Our office received a question from a reporter at the Sun Sentinel, a South Florida newspaper. She asked whether Nicolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, should have been allowed to be mainstreamed, given his history of dangerous and threatening behavior. Below is Mark Kamleiter’s reponse.
Your question is interesting, but also one that would be alarming for parents of children with disabilities and those who love them. The public in general has a misconception that children with disabilities are dangerous, while my feeling is that actually children with disabilities are much less dangerous than children without disabilities. I was a behavior specialist for a number of years and as an attorney, I developed a speciality in helping children with behavioral disabilities, so I have some sense of what I am saying.
I am not saying that children with disabilities cannot be dangerous, because under certain conditions and circumstances they obviously can be dangerous, as can children without disabilities. It is my perception that when dealing with the behavior issues of children with disabilities, the critical issue is the treatment and the behavioral training given to the child. I do not believe that isolation of the child is a viable solution. It does not work if one desires to change the behavior. Maybe, theoretically, isolation can work in the same way prisons work, that is by simply keeping the child away from “normal” children, but it will not change the behavior and could possibly make it worse. If one is not talking about “isolation,” but only keeping the child away from “normal children,” I would have to ask, why should other disabled children be exposes to the “dangerous” child, anymore than non-disabled children. No, and I say this empathetically, the only solution is focused, skillful behavioral intervention in the environment where the child will have to live his/her life. The child does not live in a handicapped world. He/she lives in a non-disabled world and he/she must learn to live and behave in a world that is not handicapped.
I am trying to be reasonable about this. I am not saying that focused skillful behavioral training will be successful with every troubled child with disabilities, anymore than it will be with every troubled non-disabled child. I am saying that it is the only option that a civilized society can have. I would like to turn your question around. What if this child did not have a disability? What if he was just an angry, hostile, violent child, without any recognized disability. Should we isolate him? Maybe, if nothing else has worked. If that is true, however, then the issue is not this particular child’s disability, but the failure of the system to have been able to correct the child’s behavioral issues, disability or not?
Can you see what I am saying? The issue is not the handicap, but the clear and obvious fact, that the school system has not been able to help the child control and manage his behavior, whether or not he has a disability.
It is difficult for me to assess whether the school system in this child’s circumstances could have done more to help him. I have known situations, where I was not successful in helping a child change his behavior. I can think of one such case, where I was totally unsuccessful with a young lady, who ended up going to another school where the behavior specialist there was successful. I can say, however, that frequently schools fail to use highly qualified behavior analysts to help these children. Far too often, schools rely upon old fashion punitive discipline methods, including isolation, which not only do not change behavior, but frequently make it worse.
In my experience children tend to misbehave due to their inability to meet their personal needs in an appropriate way. Behavior treatment usually focuses upon determining what the child is attempting to accomplish through the particular behavior. In other words, what is the “function” of the behavior? There is frequently the misunderstanding that the “function” of the behavior is in itself bad. It generally is not “bad,” The problem is that the child is trying to meet his/her real needs in an inappropriate way. Part of behavior treatment is teaching the child how he/she can meet legitimate needs more effectively through appropriate means. In other words, we arrange things so that the inappropriate behavior does not work anymore for the child, but at the same time we assure that the appropriate means are going to be successful for the child.
That sounds simple, but it is not. It requires those who work with the child to change the way they are dealing with the behavior. We do not realize how ingrained our ideas and methods for dealing with behavior are. One time I yelled at my dog due to his misbehavior and a person observing the scene laughed and said, “and I though you are a behavior specialist.” Oops. If we are going to help these kids we must change the way we react to their behavior and we need the skills to redirect these children into more successful behavioral skills.
Modern behavioral theory is based largely upon the concepts I explained above. All this requires that the “subject” of the behavior treatment function in pretty much the same way that all of us do. In other words we are all attempting to meet our normal and natural needs and our success depends largely upon our set of behavioral skills. What happens, however, when the child or person’s perception of the world around them is distorted through mental illness. If I think you are attacking me, then I am likely to react with a physical defensive action (flight or fight). In that sense, my behavior is appropriate to my perception – but what if my perception is distorted? To be frank, schools, even those with very good behavior specialist, are a long ways from knowing how to help children who have mental illness at this level.
Given the above, the question remains what do we do about it? When these children are identified and all our BEST behavioral interventions have failed, what do we do? We could isolate them from society (not just from non-disabled children, but from disabled children as well) or we could double down our efforts. If isolation seems to be, at least temporarily, the best alternative, then we must use our very best knowledge and our most skilled behavior analyst to bring appropriate treatment to the situation. It should not be a knee jerk “let’s exclude them from the normal kids reaction.”
Okay, that is about the best I can give you, without being guided by your questions. I hope I addressed your essential question. As you can see, I am somewhat passionate about this question. Understand, that a part of my practice has been going into situations where schools wanted to simply punish with isolation and where I often was capable of showing them a more successful way of helping these children. Often when I would intervened in a situation the school district would bring in their own behavior analyst and between us we would solve the problem. I firmly believe that the solution is almost always found in applied behavior analysis and skilled behavioral intervention. Punishment and isolation rarely help and when used with relatively intelligent children with disabilities (like autism and Aspergers), the result is often disastrous.
If you have questions, feel free to send them. I will be traveling to a conference in Paris tomorrow, but I will try to connect to the internet and I will respond to you when I have free time. If anything I have said is useful to you, feel free to use this material as you would in an interview. Thank you for your interest in this timely subject.
Mark S. Kamleiter