting outside maintaining visual contact to make sure the child isn’t hurting himself – if they can see that their presence is merely escalating the child’s behavior.  People who work in these positions are incredible.  They can read the child and they respond differently to different children in whatever way will help that child.

The laws that Liza Long denigrates – because it may interrupt an “important work presentation” – are two federal laws that are designed to provide every child with a way to receive an education in a way that recognizes and works with each child’s individual limitations and needs.  These laws have changed the lives of millions of children and parents.  Before these laws existed, children – who now have a legal right to the least restrictive environment in the school that their peers attend – were relegated to mental institutions, schools for the blind or deaf, or home.  And they have this right with no extra expense of their own (except to advocate for their rights, a cost that every person must bear) – school districts and public taxpayers pay all costs of these educations.  Parents pay NOTHING more than any other child who attends the school in regular education classrooms.

And frankly, from the way Liza Long describes her son and her own reaction to him, he should be in a place where his uniquely dangerous and difficult needs can be assisted by adults who are trained, and kept separate from other children who need to be able to attend school and learn in a safe environment.  She is absolutely the wrong person to advocate for the position in this incredibly shallow Time essay that is light years behind an actual discussion of the merits of these children’s needs.