For as long as I can remember, I have been the poster child of diversity.
In fact, the banner above my school’s admission page currently features a photo of my friends and I fake-candid laughing on a park bench. If you were to flip through the countless yearbooks my mother keeps nested away beneath the coffee table, you would find my face acting as the token white girl, wedged between as many ethnicities as the student body could muster.
But somewhere in my elementary years, there’s a shift in these images. Suddenly, there is significantly less students of color, less visible religious differences, and most drastically, a complete lack of disability.
This abrupt change can be pinpointed to when I began public school.
We are witnessing an unprecedented deviation from the educational norm. The American public school, once the stereotypical haven of diversification, is returning more and more to a place of segregation as private institutions strive to transform their acceptance.
From the time I was two until kindergarten, I attended Siskin Children’s Institute, a facility that specializes in educating children with special needs, combining the environments of those typically developing and disabled.
“Siskin Children’s Institute works to improve the quality of life for children with special needs and their families. Through assessment, diagnosis, and early intervention our programs can help your child reach their full potential,” reads their mission statement. Being one of the “typically developing” students, I was the minority, something that was foreign in all other aspects of my life.
The academy I presently attend is focused around bringing people of different cultural backgrounds together, currently housing students from 17 states and 14 countries. While these distinctions are geographic rather than developmental, both offer a sense of inclusivity throughout the community. There stands an unspoken understanding that while my peers and I face different challenges, we are peers nonetheless, and should be considered equal.
In between these two schools, I attended a public-magnet school where I was suddenly in no sense the minority. For the first time, I began to understand that my previous education had been unique in the greatest sense of the word. My class contained at most six or seven ethnic minorities, very few non-christians, and a singular disabled student. His name was Luka Hyde. Despite the obvious issue of lacking representation, Luka, who has down syndrome, did not suffer from direct bullying from any of the student body. On the contrary, I recall him as popular, even a bit of a ladies man. It was instead the public school system that mistreated and oppressed him for his disabilities.
In 2013, the school removed Luka from his regular classes, sending him to the local public high school to take individualized “special needs” courses. This forced him into insolation from his friends and peers, confirming the idea that yes, he was different and hence deserved to be treated as such. Of course, this disrupted his family’s life and was detrimental to his right to a normal childhood.
I remember when Luka left.
Being young and unaware, his friends, myself included, had no idea we would never see him again. His mother had just come to pick him up early one day, and it wasn’t until he was long gone that I realized she had tears in her eyes.
This was five years ago. It was not until September 2018 that the court made a final ruling about Luka’s case. The HCDE school system was declared guilty of discriminating against a disabled student and fined $108,612. Despite eventual justice, the Hyde case remains with a family distraught, a child attacked, and disturbing conclusion about how the public school system continues to mistreat its minorities.
The pressing issue is not that no model of how these students’ education should be handled exists. On the contrary, the problem is that this model doesexist, yet is being blatantly unutilized. This existence is made clear through the other, more diverse schools that I have attended; the difference being that the others are both private establishments.
The system in question is known as the “peer program” and is the fundamental base of Siskin’s curriculum. “We believe that children of all abilities are unique and capable learners benefiting from a predictable, loving, and safe environment.” The core of peer program learning is a “peer model.” This is a student without a disability who displays typical development and behavior in the classroom setting. A peer model enhances the education of special needs students by being a helper, a leader, and a friend. The role of a peer model is to help special needs students reach their academic goals natural social interactions. They are also able to model typical school behaviors, such as sharing, turn taking, and participation. The peer program system allows all children to practice empathy and thrive in an environment that treats them as equals.
Yet, this policy continues to be overlooked, impairing the livelihood of those already disadvantaged. “For some families, the tuition to enroll…is out of reach,” says Tameka Slaughter, the leading Instructional Coach at Siskin. The families all too often forced into debt from medical costs are now also being denied access to free education, forced to hope for the chance at scholarships and financial aid.
If public school is often the only option financially, and if “(Siskin School) is a feeder school for Hamilton County Department of Education,” then the duty falls upon the public school system to care for these students and protect their rights. So where did things go wrong with Luka Hyde? Was he really a troubled student, destined to fail due to his disabilities? Or was he just another example of how our society, even on a federal level, fails to protect these rights and chooses to fundamentally ignore the needs of these developmental differences.
I have been lucky enough to experience a peer program, and can attest to the positive impact it has had on my life. This is an educational standard that, with the help of government funding, can change countless lives. It could revolutionize the way we view disabilities, and further develop the equal-opportunity world we are constantly striving for.