When Inclusion Includes Hitting

Article excerpt

A 13-YEAR-OLD St. Louis County girl whom we will call Susan - is at the center of a very complicated court fight. The legal arguments have to do with due process, and the definition of "dangerousness," and the limitations of something called a stay-put provision, and other legal questions beyond the ken of the layperson.

Stripped of its legal veneer, however, the case involves questions that are easily understood but perhaps impossible to answer.

To what lengths should we go to educate a child? Should the rights of one child ever supersede the rights of others?

Susan suffers from mental retardation and behavior disorders. Although she is not autistic, some aspects of her behavior resemble autism.

Here is how her attorney described her behavior: "She does not do well in social interactions because she does not read cues accurately. Due to her disability, Susan will stimulate herself tactically and because of her fascination with the faces of others, and her lack of ability to read social cues, she may end up poking or striking another person. Susan may unknowingly invade the space of another person. If that person becomes threatened and acts agitated or in a defensive manner, then `Susan' will respond by poking or hitting."

She will also bite.

In September of last year, Susan was enrolled at a middle school in the Parkway School District. She was in a Phase II program, which meant that she spent most of each day in a classroom with other disabled students - in this case, mentally retarded youngsters - and a small part of each day with non-disabled students.

In addition to the regular teachers and staff, Susan had one teacher and an aide assigned strictly to her. They stayed with her in the classroom for the disabled children, and they accompanied her when she joined the non-disabled students.

According to Susan's mother, the school years started off well, and then began to deteriorate. According to an attorney for the school district, things started off badly.

By all accounts, there were plenty of incidents.

Eventually, parents of four of the five other disabled children wrote letters to the school district. The letters all had the same plaintive quality. If they were lumped together, they would read something like this:

"As a parent of a disabled child, I believe in inclusion. However, Susan is a disruptive influence and I find that my child is regressing. …