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Serving troubled youth in a troubled society: a reply to Maag and Howell.

* Maag and Howell (1991) offered an interesting and, on the whole, supportive critique of our position regarding the responsibility of the public educational system to serve youths whose antisocial behavior constitutes a serious disability, yet who are excluded from special education services because of a loophole in the current federal definition of serious emotional disturbance (SED) (Nelson, Rutherford, Center, & Walker, 1991). We agree with most of Maag and Howell's points, except for two issues. The first is the extent to which professional concurrence exists regarding the view that students with social maladjustment (SM) are entitled to the protection and guidance of Public Law 94-142. The second is that a change in the definition of SED is insufficient; instead, the system needs a comprehensive restructuring.




Maag and Howell asserted that we are preaching to the converted when we argue for changes in both the definition of SED and in assessment and identification practices. They insisted that we "are speaking to an audience already familiar with the problem." Frankly, it is difficult to understand how anyone could take such a position, given the extensive documentation that exists regarding the long-standing underservice to pupils with serious emotional disturbance. Maag and Howell indicated that the "real problem . . . is that society does not support programs for youth with behavior problems." We concur; however, professional educators are part of society, and the data clearly indicate that those regular and special educators in positions to decide who will be served have made the choice not to serve. Those who were involved in promoting the revised definition of SED passed at the recent CEC Delegate Assembly will be surprised to learn that "most professionals associated with special education" agree with our position. Maag and Howell incorrectly identified Jane Slenkovitch (1983, 1984) as our principal antagonist. She is only a spokesperson for the actual antagonist: the collective of educators and policymakers who deny these pupils access to the services they need.

Maag and Howell also suggested that we have in mind insisting that "all students, regardless of the most destructive or profane behavior, must be educated in the neighborhood school." This statement, as well as those cited previously, indicate that we may not have made our meaning clear. Though we do not categorically favor the placement in the local schools of students who commit acts of violence against persons and property, neither do we categorically endorse suspension and expulsion as a disciplinary strategy for students who are offensive to some. This practice has become so ridiculous that in some schools pupils are suspended for being truant. Local schools should not be permitted to reject students whose behavior some educators find odious, or who engage in delinquent activities outside the school setting. P. L. 94-142 guarantees students with disabilities the right to an education. Students without disabilities have that guarantee through the Constitution. To exclude them from their neighborhood school without appropriate due process is an act of profound disregard. Such pupils are, in effect, "less equal" than students with disabilities--who need their own law to receive services in the public schools.

For obvious reasons, some pupils with social maladjustment must be educated in segregated placements. Yet these youths are entitled to as good an education as they could receive from a comprehensive public school. In fact, their social and educational deficits demand that they should receive an education that is better than they received in their neighborhood schools. We agree with Maag and Howell that the historical responsibility of the juvenile justice system for many youths with social maladjustment has resulted in the public schools developing little ownership for them. However, our point is that for this population, there is no such thing as "separate but equal." Alternative programs, whether based in communities or institutions, generally do not have the staff and program options equal to those of the public schools. Ass students in the American educational system deserve an education that meets their needs. If the quality of services across settings were equal, where these services are delivered would be a secondary consideration. If all pupils' needs could be addressed in regular education settings, segregated placements would not be required, except where necessary to protect other students and faculty from those pupils who pose a danger to others. The mere lack of tolerance by some educators for some pupils and some behaviors is not a valid reason for excluding students from the pupil schools.



We agree that larger issues underlie the argument regarding public educational services to pupils with either social maladjustment or serious emotional disturbance. One such issue is whether students with social maladjustment are responsible for their behavior. Before leaping to the conclusion that these individuals have chosen to adopt antisocial behavior patterns, we should ask a more critical question: What has gone awry in the development of such youngsters that leads them to see, as in their best interests, behavior that clearly is dysfunctional and maladaptive from a societal perspective? We think it is in the best interests of both the individual and society to correct or modify inappropriate or inadequate socialization. Because the major point of contact between such children and society is the school, it seems reasonable to argue that public schools are the societal institution in the best position to provide corrective programming. Again, the issue is not where services are provided, but that they be both available and effective.

An ultimate solution to the problem surely involves a change in society's attitudes toward children with behavioral problems. To accomplish such a change, a significant portion of our citizens must come to understand the following issues:

* Children should be brought to the point of accountability for their behavior by socialization institutions and experiences.

* Society has both a need and a responsibility to attempt a change in the development of children with social maladjustment in more acceptable and constructive directions.

* Society has few viable alternatives to the public schools as the institutional vehicle for these efforts.

* Failure to recognize this need and responsibility will carry a heavy social price.

Given the failure of the schools to meet the needs of pupils with social maladjustment and serious emotional disturbance, we are alarmed at Maag and Howell's recommendation that special educators shift from a child-centered perspective to one that embraces "cultural forces and organizational factors." We are uncertain about the nature of the changes Maag and Howell advocated in their call for system restructuring, except where they suggested the need to convince society of the merits of early identification and intervention--measures with which we wholeheartedly agree. But we believe the best way to convince society that early intervention is the strongest deterrent to antisocial behavior patterns is, to borrow a phrase from a popular athletic equipment advertisement, to "just do it."

Early identification and needs-based intervention in the schools do not require major educational reform. The resources and the responsibility for these services already are invested in the educational system. Furthermore, educational reform, though a laudable goal, is a long-term solution. The road from where we are to where we ought to be is fraught with many perils. Because our system of public education is based on local authority and control, it will take many years to persuade the public of the need for such reform. And, as we pointed out earlier, it isn't necessary. Schools already have the responsibility for pupils with social maladjustment. The system needs to be placed on notice that continued failure to serve this population, in regular and in special education, will not be tolerated.

Thus, while we applaud Maag and Howell's intentions, we believe they have misconstrued ours in some respects. Regarding our position that change should be accomplished through system improvement, their perception is accurate. To borrow their analogy, Maag and Howell have proposed to gain public agreement about the method of capture before trapping a beast that is about to devour them. Bon appetit!


Nelson, C. M. Rutherford, R. B., Center, D. B. & Walker, H. M. (1991). Do public schools have an obligation to serve troubled childred and youth? Exceptional Children, 57, 406-415.

Slenkovitch, J. E. (1983). P. L. 94-142 as applied to DSM III diagnoses: An analysis of DSM III diagnoses vis-a-vis special education law. Cupertino, CA: Kinghorn Press.

Slenkovitch, J. E. (1984). Understanding special education law (Vol. 1). Cupertino, CA: Kinghorn Press.


C. MICHAEL NELSON (CEC Chapter #83) is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. DAVID B. CENTER (CEC Chapter #685) is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at Georgia State University, Atlanta. ROBERT B. RUTHERFORD, JR. (CEC Chapter #455) is a Professor in the Special Education Program at Arizona State University, Tempe. HILL M. WALKER (CEC CHAPTER #375) is the Associate Dean of the College of Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Point/Counterpoint; reply to John W. Maag and Kenneth W. Howell's essay in this issue about public schools' obligation to serve children and youth who are socially maladjusted
Author:Nelson, C. Michael; Center, David B.; Rutherford, Robert B., Jr.; Walker, Hill M.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Serving troubled youth or a troubled society?
Next Article:Really Now, Why Can't Our Johnnies Read?

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