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Serving troubled youth or a troubled society?

Considerable attention, as exemplified in the article by Nelson, Rutherford, Center, and Walker, appearing in the March/April 1991 issue, has been given to the question of whether public schools have an obligation to serve children and youth who are socially maladjusted (SM). Although this question is recent, the debate should sound familiar to individuals with an historic perspective of special education. Nelson et al. attempt to ensure that a "disabled" segment of school-age youth have access to appropriate treatment. They present a compelling and cogent argument for changing the definition of serious emotional disturbance (SED), establishing more ecologically valid assessment and identification procedures, and instituting at-risk programs--all aptly enumerated and supported by research. We agree with Nelson et al. Ironically, we believe most professionals associated with special education would agree as well. Special education practitioners, researchers, and scholars are well aware of the issues presented by Nelson et al. Problems in definition, for example, have existed for decades within the areas of learning disabilities, mental retardation, and serious emotional disturbance (e.g., Hallahan & Kauffman, 1991). The call for more ecologically valid assessment and identification procedures similarly is not new (e.g., Rhodes, 1967); nor is the call for programs for at-risk students (Pianta, 1990; Kruger, 1989). Nelson et al.'s article speaks to an audience already familiar with the problem.

Rather than attempting to refute or support arguments presented by Nelson et al., we have elected to focus on reconceptualizing the debate itself. A major portion of the Nelson et al. article addresses the futility of differentiating between SM and SED. Their principal antagonist in the exclusionary debate is Jane Slenkovitch, a lawyer who advocates using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) to distinguish between SM and SED. Although on diametrically opposite sides of the debate, Nelson et al. (proservice) and Slenkovitch (antiservice) both limit the discussion in important ways and, in so doing, limit potential for resolution.


Rueda (1989) identified three levels at which attempts to modify educational practice may occur: (a) system maintenance, through which individuals address practice by ensuring stricter enforcement of existing policies (e.g., insisting on improved documentation to guarantee required testing as occurred); (b) system improvement, through which individuals address practice by advocating the refinement of existing procedures (e.g., developing better tests to measure existing phenomena); and (c) system restructuring, through which individuals address practice by rethinking and modifying the traditional system (e.g., start evaluating and labeling environments instead of individuals).

Nelson et al. and their antagonists have elected to frame their arguments at the lower levels of Rueda's hierarchy. For example, arguments presented by Slenkovitch mostly are associated with system maintenance. These arguments reflect an insistence on compliance with "narrow" interpretations of administrative law and seldom address the intent of these regulations. Nelson et al. have elected to articulate their position within a framework of system improvement. This level of practice is illustrated most clearly in their calls for new programs of systematic screening and early intervention through teacher consultation. Neither side, however, addresses Rueda's third level. Focusing the debate at the system restructuring level would lead to an examination of the manner in which institutions are organized and the cultural and social forces that shape behavior (Leone, 1989).

Lack of Societal Support

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that antiservice forces are correct. Why then, if SM exists as an identifiably different condition from SED, are there so few alternative services available to SM students? The answer, while obvious, is not comfortably stated. Konopasek (1990) expressed it bluntly while describing observations about working with students who are behaviorally disordered: "Behaviorally disordered students are frequently not well liked" (p. 11). One of the current authors observed political support for Konopasek's statement while attending legislative hearings on a bill to reduce services for students who are behaviorally disordered. One of the legislators advocating reductions turned to the audience and asked, "Why give money to bad kids?" While the exclusionary debate at first may seem to be an empirical question regarding the identification and classification of students, it actually reflects social and cultural beliefs. Students would not receive any of the labels we are discussing if social policy, as reflected in program funding, were not involved (Sigmon, 1989). The real problem, therefore, is that society does not support programs for youth with behavior problems.

Reconceptualizing the Debate

Recently, Leone (1989) suggested that the myopic way special educators view issues often interferes with their ability to conceptualize differently the problems of troubled and troubling youth. We believe the current debate can be addressed at the system restructuring level only if the issues are reconceptualized in terms of a macro-perspective--one that takes into account cultural and social forces and organizational structures. Schools are effectively organized to insulate themselves from fundamental challenges by adhering to well-ingrained sets of cultural beliefs (Meyer & Rowan, 1978). And, as Skrtic (1986) pointed out, it is cultural or societal criticism, not research about population characteristics, that leads to changes in special education policy and practice.



The SED versus SM debate should begin by addressing cultural and organizational factors that exert pressure on public schools to exclude services to troubled youth. In this context, it is illustrative to consider the history of public school services to youngsters considered "socially maladjusted." By the early 1900s, in response to compulsory school attendance laws, many cities had established alternative special classes for delinquent, incorrigible, or difficult students (Sarason & Doris, 1979). Even during the period when the federal definition of SED was being developed, emotional disturbance was subsumed under the rubric "social maladjustment" (Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, 1990). But problems inherent in serving SM youth (e.g., crime, aggression, addictive behavior) soon brought into conflict goals of educating versus controlling students (McNeil, 1986). Societal values quickly dictated exclusion.

Richardson (in press) suggested that, as an institution, American schooling has developed and expanded largely through the mechanism of "binding out." This process, which should be all too familiar to those in special education, involves the "purification" of the common school population by establishing boundaries between it and deviant groups. The process of binding out deviant groups is essential to American schooling because without it, Richardson suggested, the popular voluntary commitment to education will erode. Special education students, although initially excluded from public schools, were eventually given access by virtue of litigation. Juvenile delinquents and other students who engage in antisocial acts, however, often excluded or expelled from public schools, were bound out into a separate system--primarily correctional or penal. As a result, public schools developed little ownership over them or their behaviors.


Arguments provided by the antiservice camp are analogous to editorials questioning the validity of the insanity defense used in criminal law. The insanity defense allows a person who commits a criminal act because of emotional or "mental illness" to avoid criminal punishment. Compare this example to the Honig v. Doe (1988) decision which prohibits the use of expulsion for students with serious emotional disturbance, but not for "normal" students (Yell, 1989). To the average parent or school administrator, this exception seems unfair. The courts, because they are insulated from popular opinion by the Constitution, can maintain an unpopular position--schools cannot. Nelson et al. offer little comfort to society that youth who are socially maladjusted will be held accountable for their behavior. One could conclude, based on their article, that all students, regardless of the most destructive or profane behavior, must be educated in the neighborhood school. Surely this scenario is not what Nelson et al. have in mind. But we are not the ones with whom they must argue.

At some point special educators need to turn their considerable talents to the task of convincing the voting members of society that it is better to attend to those who are antisocial when they are young than to house and fear them when they grow old. To achieve this goal, we believe proservice forces would be better advised to examine arguments about the purposes of schooling than to address the categorical integrity of SED. Until the conflicts that prompt such debates are reframed, we are left with the image of two scientists, standing in a jungle clearing, arguing over the correct name of a creature that is about to eat them alive.


Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (1990). Policy statement on the provision of service to children with conduct or behavioral disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 14, 2-19.

Hallahan, D. P., & Kauffman, J. M. (1991). Exceptional children (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Honig v. Doe, 56 S.Ct. 27 (1988).

Konopasek, D. E. (1990). Priests on my shoulder. In R. B. Rutherford, Jr., & S. A. DiGangi (Eds.), Severe behavior disorders of children and youth (Vol. 13, pp. 11-17). Reston, VA: Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

Kruger, L. J. (1989). Promoting success with at-risk students. Special Services in the Schools, 5, 1-6.

Leone, P. E. (1989) Beyond fixing bad behavior and bad boys: Multiple perspectives on education and treatment of troubled and troubling youth. In R. B. Rutherford, Jr., & S. A. DiGangi (Eds.), Severe behavior disorders of children and youth (Vol. 12, pp. 1-10.) Reston, Va: Council for Children with Behavior Disorders.

McNeil, L. (1986). Contradicts of control. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Meyer, J., & Rowan, B. (1978). The structure of educational organization. In M. Meyer (Ed.) Environments and organizations (pp. 78-109). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

Pianta, R. C. (1990). Widening the debate on educational reform: Prevention as a viable alternative. Exceptional Children, 56, 306-313.

Rhodes, W. C. (1967). The disturbing child: A problem of ecological management. Exceptional Children, 33, 449-455.

Richardson, J. G. (in press). The historical expansion of special education. In B. Fuller & R. Rubinson (Eds.), Political construction of education. New York: Praeger.

Rueda, R. (1989). Defining mild disabilities with language-minority students. Exceptional Children, 56, 121-128.

Sarason, S., & Doris, J. (1979). Educational handicap, public policy, and social history: A broadened perspective on mental retardation. New York: Free Press.

Skrtic, T. M. (1986). The crisis in special education knowledge: A perspective on perspective. Focus on Exceptional Children, 18, 1-16.

Sigmon, S. B. (1989). Reactions to excerpts from The Learning Mystique: A rational appeal for change. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 298-300.

Yell, M. L. (1989) Honig v. Doe: The suspension and expulsion of handicapped students. Exceptional Children, 56, 60-69.

JOHN W. MAAG (CEC Chaper #588) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. KENNETH W. HOWELL (CEC Chapter #588) is a Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction at Western Washington University, Bellingham
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Title Annotation:Point/Counterpoint; discusses whether public schools have an obligation to serve children and youth who are socially maladjusted
Author:Maag, John W.; Howell, Kenneth W.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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