“Special Needs” Kid or Threatening Troublemaker?

Schools struggle to handle the difference.

It’s a knee-jerk culture we live in, especially with media. See a headline, react. Click on a link, cue outrage. That was my response when I first read about David Madden, the principal of Oxford Area High School in Chester County. It was bad enough that Madden was texting to two administrators during their meeting with a student and his mother. Far worse was what he said in that message and others: dropping an obscenity, calling the special-needs teenager a “psychopath,” and referring to special-needs kids as “the guilty people” who have more rights than “the innocent.”

Madden was suspended in March, but reinstated in July, under the odd condition that he could no longer work with special-education students. That led to what was described as a rather hostile gathering at the school board meeting on Tuesday. Adults, many of them presumably parents, booed and jeered. The board president scolded them. The father of one special-needs student pledged to rally voters and get rid of the board members who voted for Madden to keep his job. From what I’d read in the first few paragraphs of the initial Inquirer story about Madden’s behavior, their outrage seemed justified.

Read the whole piece, though, and the black-and-white indignation turns gray, or at least it did for me. Madden’s emails revealed an administrator who felt handcuffed by the system, unable to remove a student he considered a threat—the same bipolar teen in that meeting, who he compared to “Hinkley, [sic] Booth and Oswald.” In his sophomore year, that student was charged with harassing an ex-girlfriend. He left the high school for a “therapeutic program” as a junior, and when he returned as a senior, the police were called when he refused to leave his current girlfriend’s classroom. Madden claims the student threatened to kill the teacher who reported him, a charge the student denies.

One thing here is certain: Madden’s loose language and insensitive remarks were inappropriate. His attitude toward a particular class of students suggests that perhaps he does deserve to lose his job. But let’s remove the phrase “special needs” from this story for a moment (and set aside Madden’s regrettable comments). You’re left with a principal who was troubled by a disruptive kid who threatened at least one classmate, was accused of threatening a teacher, and was reportedly seen as a problem by at least two other school employees. Madden’s remarks were insulting, but from what’s been revealed, Madden wasn’t singling out children with autism or cerebral palsy—when I see “special needs students,” that’s what comes to my mind. This student appears to have emotional problems linked to a psychiatric disorder. That presents a complex challenge for everyone—administrators, teachers and fellow classmates.

The term “special needs” encompasses so much these days, and I’m sure there are a lot of parents who worry about the emotionally unstable student at the desk next to their child. But to even articulate that thought makes you sound insensitive at best, or as Madden seems to be perceived these days, a rotten person. Unfortunately, Madden’s choice of words overshadowed what could be a valuable discussion about what “special needs” entails and the mechanisms in place for removing troublemakers from school. It’s a thorny subject, one that a number of teachers I know have struggled with. They’ve seen how some disruptive students not only learn very little themselves, but can drag an entire class to a grinding halt. Who wins in that scenario, they wonder? It’s a subject that begs for nuanced conversation, not the name-calling and finger-pointing that surrounds Madden and Oxford. Both sides have worthwhile points to make, if only we take the time to listen before our indignation kicks in and we’ve moved on to the next hot-button story of the minute.