As I visit schools this year on my search to understand education, certain images haunt me. One is of the metal fence surrounding a large LAUSD high school in South Central that I faced one morning as I was trying to leave. Though my car was in the parking lot only a few feet away, the gate, marked “Emergency Exit,” was held shut with a massive iron padlocked chain. Beyond the fence, I could see kids running around the football field for P.E. (where, incidentally, classes were so overcrowded that teachers often faced classes as large as 70).
I rattled the gate, thinking that since this was an emergency exit, the padlock might not actually be latched, but in fact, I was locked in. Because classes were in session, almost no one was around to help me; finally, at the back of the cement courtyard, I found a security guard, a diminutive middle-aged woman with a giant, friendly smile. Cheerfully, she walked me back to the gate, explaining that she had to keep it locked while classes were in session.
Why? I asked. Wasn’t this the emergency exit?
She shrugged. “Ditchers.”
“You mean kids ditching class? You’re locking them in?”
She nodded. “Otherwise they all go off and smoke.” She knew that locking them in wasn’t optimal, but they were so short-staffed that she felt she had no alternative. “They do drugs.”
“What kind of drugs?”
“Well, mostly weed,” she said. “One day they built a pipe bomb.”
“A pipe bomb?” I eyed the school, alarmed.
“That’s just an expression,” she told me. “It’s not a real bomb. They get a giant water pipe, they fill it with water, they take it to the roof, they jam a pencil in it and they somehow rig up a pipe they can all smoke.”
“What did you do about these kids?”
“I can’t do anything. They all have IEP’s,” she said, referring to an Individualized Education Plan, which federal regulations require for students with disabilities—in other words, kids in Special Ed.
The issue of kids in Special Ed is one of the most volatile in education right now. By law, students with disabilities are required to be in general education classes with all other students as much as possible, with other services provided as needed in small classes taught by teachers with Special Ed credentials who give them the additional support they need. The Special Ed designation can cover a wide range of disabilities, from physical disabilities like blindness or hearing impairment to visual and auditory processing disorders that impair students’ abilities to decode texts or lectures. Sometimes the disabilities are behavioral, as with students who have an ADHD diagnosis.
Anecdotally, students in Special Ed are often viewed by teachers and administrators as having a disproportionately high number of serious behavior issues, often due to years of frustration in school. Many, many teachers will tell you that their biggest behavior problems come from students in Special Ed. Others will contest this idea passionately, believing that it’s a chicken-and-egg situation created when teachers come in predisposed to have difficulties with their special needs students. A parent like Azucena Gonzales who has a child in Special Ed would probably argue that these behavior issues are created or exacerbated by teachers and administrators who either do not know how to deal with students who have disabilities or do not care enough to try.
The topic is even more controversial because of the allegation by some people that charters filter out students in Special Ed, leaving them to pool in disproportionately high numbers at district schools like this padlocked campus. Numbers on this issue are extremely hard to come by; the most common estimate I’ve seen is that students with IEP’s represent 13% of the general population but only 7% of the population at charter schools. Charter systems contest these numbers and also contend that unlike district schools they do not receive state funding to offer services to students with the most severe disabilities, causing families with children who need services to avoid those charters.
This moment was the first time, though, that I’d ever heard anyone with day-to-day experience make a flat-out statement that all of the serious issues on campus were caused by students with special needs. “All of them are in Special Ed?”
She shrugged. “Pretty much.” (By the way, my friend Marion, who teaches Special Ed in East L.A., believes this security guard must have been mistaken. In her experience, about a third of kids at her school who present serious behavior problems are in SpEd–the majority of kids who act out are from the general school population. I’d be very curious to hear from other teachers and school staff about this question, so please comment if you have an opinion.)
“What does the administration do?”
“They don’t do anything. Too much paperwork if the kids have IEP’s. Plus, we’re limited on what we can do anyway. Our hands are tied with suspensions.”
She was referring to California’s new policy banning suspensions for overt defiance after an Education Department study revealed that African-American and Latino students were far more likely to be suspended than whites. In addition, though students with disabilities represent only 13% of school populations in general, they receive fully a quarter of all suspensions and expulsions. Statistically, students who are suspended or expelled are significantly more likely to end up in the prison system, becoming part of what Special Ed advocates call the “school to prison pipeline.”
The new California policy has all but ended suspensions and expulsions on any campus I’m visiting. Anyone I’ve talked to, including this security guard, agrees with the no-suspension policy in principle. But everyone I’ve talked to also thinks that it will only be meaningful if there is a prevention plan to deal with the root causes of students’ behavior problems in the first place.
But instead of receiving additional funding to work on a constructive way to create alternative models of school culture or discipline, these schools are limping on skeleton staffs devastated by years of budget cuts. Many people who might once have helped these students have been laid off or fired: counselors, assistant principals, nurses and security staff. With almost no resources to handle students with behavior issues, the few who are left are putting out fires—literally, in the case of this security guard, who told me that the previous week, a bunch of kids lit a bathroom on fire. She had to battle the flames alone until she finally was able to grab a passing teacher who happened to be on break, and together, they extinguished it.
To my surprise, this security guard remained fond, almost protective, of these students. “Most kids are good kids,” she told me. “I love them, but sometimes I’ve gotta bust them.” Still, she was looking for another job. In 2011, her hours were cut to part-time and she couldn’t live on what she’s making. “We don’t have enough security,” she said. “It’s sad to leave. But I’ve gotta live, you know?”
Then she unlocked the gate and let me out.
I’ve thought of our conversation pretty much every day since then.