Itâ€™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 â€śpsychopath,â€ť and referring to special-needs kids as â€śthe guilty peopleâ€ť who have more rights than â€śthe innocent.â€ť
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 Iâ€™d read in the first few paragraphs of the initial Inquirer story about Maddenâ€™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. Maddenâ€™s emails revealed an administrator who felt handcuffed by the system, unable to remove a student he considered a threatâ€”the same bipolar teen in that meeting, who he compared to â€śHinkley, [sic] Booth and Oswald.â€ť In his sophomore year, that student was charged with harassing an ex-girlfriend. He left the high school for a â€śtherapeutic programâ€ť as a junior, and when he returned as a senior, the police were called when he refused to leave his current girlfriendâ€™s classroom. Madden claims the student threatened to kill the teacher who reported him, a charge the student denies.
One thing here is certain: Maddenâ€™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 letâ€™s remove the phrase â€śspecial needsâ€ť from this story for a moment (and set aside Maddenâ€™s regrettable comments). Youâ€™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. Maddenâ€™s remarks were insulting, but from whatâ€™s been revealed, Madden wasnâ€™t singling out children with autism or cerebral palsyâ€”when I see â€śspecial needs students,â€ť thatâ€™s what comes to my mind. This student appears to have emotional problems linked to a psychiatric disorder. That presents a complex challenge for everyoneâ€”administrators, teachers and fellow classmates.
The term â€śspecial needsâ€ť 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, Maddenâ€™s choice of words overshadowed what could be a valuable discussion about what â€śspecial needsâ€ť entails and the mechanisms in place for removing troublemakers from school. Itâ€™s a thorny subject, one that a number of teachers I know have struggled with. Theyâ€™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? Itâ€™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 weâ€™ve moved on to the next hot-button story of the minute.