The violent and the helpless

There was one day while I was unpacking my little lunch bag back in middle school that I still remember and won’t forget anytime soon. Maybe you had an experience similar to this in your school. I hope you did not.

There was a student who, for some reason, became aggravated and proceeded to start screaming and lashing out erratically, hitting her two aides at the table as well as knocking her lunch tray up in the air and then down onto her face and hair.

I remember seeing the food pieces in her tangled hair and feeling slight revulsion and then returning to face my tablemates to whisper about the incident a little, but then return to our daily conversations of the many woes of middle schoolers. That was because incidents like that were not so uncommon, but moreover, it was because that girl was sitting at the “special needs” table. Already in middle school it was normal for us to see violent outbursts from various classmates who were in the special needs classes. And seeing their aides whisk them off behind closed doors to placate them seemed to just feed the idea that these children were meant to be kept separate from the rest of us.

I have a twin sister who has special needs. She is very high-functioning; she can talk with you and read your body language, she can pick up on most subtle cues in conversation like sarcasm and even use it a bit herself. She does not ever have violent outbursts and she has never caused harm to herself or anyone else.

Growing up, at first I accepted without question that my sister had to go to different classes sometimes because she was slightly different from everyone else. Then, as we got older and she started to fall behind the class as the material became more complex, I saw her less and less until she only had “special needs classes,” and her classes with everyone from our grade came to an end. But the grownups knew best, and I still got to see her at lunch so I figured it was fine. And then we moved to Georgia.

One day I remember walking by my sister’s classroom and seeing her and a few other of her classmates sitting watching cartoons. Initially I felt jealous that she got to watch cartoons at school. But as she came home more and more often with stories of her day at school filled with one class after the other of just play time and recess, I wondered what she was actually learning. That was when I first started thinking about how my sister’s education might be different from my own and how that might not actually be a good thing. We moved away from Georgia and eventually settled in Wisconsin to finish out high school, and that is where I found my strongest complaint against the education given to children who are deemed to have special needs.

My sister would often complain of how she was scared of the violent outbursts of her classmates, and she even mentioned to my parents that one time one of them yelled at her for singing on the bus to school and tried to rip off her gloves she loved with the tiny bells on them. That was when I started to question why students experiencing problems with anger management are grouped in with students experiencing severe mental and physical handicaps.

A majority of the students in my high school who were experiencing problems with anger management had no physical handicaps and their mental handicaps were mostly due to the stress and depression they were probably trying to deal with. Many of them had terrible experiences at the homes they lived in and families that abused them, or no families at all.

I agree that these students would be able to calm down quicker in places where there are less students, which means perhaps some classes apart from the regular class group in which aides can help find triggers for emotional disturbance. They could then try to help these students overcome them with the goal of someday being able to fully participate within the regular class group again to grow in their social interactions.

But students who have severe physical and/or mental handicaps are not in the same category as students with anger issues and they need different approaches to help them grow. An institution of education, private or public, should strive to adapt their methods to best suit each incoming student as best as they can.

Keeping students who cannot defend themselves in a place with other students who might be easily triggered into violent outbursts is not an environment in which education is the priority. That is an environment in which lazy categorization of saying “they all have problems that keep them from the regular kids so they are all similar,” then actually hurts the chances these children have to learn. How can you learn in class if you are scared of your classmates?