Pursuing Inclusive Classrooms
Expository 2010 1st Place
On a school day in December of 2005, a mother in Murray, Utah, got a call from her daughter’s first grade teacher, Jennifer Henson*, asking if she would stop by the school to talk about something going on within her daughter’s classroom. When the mother walked into the classroom, the room looked as if it had been turned upside down. Chairs and desks were tipped over, papers were strewn across the floor that had been removed from the wall in an apparently destructive manner, and the teacher herself looked quite disheveled. Henson cautiously told the mother about a boy who had disrupted the classroom multiple times through violent outbursts of rage spurred from just a small frustration he would have with his work. The chairs, papers, and desks were all his doing. He didn’t just knock the chairs and desks over either. He threw them across the room almost hitting this mother’s daughter in the head. She explained that she had approached the principal and the district about the problem before, but they continued to allow the student back into the classroom citing their “inclusion philosophy.” This time, however, Henson felt compelled to involve a parent who might take some action, especially since that parent’s daughter could have easily been hit by the chair thrown by the out-of-control student (Nelson).
The problem within Jennifer Henson’s classroom has been ongoing for over six months now and very few solutions have been proposed. Parents have spurred many questions within the district as to how effectively Murray schools are dealing with problems that arise due to the inclusion philosophy that they are trying to practice. These questions cannot be left unanswered. What exactly is inclusion? Are the schools of Murray District provided with the resources they need to make inclusion a successful practice? If not, what are the tools they need to acquire and the actions they need to take in order to make it a successful practice? Although the idea of inclusion seems to be positive and ground-breaking in terms of education, without proper preparation, the results can be disastrous. When applied in schools that have taken the proper actions to prepare, inclusion can be a very positive and novel approach to an increasingly diverse population.
Inclusion is a philosophy that is not unique to the Murray School District. Many school districts throughout the world have adopted it as policy. The idea is that all children have the right to be educated with their peers in mainstream classrooms (“Inclusive Classroom”). Deborah Sorensen, Vice Principal of Murray High School, stated that Murray believes that every child has the right to receive an equal education in the “least restrictive” environment possible. She stated that becoming an inclusive school district was the means to achieve this goal (Sorensen). An inclusive classroom is usually one that contains a majority of children with “typical” developmental characteristics and a few children with physical or psychological disorders, thus incorporating those with disorders into mainstream classrooms (“Inclusive Classroom”). Although the idea is encouraging, the implementation of such a program is not necessarily easy.
The challenges in schools that have inclusive classrooms are varied. There is obviously a risk concerning safety, specifically with emotionally disabled students, as observed in Jennifer Henson’s classroom. Schools must be prepared to deal with children who might bring weapons to school or become violent and out of control within the classroom. Most schools have some form of a safe schools policy. When implementing an inclusion policy, the school must understand that student safety outweighs the inclusion of one who threatens that safety. In Henson’s case, the student who threatened and continues to threaten the class has not even been diagnosed with an emotional disorder and therefore has not been classified as a special needs student. When informed about the boy’s actions, the principal stated that he would not suspend a child for actions that could be a result of an emotional problem (Nelson). The boy in question was allowed to slide by a safety policy by remaining in the classroom because of a possible emotional disorder that could conflict with a philosophy.
Andrea Nelson is the parent of the daughter referred to in Jennifer Henson’s first grade classroom. After seeing the predicament that the classroom was dealing with and hearing that the principal was not going to guarantee her daughter’s safety, Nelson approached the district office about the blatant disregard for the safe schools policy. The district told her that the principal has liberty to enforce the safe schools policy as he sees fit, and to some extent, the policy can be interpreted to best fit the needs of the students. They backed up the principal’s decision of inaction despite the fact that the undiagnosed boy committed three misdeeds of the possible eight that are grounds for suspension or expulsion from school according to the safe schools policy (Nelson). The infractions were specifically “…willful disobedience or open defiance of proper authority; willful destruction or defacing of school property; [and] behavior or threatened behavior which poses an immediate and significant threat to the welfare, safety, or morals of other students or school personnel or to the operation of the school” (“Safe and Orderly Schools”). Not only is it a disservice and a danger to the students in the classroom to disregard these infractions but also a disservice to the boy who has an obvious need for extra assistance with regards to his education.
As stated before, Murray School District is not the only district to follow an inclusion policy. Antinette Haggerty, a sixth grade teacher for Iron County School District at Cross Hollows Intermediate School, stated that Iron County School District has an inclusion policy but that they have made sure that the safety of their students is not jeopardized by this policy. “Safety must come first,” she stated. Her district assesses each student with a disability as to how much assistance they actually need. She said that within her own classroom she has had students who could pose a threat but that the district has provided an in-class aid to altogether prevent potentially dangerous situations from ever happening (Haggerty).
Safety is not the only issue that Murray School District and other school districts implementing inclusion must resolve. Educators who include disabled students in their classrooms face the challenge of coming up with curriculum that is stimulating and challenging for the typical student but not impossible or overly frustrating for the disabled student. The goal is not to leave anyone behind and to provide equal opportunities for all; however, if a teacher is constantly focusing a large part of his/her attention on the disabled child or children in the classroom, the typical students will be left behind and will not receive the attention that they also have a right to. This problem seems impossible to handle with the resources that Murray District has provided to their schools.
The pursuit of a successful inclusion program is not an impossible one. Steps can be taken to prevent and resolve these problems. Murray School District must address the issues before the uplifting idea of inclusive education creates a fiasco. Due to a lack of manpower in the Murray schools a student could easily sustain injury due to a violent outburst from an emotionally disabled child. A typical student’s grade could suffer, their test scores go down, or all in all, their potentially great educational environment lost due to excessive time spent by teachers trying to include students with disabilities.
The mainstream educators should be expected to insure that disabled students are included but they cannot be expected to spend an excessive amount of time dealing with these students. The most effective resolution to this problem is extra staffing. Each student with an apparent disability must be assessed to see just how much assistance they actually need. Some students may need their own personal aid, and some may require assistance in a separate, highly structured classroom to teach them skills that will help them function in a mainstream classroom. Although safety is a very important aspect of a child’s educational environment, inclusion cannot be ruled out for those children who may risk that safety. Specifically trained aids, staff members, or school behavior disorder units must be on hand to prevent any unsafe situations. The mainstream educators, especially if not properly trained, cannot efficiently offer the extra attention disabled students need in order to prevent a possibly dangerous situation. This situation is also true for children with specific and spontaneously acting health problems. For example, a teacher should not be expected to deal with a child who has a severe case of epilepsy without proper training or enough information about the child’s case. It is impossible to come up with a formula for every district to follow when it comes to how severe or dangerous a disability is and how much attention the disabled children require. Murray School District must personalize each of their students’ needs instead of making general policies and programs for all of them. The staffing they have right now to deal with this issue is not sufficient.
The hiring of staff for assistance in and out of class may not be enough in some cases. Those disabled students who are overwhelmed by the curriculum taught in the mainstream classroom should have the right to a modified curriculum to best fit their needs. When teachers are faced with this problem, the changes teachers make in their curriculum can often be beneficial to all the students in the class as the teachers are forced to personalize the lesson plans to work with each one of their students’ needs. When the teacher finds this overwhelming, the district can assist them by hiring staff that review the teacher’s curriculum and create modified assignments that best fit the disabled students’ needs.
Some may ask, “How could Murray fund these programs?” The answer is that they have already begun to restructure the funding of certain programs within the district with the closure of the alternative high school, Creekside. Surpluses of funds that are put into that school every year are now available for use in other areas of the district (Sorensen). Obviously the district must initially use this extra money to prevent the choices and actions that typically lead students to attend the alternative school in the first place. Murray must then use the extra funding to prevent further problems with inclusion, similar to the troubles in Jennifer Henson’s first grade classroom.
The district has good intentions with their inclusion philosophy, but good intentions alone will not save the student who is injured because no one was there to prevent the emotionally disturbed student from having a violent outburst of frustration. Good intentions will not save the test scores and grades that will drop because teachers are too busy dealing with those disabled students who struggle with comprehension. Murray School District must make an attempt to correct and prevent these problems. With proper planning before implementation, inclusion is a noble and achievable goal, and it can be valuable in the educational aspect of a disabled student’s life as well as beneficial for typically developing students as both become socially integrated.
*Name changed for privacy
Haggerty, Antinette. Telephone interview. 16 Feb. 2006.
"Inclusive Classroom." Wikipedia Online. 10 Feb. 2006. Wikipedia. 13 Feb. 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inclusive_classroom>.
Nelson, Andrea. Personal interview. 10 Feb. 2006.
"Safe and Orderly Schools." Board of Education. 23 Oct 1998. Murray City School District. 16 Feb. 2006 <http://www.mury.k12.ut.us/BOARD/brdplcy/BOARD.HTM>.
Sorensen, Vice Principal Deborah. Telephone interview. 16 Feb. 2006.