This is the story of my time in an alternative school for students with disabilities and what I took away from the experience.
In 1997, before I was diagnosed with “Asperger’s Syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not otherwise Specified,” I started having episodes compared to seizures. I blacked out, but people told me I went stiff and unresponsive to what was around me. Sometimes I scratched myself till I bled.
When I was in eighth grade, I was placed in a nonresidential alternative public school in South Florida for kids with psychological or behavioral conditions. Some of the kids were victims of severe violence. Some had inflicted violence on others. I wasn’t in either of those two groups.
The school served a population ranging from elementary students to high schoolers. Students were not allowed to bring backpacks; we had to bring belongings in plastic bags. A guard at the front door with a metal detector checked everyone who entered for weapons. All the kids had mandatory group therapy and individual counselors. Good behavior got you promoted to the next grade or out of the school or snacks from a concession stand.
The worst behavior got you thrown into an isolation room that had a bad reputation. After my first seizure at the school, I regained consciousness in that room with a paraprofessional restraining me.
My best friend was the cool kid in class. We’ll call him Ben, but that’s not his real name. He was smart and funny. He dated the hottest girl in our grade. He taught me to have a sense of humor.
He was a role model to me sometimes. I couldn’t figure out why he was at that school. Until he told me.
That’s the thing. Sometimes it felt like a normal school. Until it wasn’t.
Imagine seeing the smartest kid in your middle school grade throw a sudden tantrum in the middle of science class and get dragged away by a paraprofessional. Imagine learning that one of your classmates had attempted suicide. That a student attacked their mother and caused her injury. That a girl stopped showing up to class one day, and the rumor was it was because she had tried to stab her brother.
Imagine me lying to school staff to try to get a student who had made fun of me for months punished. I told staff he punched me one day, but in reality he never crossed the line into physically attacking me.
My classmates started to leave the school, through promotion to a mainstream school or by getting a GED. Ben transitioned out of the school before I did. That is what made me concentrate on doing the same. I demonstrated good behavior and that I had learned everything I could. I was rewarded with transferal to a mainstream school in 10th grade.
One day after entering the new school, I called Ben’s house to tell him the good news of my transition.
I remember his mother telling me Ben had been returned to our old alternative school.
That was the last time I tried to contact him. For all I know, he’s doing fine.
But when I think about my friendship with Ben, I imagine him saying, “Don’t be like me.” I doubt he ever actually said it.
I realized recently that my behavior has sometimes been guided by the feeling I have something to prove: That I can function independently in the real world without resorting to behavior that will get me in trouble.
I share this story because I want parents to think about the options available for kids with disabilities and the effects they can have. Alternative schools for students with disabilities are absolutely needed. My time in one made me more confident and gave me awareness of how my condition affects my behavior.
But it also gave me bad memories, friends I had to leave behind and a stressful motivation to prove myself.
When parents are presented with alternative education and treatment options for kids with disabilities that look like answers to problems, it might be wise to ask a few more questions: What memories is this solution creating? What will the kids take away when their time in this school or program is over? What effect does isolating kids with disabilities from those without them have on those who are isolated? Is there another way?
Alex Tiegen is a full-time student in Florida State University’s online Library and Information Sciences Program. He also freelances in journalism and public relations. He is a New Port Richey area resident and can be emailed at Alex.Tiegen@gmail.com.