Doing the Right Thing?: A Firsthand Look at Special Education in Public Schools

Spring 2009
Experience as Evidence Essays

Article 2 of 12

“Alright, class, why do you think we study art in school?  Yes, Katie, what do you think?”

“Uh… well… I think we do art here cause it’s fun to paint in pretty colors!”  In that moment, the whole class jerked their heads around to glare at her.  Was that a joke?  Is she serious?  There must be something wrong with her.

As a peer coach at my high school, this was how a typical day began.  The school counselors at our school created the peer-coaching program, and the students who volunteered worked with a few mentally handicapped students in their standard classes.  Each day, first period, I helped mentally handicapped students in a standard art class until homeroom began.  Even though I had absolutely no training before beginning this program, I tutored two students in this class, and made sure they completed their class work everyday.  The situations I experienced were unlike anything I expected, and this opportunity drastically changed my positive opinions about special education.

When I signed up for peer coaching, I was eager to help these students in any way that I could, but as weeks went by, I felt as if I, alone, could not create the best experience possible.  In my eyes, it would take the teacher, the classroom full of students, and myself to give these students what they ought to have: a deserving environment in school.  Many students feel especially comfortable in school and make numerous friends, but could these students ever experience what normal students feel everyday at school?  I soon realized that no one else noticed this unacceptable treatment, not even my fellow counselors.

Most of the other peer counselors simply accepted the way the students were treated, but the situations I found myself in truly affected me.  I was in no way prepared for the emotions I felt in this class during the school year, and all of my experiences with these wonderful adolescents have led me to believe that the school system is not dedicated to properly integrating these mentally handicapped students into public schools.

“Good morning class.  Today we are going to sketch our shoes!”  Excitement filled Katie’s eyes, and for once, I felt as if she would have a normal day.  However, when she reached down for her shoe, she realized that she couldn’t reach it under the desk.  Abruptly, she slid her chair out with a screech, and again, every eye in the room was magnetized to Katie, watching her every move.  Seeing the eyes fixated on her, she quickly tried to pull off her shoe, but it wouldn’t budge; Katie’s back brace kept her from getting enough leverage.  Suddenly, she looked up at me with watery eyes, and I froze in empathy.

Without thinking, I ripped off my left flip-flop.  “Here you go Katie.  You can use mine.”  She grabbed it and tossed it onto her desk in front of her sketchbook.  As she stared fixedly at the flip-flop, everyone finally turned back to his or her own desk, and I sighed with relief.  How could anyone expect a classroom full of adolescents not to be curious about those who are mentally handicapped?  If these students were obviously going to be a distraction, why were they placed in this standard classroom without any explanation to the students?  A simple introduction and mini- lesson on the mentally handicapped would have been sufficient enough to limit the other students’ interest in the children I worked with in the classroom.  Why wasn’t this problem ever addressed?

 The truth is, the issue of integrating the mentally handicapped into schools was never really scrutinized by the public school system.  The students were of a very small population, and the school didn’t care enough about them to make a difference in their lives.  For example, the one and only after school activity for the mentally handicapped, allied bowling, was cancelled for no good reason; simply because the teacher who pulled it together didn’t feel like he had enough time to help these students anymore.  Since no one else wanted to take on this responsibility, and the after school activity came with no pay, it was cancelled.  One of the only resources for these children to interact with other students was cancelled because a teacher did not care enough to volunteer his time for these students.  How can a school properly integrate these students into the school system when there are absolutely no activities for them to participate in?  The after school activities for every other child in the building stayed intact, but this lone activity ceased to exist.  Just coincidence?

A week later, I was sitting in the guidance counselor’s office having a meeting with my fellow peer coaches.  These meetings were a place where we could vent about the problems of the school system and the ignorance of the fellow students.  We also talked of how easily these problems could be solved and why their solutions haven’t been considered.  Then, a girl in our meeting spoke up and said, “I heard the counselors talking earlier, and one of them said that every mentally handicapped student must pass the High School Assessment (HSA) to receive their GED.”  What?  How could this be?  I was absolutely blown away when I heard this statement.  I thought for a brief moment it was a joke, but the look on her face quickly changed my mind.  Either these students are not integrated into school at all, or the education system expects them to be as capable as any other student.  How could a student who cannot read a simple sentence pass the HSA, designed for average high school students?  Every student who is admitted into high school must pass this test to graduate; it is the law.  How could these mentally handicapped students be kept from receiving a high school degree, when they try their hardest in class to participate and believe they can work to give back to the community?

If public schools are not committed to properly integrating those who are mentally handicapped into standard schools, then those students would be better off in a segregated school with special programs for the students.  If public schools do not have the sufficient funding to be devoted to creating an equal environment for all children, then it would be better to pull these mentally handicapped students out of public schools and give them the specific attention they need and deserve.  These students need constant attention, and they should not be forced to learn in conditions that disrupt their education, like in classrooms full of curious adolescents.

Society needs to take a step back and think about this issue, because many people believe that the present system has no problem to be discussed.  Those who are mentally handicapped can’t live a full, dynamic life without our help.  In truth, what person can succeed without the help of others and the support from the people they love?  It is morally correct to give every person the equal right to education and the equal right to resources to aid them in their pursuit of happiness.  Think about it.  Every parent wants his or her children to receive equal treatment and to be in an environment that promotes success in their future.  This belief is universal, and every child deserves to have fulfilling experiences in high school to prepare them for the life ahead of them.  If all students are correctly integrated into schools, every student will have equal experiences and grow up to better understand the diverse world of today.