In Boston in the mid-1800s, educator and reformer Samuel G. Howe was a passionate advocate for state-funded “idiot asylums.” In a report to his state’s legislature, he argued that individuals with developmental disabilities are “always a burden on the public” and “dead weights upon the material prosperity of the state.”
In Madison in 2017, we like to think that we have come a long way from such unenlightened days. But disturbing echoes of Howe’s language surfaced in a recent letter from the governance council of Badger Rock charter school to the Madison school district. The letter, which was recently featured in Isthmus, complained that Badger Rock middle school was “swamped” with students with special educational needs, which created a “burdensome situation.” The letter requested that no more such students be placed at Badger Rock.
Superintendent Jen Cheatham responded to Badger Rock’s letter in strong terms. She pointed out that not only did the letter imply that current students with disabilities are unwanted, but also that denying students entry on account of their disability would be both a violation of MMSD charter policy and illegal under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The district website offers strong words of welcome to families of students with disabilities as well, stating: “We are committed to ensuring that all students with disabilities are engaged in high-quality curriculum and instruction within inclusive educational environments, leading to deep learning and readiness for college, career, and community.”
Unfortunately, many parents of students with disabilities in Madison are finding the promised “inclusive educational environments” to be nothing of the sort. Some years ago MMSD may indeed have been a fine example of inclusive education for students with disabilities. But today, too many families are struggling and wondering how things could have gone so far wrong.
Particularly at the middle- and high-school levels, nearly every MMSD school has quietly created an isolated area where students with the most significant disabilities spend their days fully separated from their non-disabled peers. For many students in these segregated spaces, their programming is minimal and even basic needs sometimes go unmet.
MMSD students with disabilities are also disproportionately on the receiving end of exclusionary discipline in the form of out-of-school suspension: One in every eight students with disabilities was suspended in 2015/16, as opposed to one in 39 of their non-disabled peers. The district also overuses the dangerous and exclusionary practices of physical restraint and seclusion to a shocking degree, mostly at the elementary level, where the disproportionality is simply staggering. Nearly one in six elementary students with disabilities was restrained and/or secluded in 2016/17, compared to only one of every 85 non-disabled students. The numbers are grim, and behind every statistic is a struggling student and family.
Given this situation, it is no wonder that Badger Rock charter school found itself unexpectedly attractive to families of students with disabilities and behavioral challenges. The resulting high percentage of students with disabilities at Badger Rock relative to the district’s neighborhood middle schools ought to have been taken as a golden opportunity to open a productive conversation between Badger Rock and the district as to the reasons why such families were gravitating toward the charter school.
Despite their deeply disappointing initial response, that opportunity still exists.
There are many committed teachers and staff at MMSD who see potential rather than burden when they see our students, yet are caught in school structures that foster segregation over inclusivity. We would gladly partner with them to support efforts and initiatives that move us closer to a fully inclusive district, such as small class sizes, Universal Design for Learning, adequate staffing and relevant professional development.
Most importantly, we desire a top-to-bottom, districtwide shift in perspective in regard to students with disabilities. The attitudes and structures of burden and exclusion run deep, through both our history and our present experience. However, we know that it is possible to transform those attitudes and structures through advocacy and collaboration.
As parents and advocates, we and our organizations see our students through the lens of opportunity and promise rather than the lens of burden. Educating students with disabilities is a responsibility and an adventure; it is also an opportunity and an honor.
It is beyond time to rediscover inclusive education for all students at MMSD, and to finally put the specter of the attitudes of Samuel G. Howe to rest for students with disabilities within our district.
This column was written by Ken Hobbs, president, The Arc-Dane County; Joanne Juhnke, MMSD parent and policy director, Wisconsin Family Ties; Kate Moran, self-advocate and president, Disability Pride Madison; Kelli Simpkins, MMSD parent and chair, Madison Partners for Inclusive Education.
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