Philosophy · School

The Therapeutic Day School and Diversity in Special Education 

Below is my final project for my upper level philosophy course– The Ethics of Diversity- that was just graded. I replaced the name of my old school in it, quite honestly because my parents told me to. I would have liked to include it. Ah well! Enjoy.


Olivia Epley

Special Topics in Philosophy: The Ethics of Diversity

Grade on paper: A

Grade in class: A

It is often tempting, especially within homogeneously liberal circles, to take the goal of diversity as a given. Of course, a plethora of different backgrounds and ilks is desirable! On face value, most would agree. When confronted with emotional disability, however, the temptation for many is to segregate the neuro-typical from the neuro-diverse. There are few places where separate-but-equal is still proudly practiced as a solution to a problem of inclusion, and the special education day school is one of them. Why is separating mentally ill children from their neuro-typical peers still common practice, what are its benefits and costs, and why should common practice change, if it should? This is a set of questions that seem broad, but they all are derived from a central question; is diversity in the classroom ultimately positive for both the neuro-typical and the neuro-diverse?

First, some epistemological clarifications must be made. I would generally avoid using diagnosed mental illness as the standard by which to define neuro-diverse children. However, this is usually one of the primary standards by which students are measured for qualification for Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or the section that grants students academic accommodations according to disability. These accommodations are, too, what is typically used to determine which students should be segregated into special education schools. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is easier for assessors to use diagnosis to allocate 504 plans to students than to use simply their own determination. Additionally, there simply exists no better way to classify mentally ill students than by their diagnoses. No, not everyone can afford access to medical diagnoses who would qualify for them, but that is a separate conversation, one that is important but not central to the questions I am tackling here. I am unfortunately left with only a rudimentarily binary “diagnosed” or “not diagnosed” to compare to “neuro-diverse” or “neuro-typical,” respectively. Finally, I am treating “disabled,” “mentally ill” and “special needs” as interchangeable terms, and “therapeutic” and “special education” as interchangeable terms to describe the day school I will be examining.

I personally attended The “X” (name changed for anonymity) School in Connecticut. It is a state approved and therefore partially state funded “special education” private day school for, as it describes us, students who are “not realizing their academic and social-emotional potential.” It managed to procure state special education approval the month before I began at the school, and has been open for business since around 2010. Tuition is $5,500 per month, or around $60,000 per year, although my public school paid to send me to X (as it is casually referred to). Students are supposed to have near constant access to “life coaches,” or licensed social workers. In 2015-16 (my first year), the student body was composed of 40 students, 35 of whom were white and none of whom were black. The student teacher ratio was 2.7/1. Most of the students were in high school, but there was a handful of middle schoolers, for the school served students in grades 6-12. I will incorporate my experience at X into my analysis of the therapeutic day school, while attempting to delineate the trauma that I experienced at the school from what is inherent to a therapeutic day school and what was simply the poor composition of The X School. To begin, I will establish the history of special education in America and the current mechanisms by which it operates. I will then endeavor to establish the detriments of a failure to incorporate diversity into a public classroom before moving on to the benefits of neuro-diversity in the public classroom.

Even in the 1960’s, the total segregation of American special needs children from public school systems was common practice and nearly entirely undisputed. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed by Congress, before being amended into the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997. These acts mandated the integration of special needs students into public school classrooms or, more specifically, the “free and equal” education of disabled students in the “least restrictive” possible environment. The US Dept. of Education mandates an annual report every state, explaining their local education establishments’ efforts to include disabled children. These reports contain placement information and academic data on disabled students. Also collected is data on the degree to which disabled students are placed in “regular” or general education classrooms.

Who is neuro-diversity in the classroom good for? First and foremost, the government and its people should prioritize the wellbeing of the disabled, for they are a more vulnerable population than the citizenry at large and therefore must be protected primarily. Yes, neuro-diversity is beneficial for the neuro-atypical/neuro-diverse among us. But why?

There is no golden standard for brain functionality. Every mind is unique and functions according to its genetic makeup and environmental (especially in childhood) development. That being said, some brains are less typical than others, a subset of those brains being diagnosable with a mental illness, or pathological in the clinical sense. As Thomas Armstrong explains in the American Journal of Ethics, there is a reason that neuro-atypical minds have remained in the gene pool; they have objective advantages. The dyslexic brain might have a geometric mind suited to astrophysics, the autistic brain well suited to unique nonverbal skills. Separate from their ability to produce for society at large, folks with neuro-atypical brains are people like any other, and deserve the same degree (albeit in different ways) of respect and accommodation that the neuro-typical folks of the world automatically receive by virtue of being born. Neuro-atypical people were born as people, too, in all of the emotional, physical, loving complexity that that entails. 

The neuro-typical among us are programmed to fear genetic difference. Evolutionarily, difference in genetic makeup could mean unpredictability, which could get one killed. In a developed and ideally humanistic society, however, such a fear need not be had. We have, as a civilization, the tools needed to survive almost any threat- barring natural disaster or mass illness- and we have philosophically developed into empathetic creatures, if not by nature then by societal pressure to do so. If we hold as true that the neuro-atypical are as deserving of accommodation as anyone else and that we are empathetic creatures, then it should follow that we should accommodate the disabled among us to the best of our ability. 

To accommodate the neuro-atypical person in public education is to both respect their legal right to an equal education, and to respect their right to as typical a life as possible. It is possible to do the latter while still respecting the beautifully different minds that emotionally/psychologically disabled people possess. This would manifest itself in greater funding for in-house special education public schooling. Separating mentally ill children into non-traditional locations to educate them robs them of their legal and human rights to equality. Separate but equal is never truly equal, if it means a disadvantaged and disempowered subset of the population is split from the general population. What incentive have those in power to provide equally to those who are completely at the behest of the power and in a separate system, the functionality (or lack thereof) of which does not affect the powerful in any way that tips the scale towards immediate remedy-ing action? There is less funding available for the segregated education of special needs children. This leads to an overall worse quality, from teaching to supplies and everything in between.

Anecdotally, the special education day school- even in some of the richest towns/counties in America, like the ones I lived in and near to- is a lesser education. The teachers at The X School were, if not entirely lacking in higher education in the area of the subject which they taught, new to teaching or exceedingly inept such that they could not be retained by public school systems. These three categories- uneducated, new to teaching, or fundamentally inept- encompassed nearly every teacher at X. Their pay, while I don’t know the exact figures, reflected their lesser quality or nascency according to rumor and reports from teachers. Money mismanagement was a common theme, for the school’s management company, X Education Group, was forced to close a side project of a school, The Y School, after only a handful of years due to lack of funding, despite its exorbitant price tag and the price tag of its partner, X, as well as the heavily lined pockets of the company’s founders, the Z family. Rumor (on good authority) even has it that it was the Z couple’s nasty divorce that prompted the financial mismanagement. Sex and drugs were engaged with on campus. Students frequently “ran away” from the school, to the chagrin of the administrators and, inevitably, the police. There was no school nurse, sexual education, or cafeteria. In fact, the school is a couple of levels of a converted office building. The school was tragically homogenous, and when I heard a racial slur being flung around in jokes widely around the school and reported it to administrators, nothing was done. The matriculation of the school was awful for a school that prioritizes college success; not only was a college-like atmosphere completely ignored in that students had very loose deadlines and attendance policies, but as a result, the retention rate once students are in college is abysmal; many, if not most, alumni drop out of college. All this for more than a typical college’s tuition rate!

Bullying was a frequent problem, and the life coaches were ill equipped to address it. Their policy for dealing with bullying was exclusively to have the bully sit down for an optional meeting with their victim. If the bully said no, nothing at all was done. In fact, the life coaches, who were the only resource for a student by design, were almost exclusively young (I’m talking early twenties, either in college or fresh out of it), inexperienced women with lacking interpersonal and conflict resolution skills and the most minimal training that the school could hire, presumably to limit the salaries they had to shell out. The school claimed on its website (now deleted) and to its student body that it did not accept students with a history of violence. However, in the past couple of years they have admitted a handful of students with violent pasts. This is not to say that there is no place for violent students, but it is to say that non-violent students’ rights are violated when they are forced to be housed with violent students. I myself had my life threatened and a “punch in the face” promised to me by a fellow student who was then promptly suspended but, despite the recommendation to do so by the school’s Title IX coordinator, was not expelled by The X School. I ultimately left the school rather than be forced to co-exist with my would-be aggressor. This kind of flawed administrative decision making would be less likely to occur in a purely public school with more funding, resources, and oversight, as would every lacking element of The X School.

I returned to my public school, Ridgefield High School. There, I had access to the full range of resources of a massive and affluent public school system, including an alternative school, a separate room for special needs students in the main building staffed by appropriately trained adults, online schooling, competent counseling, and college advising. I thrived for my final year and graduated with good grades and a healing heart and mind.

Departing the world of anecdotes, to include mentally ill/neuro-atypical students into the general classroom is also better for the neuro-typical students for the same reasons that anyone benefits from diversity in their environment. Physical ability is a “primary” dimension of diversity, meaning that it’s an uncontrollable trait. Diversity allows for “typical” folks to learn from difference. In the case of mentally ill children, this means heightened empathy, conflict resolution skills, patience, “positive peer influence,” general appreciation for human difference, and many more objectively positive learning outcomes. This is not to say that special needs children are nothing more than learning opportunities for neuro-typical children. In fact, what I’m saying is that the beneficial relationship between neuro-typical and neuro-atypical students is reciprocal. Neuro-diversity means a better education for both the mentally ill and those with no mental illness.

Some may argue that the separation of mentally ill students is better for their learning outcomes. Can’t a more individualized approach be given to a student body who all have the same type of neuro-diversity? The trouble is, mentally ill children, too, have such a wide breadth of neuro-diversity that it becomes equally as diverse an environment as a public school, now just with the unique problems of lacking funding, hiring of the bottom of the teaching barrel, lesser oversight, and a hyper-emotional student body that features increased absenteeism, bullying, emotional breakdowns, fights, truancy, and stretched deadlines. By far the superior solution is putting mentally ill students where the most funding and oversight is: public schools.

Every student, whether they be neuro-typical or neuro-atypical, deserves the best quality education possible. In the case of both the former and the latter, the best education that can be provided is one in a general public school. Both general diversity and specific desirable educational outcomes can be better attained in a public school. We owe it to the most vulnerable to act in their best interest, and integration of the special education day school is how we do so.


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