They were different. That was the first thing I noticed about them when they began arriving at school. Marissa was especially different. She was much smaller than a typical junior high school student. She walked oddly. She grunted a lot instead of talking. Marissa and the other kids that came to school on that shorter bus were often the cause of unusual happenings around the school. One of many memorable incidents occurred during my German class. Marissa was out in the hallway, her personal teacher's aide escorting her. We all heard her coming toward the classroom as she grunted and wheezed. She mistakenly hobbled into our room and approached one of the boys. She began to pull on his arm and attempt to climb into his lap. The boy froze in abject terror and humiliation. The teacher stopped mid-lecture, uncertain of how to handle the disruption. Marissa's escort worked to loosen her grip on the boy while the rest of the class stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. After the two students had been disentangled and Marissa was gone, the rest of the hour was spent recovering from her visit. There are too many instances like this throbbing through the cells of my memory banks.

Mainstreaming is a concept that has long been debated by legislators, parents, and educators. One argument for the mainstreaming of severely mentally handicapped students is that every child, regardless of deficiency, has the right to an education at a normal public school. I agree that no child should be deprived of an education. Parents pay into the school system through tax dollars, and their children should be able to benefit from that system. However, the rights of all children in public schools need to be considered, and mainstreaming is not the most effective way of meeting the needs of all involved. Classroom disruptions like the one involving Marissa ruin the educational climate for students. The rights of one group of people end where those of another group begin.

Proponents of mainstreaming argue that students with mental handicaps and "regular" students need to learn to interact and socialize with one another. They believe that putting the two groups in the same school would help them integrate. Ideally, mainstreaming would create a utopian environment where all creatures great and small, meek and bold would gather together in a heavenly depiction of the lion and the lamb. But as the stench of reality clears our senses (and our sinuses), we see what actually happens when the idea is put into practice. D.W., a former staff member in a Michigan junior high school's special education department, explained that severely mentally handicapped people are often kept in separate classes. When social activities such as lunch hours occur, the special education students stick to themselves and rarely interact with "normal" students. When the system is examined, it is discovered that special education teachers and their students remain segregated from their general education counterparts.

It has been theorized that placing special education students with regular education students encourages the slower students to work harder and helps them to learn better. With mainstreaming, not only would the handicapped students be inspired to strive to greater achievement, but also the other students would serve as enthusiastic cheerleaders for them. Somehow, pitting these young people against impossible odds is supposed to be encouraging. Enrolling severely challenged students in normal classes simply ensures that they will always be at the bottom of the heap. Instead of motivating them to achieve more than they thought possible, it instills in them a spirit of defeat and serves as a constant reminder of their inabilities. Never will they be able to bring home a test and brag to their parents that theirs was the highest score. Gone are their hopes of ever being head of the class. How can these young people have anything but the dreariest of outlooks on life when put in such a situation?

Thus it becomes clear that severely mentally handicapped students do not belong in the public school system.

Educating a mentally challenged child is more expensive than educating a "normal" child. Most of the severely handicapped children require individualized attention. Schools that are mainstreaming these students have to hire additional staff to attend classes with them, tutor them, read assignments to them, and sometimes even handle their personal physical needs. D.W. explained that as the duties of the paraprofessionals get more intimate, their pay can get as high as twelve dollars an hour, sometimes more. Usually, staff members such as these are assigned to a single student. Parents of these children do not pay additional taxes to cover the difference in cost of their children's education; all taxpayers take up their burden. If such students were placed together in a separate classroom, only one or two staff members would be required to teach them rather than each having their own personal tutor.

There must be a better answer. Somewhere out there lies a hope that is not so bleak. Special needs students deserve an environment where they will be both accepted and reasonably challenged within their abilities. Perhaps the answer lies in creating a special trade school, providing practical training and teaching the students a job-related skill that they could use once they are out of school. Mainstreaming as it exists today is not accomplishing its purpose. The system should either be rethought and modified, or retired into the annals of well-intentioned failures.


Works Cited:

Mamlin, Nancy. "Despite Best Intentions: When Inclusion Fails." Journal of Special Education. 33.1 (1999) 36 (1). Expanded Academic ASAP. Lansing Community College Lib., Lansing, MI. 16 Apr. 2001. http://web1.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark

D.W. Personal interview. 16 Apr. 2001.

Node your homework.

Names have been changed to protect both innocent and guilty.

I used to get on the short bus to go to school every day. We weren't going to a regular school. We were going to a segregated nightmare. The only way to get to regular school from there was to prove you were able to act normal and handle a normal education. Few of us were able to do that, especially since we didn't learn much at special ed. Special ed was simply a place where they dumped kids who were too weird, annoying, crazy, mean, scary or slow for the district to want to deal with.

I spent rides staring at the elaborately sculpted golden hair of Ellen, the girl in front of me, and having the usual adolescent thoughts about her. I never dared to talk to her much, and she didn't talk much anyway. She may have been too heavily drugged. I heard her tell someone she had a learning disability.

Meanwhile, Mark would usually be taunting Jim. Jim was an Asian guy with schizophrenia and noticeable tardive dyskinesia, and Mark would chant racial slurs at him. Why nobody ever stopped Mark, I don't know. There was one day when Jim lost it and yelled at Mark, but that was unusual. Sometimes the two of them would discuss sports, or Jim would talk about whatever he was interested in at the moment.

If Mark got bored with Jim, he'd turn on Allen, the autistic guy who sat in the back humming and rocking the whole way to school. He'd usually talk to Allen in nonsense baby talk. I'd seethe and stare harder at Ellen's hair. I sometimes told Mark to shut up, and that Allen wasn't a little kid, but then he'd turn the baby talk on me: "But he likes it, don't you Allen?" I'd try not to puke as Mark launched into a sappy, exaggerated rendition of a children's song. Sometimes he'd break his facade and call Allen "You fucking retard." Telling him to shut up then would provoke the excuse, "He doesn't understand anyway."

Worse was the fact that Mark always claimed he'd be working in Allen's classroom soon. I never knew if that was true, but I did know that Mark had sexually assaulted some of the girls at the school. There was no way I'd have let him near anyone who couldn't talk back if I ran the school. But I didn't run the school.

Sometimes various exciting things happened, at least from the standpoint of a bored teenager. Allen would take his clothes off, or Mark would get into a fight with someone. Mostly, though, it was the same boring routine on the way to school every day.

We'd get off the bus, and go to our respective classrooms. Allen went to the low classroom where they tried to teach him to act as normal as possible, at the expense of any useful skills. They said they wanted him to at least not look retarded, as if that was the big deal in life. I'd always wish him well in not hating himself under those conditions. Jim went to the medium class, where they ostensibly taught social skills. Mark, Ellen, and I went to the various high classes where they made a lousy attempt to teach us academics.

The day was nearly always punctuated by screaming -- the angry screaming of someone who'd just started yelling at someone, the agonized screaming of that same person after the teachers had started to enforce their form of "discipline" on them, and the terrified screaming after they'd been locked in the closet. You could tell the last two were real. There's no way you can fake that sound, and you can hear the instant it crosses over into that moment of perfect terror. You're not allowed to react, though, because the teachers are supposedly just doing their job and if you react it means you're being annoying on purpose. Besides, it could be you some days. You learn the art of silent terror, and you eventually stop reacting.

Other than that, it was pretty boring there. The day revolved around behavior control rather than education. It was clear we were there for other people's convenience and peace of mind, rather than to learn anything. Those of us who were able to teach ourselves in spite of the place were the lucky ones, although the teachers rarely noticed even when people did learn things.

At the end of the day, we'd all go back onto the same bus. Sometimes there would be kids from other schools. It was a repetition of the same stuff that happened on the way to school, only with everyone more edgy than we were in the morning. I think Ellen was the only one of us, including the ones who couldn't talk, who avoided getting into a yelling match at some point on the way home.

So there you have it. I was one of the kids from the short bus. We were different.

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