Locked Away: The “Mainstreaming” Of Ohio Schools

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Brandy Spencer wanted a normal education for her son Brendon, who suffers from ADHD, Asperger's, and mood disorders.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, StateImpact Ohio)
Brandy Spencer wanted a normal education for her son Brendon, who suffers from ADHD, Asperger's, and mood disorders.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, StateImpact Ohio)

On Monday, we told you about the unregulated use of seclusion rooms in Ohio schools.

The use of special rooms to isolate students for behavioral problems is in some ways an outgrowth of a longstanding movement to integrate special needs students into “regular” school.

Brandy Spencer knew her son spent much of his time at school standing in the hallway. What her son didn’t tell her is that sometimes he would be put into a spare office where he sat in the dark. That’s why, two years ago, she decided to pull him out of Crestwood Elementary in Mantua, about an hour Southeast of Cleveland.

“Between being bullied at Crestwood and them not knowing how to teach him,” Brandy Spencer says, “he spent most of his last year there in the hallway and not learning and apparently in a seclusion room that I was not aware of, and you know we just wanted him to excel and he was not excelling there.

“They’re not equipped to handle kids like him.”

Kids like him are diagnosed on the autism spectrum, often with additional emotional or behavioral problems. And Brendon acknowledges that sometimes means episodes of rage where he kicks and hits things around him. He once tried to choke one of the kids bullying him.

And when the emotional outbreaks disrupted class, school officials thought they were doing the right thing. Brooke Pellets is the pupil services director at Crestwood Elementary.

“I feel bad that he feels like he was secluded, that he feels like this was a horrible experience because if we would have known that, if we didn’t think that was helpful, we certainly wouldn’t have put him in that situation,” Pellets says.

“But when you see a student removed and you let him calm down, you think it’s working. And students with autism have a hard time expressing their feelings so we wouldn’t know.”

Sue Tobin, a lawyer with the Ohio Legal Rights Service says such problems are typical.

“A lot of these kids weren’t in public schools 10 or 12 years ago and these folks working in these schools aren’t trained to appropriately address the behavior. So you basically have a perfect storm of kids with more significant needs and people who aren’t trained to address their needs.”

Legally, public schools have to take these kids. Thirty years ago the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that mandates public schools provide special-needs children with a free and appropriate education in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

But the number of students with special needs is skyrocketing. Ohio schools have 80 times more children with autism today than in 1995, and almost twice as many kids with emotional disturbances.

Paul Gibbony is pupil services director at Troy City Schools just north of Dayton. He says teachers often struggle not so much with teaching a child, but with caring for complex health issues.

“…Making sure kids get their medications in cooperation with the parents and the home regimens that they have, the medical procedures that we have to do here: Tube feeding kids and catheterizing kids and all that kind of stuff is an expectation being done here at the public school.”

Gibbony says every time special needs students enter the district, it must decide whether to mainstream them in regular classes, or send them on to the county special education center.

“We feel like we have a strong obligation to try to serve those kids first and foremost in our local schools in our local classrooms,” Gibbony says.

“However, you always have to try to navigate where the individual rights of that kid to be included in a class supersedes the rights of the other kids if those kids and their situations create a disruption to the process that compromises the education for all kids.”

Gibbony says schools cannot mainstream all special-needs students who come into the district.

Many parents are reaching the same conclusion.

Marla Root is an advocate with Autism Ohio and the mother of an autistic boy.

“I think you’re seeing some of that push for mainstreaming being backed off by saying, ‘I’d rather my son get a couple few years of intensive behavior management strategies and then I want them to go back in to mainstream.’”

Brendon Spencer, the student secluded in his public school, now goes to Summit Academy, a charter school where 90 percent of the students are special needs. The program prides itself on teaching self-control techniques, mainly through mandatory classes like martial arts and band.

Brendon plays the steel drums in the band, and he says he’s doing well.

“Everything is just right there. Nothing at all is wrong. I feel safe there. I don’t feel like I’m going to get bullied today, someone is going to hurt me.”

And there’s no risk of him getting put into a seclusion room. The school doesn’t have any.

“Locked Away” is a collaboration between The Columbus Dispatch and StateImpact Ohio, a project of NPR and Ohio public radio stations examining the effects of public policy on people’s lives.