Out behind your everyday, run of the mill public school, there is a very dense forest. In the forest, there are paths that crisscross and at the intersections the signs point up and down and backward. Many people get lost in the forest. They leave behind their cell phones and their manila folders in the fallen leaves, wet scraps of IEP’s hang from the trees. If you look closely you can see the blurred outline of an IEP goal, maybe one that says that Little Johnny will sit in his seat and listen attentively 80% of the time.

At the entrance to the forest where a tiny footpath starts that is mostly grown over with weeds and dead branches, there is a small sign. It’s not at eye level so it’s easy to miss. And it’s black on black so it’s hard to discern. But what the letters say is SPECIAL EDUCATION.

This week there was a fairly nasty article about a special education student essentially being caged in a school in the Fresno (CA) School District. The Fresno Bee reported that “a 7-year old Fresno Unified School District special education student was allegedly locked in a makeshift cage by her Viking Elementary first-grade teacher last school year, according to two claims filed against the teacher and school administrators in mid-October.” The cage, a makeshift collection of child gates and filing cabinets, apparently served as the penalty box for the little girl whenever her behavior was deemed inappropriate for the classroom setting.

Apparently stumped by how to respond to a child with special educational needs, the teacher resorted to imprisonment, a common enough reflex. Act out? Separate and stigmatize – all in the name of order and doing what’s best for the most. I hear echoes of the American prison system in the room where I’m sitting, but that’s probably just me. I’m sure the teacher’s response to the child’s acting out (however defined) was completely appropriate and was only done in the best interests of all of the students in her class. Nifty, though, that the little girl got to stay in class, even though it was behind bars. And super nifty that her classmates could see firsthand what could happen if they themselves ever became a special education student. Talk about deterrence. Powerful.

Of course, none of this is an abstraction for me. I know about special education. At one time, I had three kids in special education, each with quirky learning disabilities that made it nearly impossible for them to get through school without assistance. The essence of a learning disability is that a child is of average intelligence but has one or more ‘in-child’ barriers to learning. In our little band of outliers, we had dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory processing issues, and, my favorite, an overall inability to absorb new knowledge. I gave the testers credit for this last ‘diagnosis.’ It was ingenious, if nothing else, encompassing everything but describing nothing.

We debated about whether to seek a special education designation for these three children. On the one hand, we desperately wanted to avoid the stigma that is automatic with a special education label. We can kid ourselves, pretend that all the teachers and other students will be kind and understanding but they won’t usually. The stigmatizing will be subtle but it will be there. The aggravating thing is, though, that stigma also prevails for the child who is persistently behind, doesn’t get it, can’t understand the material or do the work. It’s a stigma buffet. You pick.

In our case, we decided that our kids wouldn’t get through school without special instruction and accommodation. The latter ended up being the more important. Accommodation meant more time for tests, being able to test orally rather than in written format, and having other assists to complete work. Happily, each of these children had something else that made them shine in the eyes of their classmates. One was an athlete, one was an actor, and one was gutsy and beautiful, a powerful combo.

They made it through. They are all gainfully employed, each using their own brand of unique talent. One of them even works with special education students, helping the most severely disabled get through the school day. Karma in Technicolor. They were all lucky. None of them spent time in a cage, none of them was purposely stigmatized and shamed. Their teachers taught them as the whole persons they were. I remembered to be grateful for that when I saw this article in the Fresno Bee.

A long, long time ago, when son #2 was a toddler newly arrived from Nicaragua with a catalog of delays and disabilities, I would drive him to St. Francis Children’s Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he would get special therapies and play with other children. The sign on the front of their building said something like this: All children can learn if we learn how to teach them.

I think the teacher in Fresno needs to come visit. See how it’s done. Learn.