In Search of Special Education, but Without the Social Stigma

Conditions at Netanya's Netivim school are enviable: classes until 4:00 P.M., 52 teachers and counselors for 84 children, spacious classrooms and Sony Playstations, a petting zoo, afterschool activities like sailing at Mikhmoret and marine biology, as well as judo, communications or English. Only the social stigma hovers over a school for children with psychological problems. "Get rid of the stigma, you'll have a school for the wealthy that any parent would want to send his kids to," says principal Arik Mendelbaum.

The stigma against psychological disorders among both adults and children manifests itself in different ways. The students avoid telling kids from their neighborhoods where they go to school, some of the parents deny their children suffer psychological disorders, outside school grounds the children are sometimes greeted with suspicious glares and negative attitudes. Even the definition adopted by the staff is really a euphemism: "children with complex emotional difficulties."

Of the various disorders and disabilities, this may be the most "other," the scariest for normal society. This isn't just the gut instinct of those involved in special education that could possibly be written off as a kind of paranoia. This is reality. Unlike other special ed schools, the Education Ministry has not managed in recent years to open even one official institution for children with psychological disorders, due to opposition from local government.

Of the 84 students at Netivim, about 15 have been hospitalized in psychiatric wards, about five more are defined as having "hospitalization potential." The rest have been diagnosed with such disorders as emotional difficulties, anxiety, obsessive behavior or depression, to the extent their routine functioning is impaired. All children directed to special education undergo psychological testing. Kids who come to Netivim also undergo psychiatric diagnosis.

Intelligence scores are above average. Formal schooling is conducted from 8:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. After about an hour's lunch break, there are afterschool activities until 4:00 P.M.

"A long time ago I decided I was 'done' with the stigma," says Maya (whose name has been changed, as have all the names in this article), the mother of Netivim ninth-grader Gil. Until two years ago, Gil went to a regular school. In first grade he hit the principal, who tried to take away a stick he found during recess. Since then, the violent incidents have only worsened. "The regular education system doesn't know how to deal with kids like this. He was miserable at school, the teachers were miserable. I was miserable. I was afraid of special ed because of the stigma, but it isn't worth it. I prefer a relaxed happy child, and not one who goes to regular school but is lost," Maya says.

"I came here because I'm disturbed," says Gil.

Gil is very aware of himself and the aggression he radiates. He says he has "behavior problems," proudly recounting his violent history. "In first grade, I grabbed the principal by the hair and hit her. In sixth grade, I kicked her in the stomach." He doesn't really remember why he did it. And there is the beginning of insight: "Hitting the principal didn't solve any problem. Since I switched to a special school, I've started learning. Suddenly, I understand, the material. So it might be good that I hit the principal, maybe it helped me. But it was still stupid."

Unlike most Netivim students, Gil is open with neighborhood kids about being in special ed. "The most important thing is being real," he says. "My friends have to choose to be in contact with me." But there may be another reason for Gil's frankness. "He likes to scare people," his mother Maya explains. "The neighborhood children know not to mess with him. He enjoys the power and that's why he is proud of his violence. It's good for his ego."

In general, Netivim staffers say, the younger students are less ashamed of where they go to school. Around puberty though, the desire to be "normal" leads many children to conceal the fact that they attend Netivim. Sixth-grader Shaul has a very direct explanation. "Most kids here are not normal," he says. "I don't tell anyone I go to Netivim because it is a school for kids with problems. Smart, but with problems. No one here has anything to brag about." A few minutes later he adds quietly, "I'm one of the only normal kids here."

Violence is very present at the school. Students have sudden outbursts in class, cursing and hitting other students or teachers. "When I hit someone I'm not always in control," says Tamir, an eighth-grader who started at Netivim this year. "There are kids who punch someone in the face, and one second later calm down and don't understand what they are doing on the floor or why they are being held back. It's like breathing or blinking. It's automatic."

In the early years, the principal, Mendelbaum recalls, it seemed like students were competing to be the most disruptive, to call the principal the harshest name. It is difficult to determine how different the violence at Netivim is, since every incident is interpreted by parents or society because this is a school for children with psychological problems. A self-fulfilling prophesy that only strengthens prejudices.

Handling student violence is one of the toughest issues facing school staff. The police have been called in exceptional instances but even then, the school engages in internal examination. "I do not believe in suspension or expulsion, even though those are the most common weapons of the regular school system," Mendelbaum says. "The entire educational process has to take place at school, and the day-to-day question is how to create boundaries without harming dialogue with the students and their own self examination."

It isn't always easy for teachers to accept student actions. "It is hard to always take the high road, the professional road," Mendelbaum says with unusual candor. "The difficulty is not in physically containing the child who is using violence, it comes afterwards.

"It's an emotional roller-coaster. I go to sleep tormenting myself about things I've done, but it is not self-flagellation. For every mistake, there is a correction. This is a learning community of teachers themselves." The sign on Mendelbaum's door says "Principal and Student".

One Netivim methodology is merit points. Every class is worth four points - two for attendance and two for participation. Each child has a personal scale for earning the points: one student has to ask five questions to earn his participation points; for another, one is enough. The points can be converted into "prizes" like lunch at the mall or an electronic appliance. Bad behavior doesn't lose points, even violence: positive reinforcement without punishment for the negative things.

The student council is currently discussing a proposal that would allow students to "sue" each other for violence or anguish, and the fines would be the transfer of merit points. Nir, for instance, has 1,300 points. He's aiming for a 4,000-point MP3 player.

The violence often covers deeper problems. Like many kids at Netivim, Gil didn't get there just for hitting a teacher, but after he was diagnosed with attention deficit, hyperactivity and obsessive compulsive disorder expressed in frequent handwashing.

"He can wash his hands ten times in an afternoon, in addition to when he leaves the bathroom," says Maya. "But it is also not holding the phone or pushing the intercom button which could be covered with germs. Sometimes he won't sit in the living room or eat dinner with us because there is a potential for contamination. Only his room is safe.

Maya's willingness to be interviewed is uncommon, as is her acceptance of Gil's need for a special school and psychiatric help. Not all Netivim parents are like that and the school walks the thin line between dealing with the problems and the possibility of denial at home. "Some parents are very disappointed their kids are here and explain it as "just a problem with math," Mendelbaum says. "That parent is sending a message to the kid that he's doing everything to get him out of here."

The teaching staff also faces trouble with parents wanting to reintegrate their kids into the regular school system in either special ed or regular classes. In the past three years, about ten students have gone back. There are parents who are afraid to take the risk even if the educational staff believes the student can integrate.

Few of the students we spoke with are interested in reintegration, apparently because of bad memories of regular school. Eighth-grader Yisrael is the only one who wants to go back to his old school. "Here everyone is screwed up, so no one is special. At a regular school I will be the only special kid," he explains.

The children themselves don't talk about the background of their psychological problems. Maybe it is their young age, or the difficulty of exposing that to a stranger. Maybe it's denial. "There isn't a single student here who will say he goes to Netivim because of psychological problems," Mendelbaum says. "That is taboo."

"Sometimes children and parents use another category like attention deficit because 'psychological disorder' is too heavy and there isn't always anything to be done with the disease. As long as society is accepting of the subject, we have to protect the children. You cannot accept yourself if society doesn't accept you. This isn't true in other kinds of special ed: developmental delays are not the child's fault, everyone has learning disabilities, but psychological disorders are too scary. Concealment is part of the problem, but also part of the necessary defense to survive socially."