How special are students in special education? Should they be expected to follow the rules at West Winds High School, or do they deserve special treatment?

Paula says good-bye to her second-bloc resource class as they leave her trailer classroom.

Within seconds of the bell ringing, students were racing out of Paula’s room. Paula was left collecting the state mandated Violence Prevention Handbooks which were strewn across the desks and chairs. From the looks of things, some of her students had been able to complete the chapter entitled “Zero Tolerance,” while others seemed to have spent their time in other pursuits. Tammy’s workbook was lying open to the last page of the chapter. Tammy seemed to read the entire section. This was at least some measure of progress. In truth, the fact that any of her students worked in her newly formed resource room seemed almost miraculous.

It was the end of the second bloc, and already Paula was exhausted. She felt like she had entered a time warp and had been transported back to her first year of teaching. In reality, this was Paula’s fourteenth year of teaching high school special education. For the past nine years Paula had taught in a self-contained classroom for the school’s MMR (mildly mentally retarded) students; however, during the summer there were some changes in the West Winds High School district. The Exceptional Children’s department was the most heavily affected by these changes. Paula’s classroom was relocated to a trailer. Her students were no longer taught in a self contained classroom (a classroom in which the same students remained for the whole school day), and they varied in disability from MMR to LD (learning disabled) to OHI (other health impaired). In addition, Paula’s full-time assistant, Mike Sherman, was reassigned to the position of in school suspension supervisor.

All told, these changes created a classroom environment as unpredictable as the weather. For example, during today’s lesson, Paula had planned to read aloud and to discuss the state department’s policy of zero tolerance on weapons of any kind. Unfortunately, the discussion format seemed too unstructured for one of her students. Max—labeled OHI because of his attention deficit disorder—began calling out. This behavior escalated quickly to a verbal conflict between Max and another student. Paula had to stop the lesson, quiet the boys, and move the class onto another activity. In the middle of this confusion, the office called for her attendance sheet. Although she made it through the class, Paula knew she had taught nothing in that entire ninety-minute bloc. The frustration was reminiscent of her first year on the job.

Paula speaks with the assistant principal, Mr. Bradley, in the hallway after second bloc.

Paula walked down the hall and met Tammy, who should have been in class but was not. Mr. Bradley, the vice principal, was talking with Tammy.

“Mr. Bradley, is there some sort of problem?” Paula asked.

“We were on our way to check with Mr. Sherman in ISS about releasing Tammy early, but I’m glad I ran into you first. I found Tammy outside the school, headed toward the shopping center. She said she has a note from her mother to leave school early for a dental appointment.”

“Well, this is the first I’ve heard of an appointment. Tammy, where’s the note from your mother?” Tammy shrugged, refusing to make eye contact.

Paula addressed Tammy. “Tammy I thought you were supposed to be with Mr. Sherman all of second bloc because your choir class went on the Myrtle Beach trip.”

No response.

Mr. Bradley began leading Tammy down the hall. “Let’s go check with Mr. Sherman and see if he knows anything about this situation.”

Paula watched Mr. Bradley and Tammy walk away. She felt embarrassed, as if Mr. Bradley had just reprimanded her. Did he think she was responsible for Tammy’s behavior?

Paula meets with Sandra Baskfield, her special education colleague.

On the way back to her room, Paula stopped to see Sandra, the other special education teacher. When she found that Sandra was not in her room, Paula decided to wait.

Last year, when Tammy was first placed in Paula’s class, Tammy had been identified as mildly mentally retarded. Along with this label came many behaviors—crying, sulking, arguing, defiance, and truancy—that landed Tammy in a lot of trouble. Tammy was consistently late for class. More than half of her assignments had not been turned in. Additionally, Tammy had started smoking and hanging out with a group of boys who often got in trouble. Paula also felt that Tammy was developing something of a reputation among the boys. There wasn’t really a specific incident to substantiate this claim, but Paula had overheard various comments between the students that had given her this impression. Overall, Tammy’s problematic behaviors were increasing, and Paula worried that Tammy was headed for some serious problems. Just then Sandra walked into the room.

“Hey, Paula. What’s up?”

“Not much, except that this year is going to kill me. I feel like I just got a scolding from Mr. Bradley,” Paula confessed.

“What happened?” Sandra asked.

“Well, Bradley caught Tammy leaving school today.”

Sandra reassured her, “That doesn’t sound like such a huge deal.”

“I think the huge deal is that I feel like I’ve completely checked out on Tammy. She’s falling through the cracks, and I have let her down.” Paula explained. “Maybe I should revisit some of the notes I’ve been keeping on her.”

See Paula’s anecdotal records on Tammy below:

“Maybe your room isn’t the best placement for her,” suggested Sandra as she sat down at her desk. “She’s been in ISS a lot lately. I’ve even caught her smoking. How many days of ISS has she had for the smoking and truancy?”

“She was up to eight days, but after leaving school today it’s going to be ten,” replied Paula.

“You know what ten days means…”

“Ten days in school suspension… means two days out of school suspension.”

“Looks like Tammy will be taking a little educational hiatus,” Sandra said.

“That’s the last thing she needs.” Paula shook her head. “I’m going to call Tammy’s mother to set up a date for a meeting and see if she has any clues about what’s going on. I want to get a hold of this situation before it gets out of control.”

“What’s the mom like?” Sandra asked.

“Unfortunately,” Paula responded, “the apple never seems to fall far from the tree.”

Click here to see excerpts from Tammy’s IEP.

Click here to see excerpts from another district’s IEP template.

Paula learns more about Tammy during a faculty meeting.

“We really need to get the heat working inside the building,” pleaded one of the social studies teachers. Voices continued to chime in about faulty computers, burned out lights, and noise control. Paula found faculty meetings almost intolerable. There was never enough time to devote to the kids. Spending time in meetings discussing the building made her crazy. As usual, Paula’s mind drifted away from the meeting and to her students. Tammy’s folder was in front of her. She began to leaf through it and came to the home visit report that had been completed last month.

See a copy of Tammy’s home notes below:

Mike (teacher assistant) was sitting next to Paula in the meeting. They began talking.

Paula contacts Tammy’s mother, Mrs. Green, on the phone.

Paula hurried to her room so she could call Mrs. Green before her students piled in for first bloc. She had intended to call Tammy’s mom last night, but when she finally got home she had to worry about her own kids: soccer, dinner, homework, laundry, etc..

“I’ve still got about five minutes,” she thought as she grabbed her grade book. Paula was about to hang up after the fifth ring when someone finally answered the phone.

See a transcript of Paula’s phone conversation with Mrs. Green below:

Paula hung up the phone and began to take notes on the conversation as her students started walking into class. “Hey guys,” she greeted her first bloc class. “Listen to the announcements for a few minutes while I finish up something.”

Paula is working during her planning period when Tammy enters the room.

At the bottom of the backpack, Paula finds something that she hasn’t anticipated. Paula puts down the book on the desk and picks up the knife.

“Tammy, this looks kind of dangerous. I think I better take it.”

“Okay,” she whispers with her head still down on her desk. Paula slips the knife into her desk drawer. As she does this, she thinks about the implications of what has just happened, and her stomach sinks.

Paula goes to find Mr. Bradley, the assistant principal.

Paula picked up the knife, wrapped it in a paper towel, and carried it down to the assistant principal’s office. Mr. Bradley stood outside his office.

“Mr. Bradley, do you have a minute?”

“Sure.”

“Let’s talk in your office,” Paula suggested.

They sat down in Mr. Bradley’s office and Paula explained the knife incident. She expressed her belief that Tammy was unaware of the ramifications of bringing the knife to school. She didn’t think that Tammy appreciated the severity of the situation.

“Regardless of the situation,” Mr. Bradley explained, “our policy is zero tolerance. You know that, Paula, and the kids know that too. All this stuff we’ve done on violence prevention, I don’t think there’s a single kid in this school who doesn’t know what will happen if they bring a knife to school. It’s time to call home. Tammy’s going to be expelled.”

Mr. Bradley picked up the phone and dialed the number for Tammy’s mother, Cindy Green, to give her the news.