The Miseducation of Wesley Armstrong

In the world of special ed schools in Broward County, drugs and tough love are the order of the day -- and academics are beside the point

Felicia Armstrong knew her son Wesley was a troubled kid. He'd been that way for most of his ten years. At age three Wesley was kicked out of a day care center for biting other children. Two years later he went on Ritalin after a therapist diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His conduct grades have never been good, but two years ago, as a fifth grader, his problems seemed to escalate. He cursed at school, lashed out at a teacher and hit her in the arm, and hit a girl during a food fight.

To make matters worse, Wesley was by far the biggest kid in his class at Westwood Heights Elementary, a school not far from his home in a working-class neighborhood in west Fort Lauderdale. His size and volatility made for a dangerous mix. Armstrong knew her son needed special help to deal with his problems, but she didn't know where to turn. Then Wesley's teacher told her about the Sunset School,an institution designed for emotionally troubled kids such as Wesley. It was loaded with therapists, had an in-house psychiatrist, and gave specialized care to all its students.

Armstrong, a college-educated Broward sheriff's deputy, started making calls to school board officials to find out how to get Wesley enrolled. Before long, specialists were conducting a battery of psychological tests on her son. They soon declared Wesley "severely emotionally disturbed" (SED), which made him eligible for Sunset.

At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.
Sherri Cohen
At home with his mother, Wesley is generally a good boy. But once outside his front door, he becomes defiant and confrontational. At Sunset he's only gotten worse.

Armstrong's sister, a grade school teacher in Broward, warned her sister not to enroll Wesley at Sunset. She said Wesley would likely never make it back to a regular school. Even if the boy were lucky enough to make it back, he'd be so far behind academically that he'd probably never catch up. But Armstrong, a concerned parent, was also meeting with guidance counselors, school psychologists, and principals. All of them assured her that Sunset was the place for Wesley. There the staff would know how to help him deal with his stormy emotions. His self-esteem would grow by leaps and bounds. And his behavior would improve. Armstrong enrolled Wesley at Sunset in January 1999 to finish the fifth grade there. He's now been at Sunset for 18 months.

But rather than self-esteem, the school has given Wesley -- a solid C student at Westwood Heights -- a failing report card. Rather than therapy he's getting mostly detention and, on occasion, time in a claustrophobia-inducing padded isolation cell. And instead of giving Wesley, who just turned 12 years old, some hope, he's now a thrice-convicted criminal.

Most of the specialized care, meanwhile, seems to come in pill form. The Sunset psychiatrist has prescribed Wesley numerous medications, from tranquilizers to powerful antipsychotic drugs to antidepressants, most of them untested on children. But Armstrong was given little choice: When she refused to fill a new prescription, the school filed a child-neglect complaint with the state.

Armstrong now fears her son is going to wind up semiliterate and unemployable. It's a sentiment with which school board activists and even some officials sympathize. "[Wesley] should be learning. But is he? No. He's probably not challenged at all by the minimum curriculum he's getting," says Lina Gioello, who co-chairs the school district's Exceptional Student Education Advisory Council. "There's no real education going on. He's doing time right now. He's doing time in that school."More and more students, it turns out, are doing time in one of Broward's three so-called SED schools: Whispering Pines in the south, Cross Creek in the north, and Sunset, centrally located just off State Road 7 in Fort Lauderdale. Combined enrollment reached 600 this year. Another 1100 kids have been labeled "emotionally handicapped" but remain in regular schools, where they take special classes. All these emotionally troubled children fall under the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program, otherwise known as special ed.

In 1997 the three SED schools held a total of 412 students, compared with 580 in 1999, roughly a 40 percent rise in two years. Sunset's increase in students, according to district records, was even more dramatic: from 131 to 197, a 50 percent climb.

Stephen Smith, an education professor at the University of Florida, says the very existence of these schools -- which he estimates are used in about half the districts in Florida -- makes it easy to throw difficult kids out of the regular school system and warehouse them elsewhere. "It's the "If you build it, they will come' phenomenon," Smith says. "These schools turn out to be an administrative expedient where administrators can purge their school of troublemakers. If you were a principal and you had a kid always causing trouble, getting into fights, what would you do? You'd send them to an SED school. And that's what's happening."

Smith says if it were up to him, the state would do away with SED schools like Sunset altogether. He's one of many experts who believe that segregated SED schools often ensure that students will fail. Smith doesn't dispute that there are troubled kids, such as Wesley, who need to be taken out of regular classrooms. But he maintains they should be put in special classes at regular schools, where they can at least interact with normal students in the hallway or at lunch. That way, he says, they can try out new, good behavior on normal kids who might actually appreciate it.

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