Amid Talk of Gun Control, Don’t Forget School Reform

(Guest Post by William Mattox)

Amid all the talk about gun control and mental health reform, one important question begged by last month’s tragedy in Connecticut has gone unasked:  Is there anything we can do about the structure of education that might help lower the risk of another school massacre?  I believe there is – and a poignant story (and some very interesting research data) will help explain why.

Two of my children once attended a small private school in a town where we had just moved.  Early in the fall semester, another new kid at that school – a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who would now be 19 or 20 years old – had several emotional “meltdowns” as he sought to adjust to his new routine.  This unsettling behavior caused some school officials, and a number of concerned parents, to wonder if our school was equipped to handle the challenges presented by this student (whom I’ll call “Bradley”).

Bradley’s teachers rallied to his cause.  They appreciated his keen intellect.  And they were reluctant to give up on him – partly because Bradley had had a rough childhood.  (His condition had been misdiagnosed for years, causing household stress that contributed to his parents’ divorce).  But there was an even greater reason for the teachers’ reluctance: Since this was a Christian school, the teachers felt they had a special responsibility to “go the extra mile” with social outcasts like Bradley.  Even if this was, at times, difficult.

So, Bradley remained a part of our school.  And the teachers who’d had experience working with Asperger’s students helped those who’d had none.  And they all sought to teach their students some important “life lessons” about dealing with people who are different from you.

Apparently, some of these lessons got through.  One day, I chaperoned a dance at the school.  When it came time for the first number, I saw one of the most popular teen girls in the school maneuver into a position where she could be the first girl Bradley asked to dance.  This girl didn’t have a romantic interest in Bradley.  But she did have a heart of compassion – and a maturity beyond her years.  And she recognized that no girl would be apt to dance with Bradley unless someone like her saw past his social awkwardness and validated his worth.  As a human being.  As a child made in the image of God.

After the dance, Bradley got into his mother’s van and made a peculiar announcement.  “Today, I placed my hand on the hip of four different girls,” he said.  These odd words brought tears to his mother’s eyes, for she understood them to mean that her socially-awkward son’s yearning for human connection, for some measure of normal acceptance, had been met in a most meaningful way that day.

Now, I don’t want to insinuate that an episode like this could have only occurred at a Christian school – or that it would have happened at every faith-based private school.  But when I consider how their Christian faith affected the way these teachers and students treated Bradley, I can’t help but affirm the Florida policymakers who created the McKay scholarship program that made it possible for Bradley to attend a private school of his family’s choosing.  Especially since a recent research study suggests that Bradley’s experience at that school was not that unusual.

According to a Manhattan Institute study, 47 percent of McKay scholarship recipients had been picked on often at their local public school – and 25 percent had been victimized physically. At their new schools, chosen for them by their parents, only 5 percent of these special needs students experienced frequent harassment and only 6 percent were physically mistreated.

In view of all this, I think every state ought to adopt programs like Florida’s McKay scholarships (or Arizona’s Educational Savings Accounts) which give families of special needs students the freedom to choose learning options for their children beyond those available at their local public school.  For many Asperger’s children (and other students with special needs) yearn for human connection and social acceptance – and delight when others affirm their worth in the eyes of God.

William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and a Florida Voices columnist.  His four children have all attended public high schools.

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10 Responses to Amid Talk of Gun Control, Don’t Forget School Reform

  1. Barry Stern says:

    The empathy shown “Bradley” by his schoolmates was surely laudable, and the Florida McKay scholarship would be a godsend to parents in other states with children on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s kids are higher functioning but still on the autism spectrum). While such scholarships that enable parents to send their special needs children to the schools of their choice would be a wiser investment of public funds than implementing new gun laws or arming school staff, one large deficit remains — the paucity of special education teachers and mental health professionals with appropriate experience and training to help children with autism. With one in 88 children on the autism spectrum, the U.S.would be a lot safer if we made it a national priority to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers who have training in behavioral therapies to reach and teach these kids. Additionally, schools must ensure that the supervisors of such teachers are also qualified with their own caseloads of students. Without such practicing professionals who know what to do with children with autism, school choice becomes an empty promise.

  2. I think it’s important to note that there is no connection between Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorders and violent behavior, like school shootings. But there may be a connection between bullying and this kind of violence, so the reduction in bullying from McKay is important.

    • Greg Forster says:

      That study is one of the most cited and talked-about studies we did during my three years working for Jay, yet it was also one of the easiest we ever did. Any state with a choice program could do it with minimal expense. Why don’t they?

  3. Stuart Buck says:

    Speaking of bullying, here’s an excerpt from a fascinating article on adolescence in NY Magazine: http://nymag.com/news/features/high-school-2013-1/#print

    Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

    Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured.

    Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

    Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society,and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.”

    Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

    In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.”

    Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality.

  4. I have a 16 y/o sophomore who is on the autism spectrum (Asperger’s-type w/moderate learning disabilities). He is communicative, loves classic rock & roll and the Buffalo Sabres. He has a moderate-enough learning disability that complicates all that ‘higher order learning’ I keep hearing about. He most likely will not be able to pass the HSTs needed for a NYS Regents Diploma — the only valid diploma offered in NYS.

    I have to make a note re the Common Core & the NYS Regents reform agenda: My son is showing signs of anger & frustration never seen before. He’s angry that 60% of his day is spent in Regents-level classes that utilize text he cannot comprehend, tests he cannot decipher, and, yes, higher order thinking that demands his autistic brain do things it was not born to do (i.e., store & organize a huge amount of information, process it, recall it, connect it, answer ‘higher order’ multiple choice questions, as well as answer multi-layered essay questions). I laugh at the notion that teachers will become Jr ‘brain plasticity experts’. CCLS may provide access to the school building for intellectually disabled students, but the buildings are a loooong way from giving & delivering access to the ‘rooms’ inside — the curriculum.

    Yes, my son is getting angry and so are his parents. What our son needs now is more exposure to vocational training & job experiences, not high stakes graduation tests. His self-esteem is floundering as he goes through the motions of ‘learning’ math concepts his disability prevents him from remembering and reproducing one day to the next (dyscalculia + short term working memory). ‘Dropping out’ has come up several times as our son has figured out that he’s not interested in taking, failing, retaking, and failing HSTs until he is 21.

    Back to the topic of bullying: I just want to give one example of how the topic of bullying was handled at my son’s NYS high school after he came home one day and exclaimed, “Mom, today in core support, we learned how not to get bullied!” [Core support = small group social/pragmatic lesson time] I swallowed hard, “Oookaaaay.” I let this remark just stew for awhile but inquired with my son later on re the specifics. He described in detail how his autism could irk other students into bullying him. I kid you not. I delved deeper.

    During this particular core support lesson, my son’s small group of special ed students (all boys, all on the autism spectrum) participated a lesson that –paraphrased– focused on each student identifying his own ‘autistic’ behaviors and how these behaviors might be offensive to others. Further, the students were encouraged to call out their autistic counterparts and tell each other ‘how they can be annoying’. Ironically, this lesson was taught the same day NYSED was hailing its “Dignity Act” re anti-bullying.

    When I called the teacher and asked about the lesson plan objective for that day, she punted to the speech/language therapist, who passed me on to the school psychologist, who directed me back to the classroom teacher. No one wanted to take responsibility for the lesson plan.The staff were shocked that this is how my son had processed the ‘lesson’: “Surely that was not our intent, Mrs. C.” the school psychologist told me. Helloooo? Autism? Literal thinking? When asked what the intent of the lesson was, I was told that the students were asked to assign a number, 1 thru 5, to behaviors they themselves exhibit and ways they could change a behavior so as not to draw attention to themselves. Alrighty, then, pretty much as my son described!

    I challenged the staff and asked if any adult had followed up with a lesson on “How to Report a Bullying Incident,” or “What To Do If You Think You’ve Been Bullied.” I also asked if any staff had taken my son to the principal’s office to show him the new NYSED Dignity Act Reporting Form. “You know, the form he should use if he should ever need to report an incident of bullying(?)”. “Oh yes, of course we did.” I learned quickly this did not happen and that I was lied to. All I had to do was ask my son. Oh by the way, one of the great many things about my son’s Asperger’s? He is incapable of manufacturing things out of thin air and lying. It’s a pretty sweet upside and just one of the many traits I love about my Aspie son.

    I’m still working with the school to clarify their anti-bullying vs how not to get bullied stance. They’re still rather tongue-tied.

    If you ask my son if he’s ever been bullied, he’ll tell you no. To him, the world is tolerant & even-handed. Be assured, my son has indeed been bullied on the playground, on the bus & in the halls of his school buildings. Perhaps not bullied to his face, but definitely confirmed by his twin sister & some great neighborhood ‘scouts’.

    I will continue to teach my son to respect others’ differences even as others continue to react to him in strange and hurtful ways. Another upside to my son’s Asperger’s: he accepts his differences and hopes that you will too.

  5. chelle baldwin says:

    Mr. Mattox, your story would have been very touching and a great example for what life should be look like for all of us, you know loving thy neighbor and embracing everyone regardless of their differences. But alas the story was not touching at all. Here is your story in a nutshell. Autistic people (especially those with Aspergers) are mentally unstable and could very well become mass murderers at their schools if we don’t make sure they get a scholarship that allows their parents to pick a school where they may not be bullied. It seems you are as uninformed as Mr. Stern there who while informed on the correct rate of autism 1:88 kids (1:64 boys) is completely clueless as to what Autism/Aspergers is if he thinks that the “U.S.would be a lot safer if we made it a national priority to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers who have training in behavioral therapies to reach and teach these kids”. Let’s get one thing clear right now. Aspergers/Autism DO NOT mean children with violent tendencies! They ARE NOT potential mass murderers!! Do some people with an Autism diagnosis also have other diagnoses that include personality disorders or sociopathic disorders. Yes, just like everyone else on the planet they are human and may be dealing with more than just one disorder. Does that mean their Autism makes them susceptible for other disorders or violent behaviors. NO! Frankly if I was the mother of “Bradley” and I read your story I would be horrified. You have made the assumption that because Bradley had some “meltdowns” that he was on the path to executing his fellow students. Thankfully in your story his peer’s lives were saved because the staff and students chose to embrace and support him instead of what typically happens at private schools where these kids are shown the door because they are a “problem” and by your stance potential mass murderers. The scholarship program in FL sounds great but you know what would be even better? If people like you actually thought about what you believe to be true and then do some research to find out what the truth really is. I’ll save you some time on this one and tell you the answer. You will NOT reduce school massacres by embracing people with Autism because they are not mass murders. What you will do by embracing and supporting them is help them to reach their full potential so they can be productive members of society. Along with helping them you are helping yourself by alleviating the needs of many to rely on social programs to support themselves. You and other who embrace people with Autism and treat them like what they are, valuable human beings, will find that you will become better human beings. How about we start that journey right now by you posting that your assumption that those with Aspergers are potentially going to kill their peers was based in ignorance of what Aspergers really is and you were flat out wrong to say it.

    • Barry Stern says:

      I do not disagree with Ms. Baldwin’s premises that individuals with autism are no more violent that other population groups and that no one knows how to predict who will become a mass murderer. But I do stand by my comment that we would be safer if there were more professionals in schools who were properly prepared to handle kids on the autism spectrum. Too many of these children are abused or neglected by teachers who lack the requisite training and emotional maturity. As a result, they create behavioral problems in many of these children that never existed before and which oftentimes spill over into their families and communities. The bigger these kids get, the more difficult it is to control such behaviors and prevent deleterious consequences. So until government treats autism as the major public health emergency that it is, and schools become properly staffed to deal with the greater numbers who have this condition, it’s only right that government provide parents with the financial wherewithal to choose schools that will provide a safe, nurturing environment for their children on the autism spectrum. In my view this would reduce mental illness, bullying and delinquency in school for which society ultimately pays. Moreover, I raise the question whether this should be among the public policies and investments being discussed to reduce violence in our schools and communities.

  6. pam flores says:

    Educating children on bullying and teaching children compassion should be part of a curriculum in pre-k. Maybe then there wouldn’t be so much violence at school.

  7. [...] Jay P. Greene’s Blog: Amid Talk of Gun Control, Don’t Forget School Reform [...]

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