Commentary

On Private-School Placements in Spec. Ed.

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On several recent occasions, I have encountered among public-school educators a notion that the parents of handicapped children equate education in a private, special-education school or treatment facility with attendance at a prestigious independent school.

In describing the search by some parents in Massachusetts for facilities to educate their children, for example, a special-education director in a local district was quoted in the Nov. 22, 1989, issue of Education Week as saying: "There seems to be a general feeling that private schools are better. I think that's somehow tied up in their minds with [the independent schools] Exeter or Phillips Academy."

Unwittingly, that administrator has helped name this rather peculiar view of the rationale behind placement of handicapped children in private facilities. I call it the "Andover-Exeter theory of special-education placement."

Characterizing this outlook as a "theory" probably lends it a dignity it hardly deserves. But as it becomes more and more pervasive, it can no longer be dismissed as just another faddish idea in education. This view disregards a large body of statistical and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the primary reasons for placement in a private institution are the inadequacy or absence of parental involvement and the severity of a child's handicap. Acquiring the status that some associate with attendance at a private school is rarely, if ever, the motivation for such a placement.

The Massachusetts education department has published data for fiscal year 1988 indicating that, of 133,106 children in special-education programs statewide, only 738 were placed in residential schools. That's 0.6 percent of the total. This figure includes the blind, the deaf, the mentally retarded, the emotionally disturbed, the physically handicapped, and the multihandicapped.

A number of the children in these facilities in fact have no parents at all. In some cases, their loved ones' parental rights have been terminated because of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. For these children, the issue of a parental affinity for choosing private schools to gain status is moot.

For those who do come from intact, nurturing families, the overriding consideration of parents is finding a program--any program--that can meet their child's complicated educational requirements. Often, these parents have tried the public-school system and found it unable to address the needs of their children, many of whom require comprehensive, 24-hour care and a staffing ratio near one-to-one to gain educational benefits.

In all fairness, the public schools were not set up to serve this minority and cannot be expected to meet its requirements, at least as they are currently structured. We should remember, however, that not so long ago, parents of handicapped children were simply turned away by the schools when they sought education for their children.

One of the children in my residential facility came there when a state social-services department determined that he should no longer be housed in a locked psychiatric unit and given heavy doses of medication at the ripe old age of 10. In this case, hospitalization had followed years of abuse. At one point, when the boy refused to engage in oral sex with his father, an ignited cigarette lighter was held in his mouth. His father later hung a gutted deer in the house and told him that a similar fate would befall him if he divulged the details of his abuse to anyone. For this severely damaged young man, education held the only possible chance of a better life.

But his behavior was at times violent. He would try to split his head open on the ground, screaming, "I want to die"; unprovoked, he would strike out at other children or staff members. A traditional school program--whether in a "mainstream setting" or a "substantially separate" program--simply wouldn't do. No foster family wanted him, and very few facilities would even consider accepting him.

The officials who sought a "free, appropriate public education" for him probably did not have the Andover-Exeter theory of special-education placement in mind. They were looking for a program with a safe, structured environment that would help him learn to control his assaultive outbursts. Only by doing so would he have a chance to learn all the other skills needed to lead a productive, useful, and maybe even happy life.

What is particularly distressing about the spread of the Andover-Exeter theory is that its chief purveyors are educators. Even a superficial analysis of the statistics and the case histories of students in residential placements shows the indefensibility of this view. In Massachusetts, it's clear that very few children are actually in residential placements, and, by and large, they are the most severely handicapped of all children.

When a Massachusetts superintendent advanced the Andover-Exeter theory about a year ago, this administrator was informed in the local press that one would have to look far and wide on the campus of most residential facilities to find any Muffies, Binkies, or Skippies. We have a lot of children who try to gnaw their fingers off and swallow foreign objects. There's very little talk of European vacations, BMW's, or the intensity of competition for seats in Ivy League colleges.

The Andover-Exeter placement theory debases us all--parents, teachers, staffs of private special-education facilities, and, of course, the children. But it brings the greatest disrepute to those educators who promote this notion despite its irrational, unkind, and demeaning roots.

What is encouraging is that most of our colleagues in public education see it for what it is: a perpetuation of the "blame the victim" strategy. When we finally surmount these hurdles, all of us, public and private educators alike, can get about the business we are in--educating all our students.

Vol. 09, Issue 20, Page 25

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