After a psychiatric evaluation and years of reported issues, Clarence, the lovable problem child in Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, gets shipped off to finish fifth grade in the mysterious and ominously named “alpha class.” The prisonlike alpha class is populated with other problem children and located in another building that Clarence’s current teacher—who doesn’t want him to leave—is not even allowed to visit.
Kidder’s nonfiction book was published in 1989. A year later—25 years ago this week, in fact—the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed, which promised, among other things, full access to public schools for disabled students, in tandem with the 1975 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which more explicitly protected special-needs students in schools.
Clarence wasn’t disabled, just extremely disruptive. And in the years since Kidder's book—thanks in part to the passage of these two laws—the practice of simply getting rid of students who take up too much of their teachers’ time has fallen out of official favor. But as a recent Department of Justice investigation of Georgia schools revealed, shunting kids off into separate and unequal schools is still happening all over the country. According to a ProPublica report of the investigation:
Georgia has been illegally and unnecessarily segregating thousands of students with behavioral issues and disabilities, isolating them in run-down facilities and providing them with subpar education. … [W]hat the Justice Department found in Georgia is something that persists across the country: Schools continue to inappropriately segregate students with a range of behavioral needs and disabilities.
The Justice Department found that Georgia schools, rather than trying to work with students in a mainstream setting, were quick to place them in shoddy second-rate ones with inadequate facilities, many of which had been used for black students during Jim Crow. These practices fly in the face both of the IDEA, which mandates that students be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” and of the ADA, which requires that all public facilities serve disabled people in the “most integrated setting.”
And because students often received these placements after even minor behavioral infractions, like using inappropriate language with a teacher, many of the kids who ended up in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support should have stayed in their neighborhood schools but been given more mental health support there. (Although, as the article points out, because Georgia is so committed to these segregated schools, many of the neighborhood schools lack basic mental- and behavioral-health services.)
Georgia has gotten in trouble before for its treatment of special needs students: In 2004, a 13-year-old boy at a Gainesville, Georgia, “psychoeducational” school hanged himself in the room where he was frequently isolated for misbehavior, and at the end of the last school year, a Marietta teacher was accused of holding an autistic second-grader upside-down and placing him headfirst in a trash can.
The Justice Department is putting pressure on Georgia to start moving kids back to mainstream schools—or face a lawsuit. It’s also encouraging the state to amp up mental health services at or near mainstream schools so that students can get help with their behavior before (or, even better, instead of) being sent to a more restrictive school. If only it weren’t too late for the generations of Clarences that have come before.