Once upon a time I knew a handicapped principal

Dennis Martin


I became a school administrator in the fall of 1969 at University High School here in Bloomington. In 1972, I experienced my first special education class which included 18 students with mild handicaps. At that time, I did not really believe that school was for all students. I thought school was to prepare the “regular education students” to go on to college or to prepare students to enter the local work force in some capacity. During the 1975-76 school year, we started a class for students with emotional handicaps. Again, my thoughts were that students with emotional problems should be separated from the regular students so as not to disturb the educational process of the regular students. It seemed natural for me to place the students with emotional handicaps in a self-contained room and to expect them to stay there. I never really considered that students with learning and behavior problems needed normal interactions with their peers. Rather, I thought that these special education programs were being forced upon the school because a few parents and special educators were pushy and got a bunch of lawmakers to pass a law known as Public Law 94-142. I really did not understand the meaning or purpose of this new law.

Early in the summer of 1985, I received a call from our Director of Special Education and he said that the school corporation was considering moving students with severe disabilities from Stonebelt Center, which was a special segregated facility, to Bloomington High School North. I will never forget my reaction to that news. I instantly shot back, “Our school does not need students with severe handicaps!” I have dealt with students who have emotional handicaps on a daily basis and to bring students who were still worse off seemed ridiculous. I was ignorant about who these students with severe handicaps were, and about the nature of their educational needs. No one ever told me, and I did not get much information about special education in my teacher training or administrative programs.

Realizing that the move was inevitable, I slowly began to make the decision to accept these students into our school. I thought it would be essential to protect these new students as much as possible from the regular students, so I readied a suite of rooms that contained a classroom, a kitchen, a restroom, and a laundry room. I thought it would be essential for these “severely handicapped students” to have lunches served in their classroom. Again, my thinking was that regular students would be cruel and call them names and pick on them.

I want to tell you how wrong my thinking was. It was my thinking about room placement and lunches that were to be eaten in the rooms that was cruel. In looking back on these events, these students needed protection not from regular students, but from a principal who was narrow-minded and did not really believe that school was for all children.

I did more soul-searching and thinking in 1985 than I ever did up to that point in my life. I developed a simple, but effective, personal philosophy about schools: Schools exist for one reason and that is to help people be better people. What other place in our society exists that will accept people as they are and that will help them to realize their potential?

Schools are places for opportunities to flourish, places where we learn and understand and believe in the worth and dignity of people. I am pleased to tell you that I have worked very hard to overcome my own handicap, which was ignorance.

I have learned that the students with severe handicaps need their fellow student body members and that the regular students need them. Since 1985 we have made progress. This past year we were recognized by the State Department of Education and the State Least Restrictive Environment Initiative for providing an exemplary program to integrate the environment.

Let me tell you how we accomplished this integration.

* We smartened up the principal.
* He hired a teacher of students with learning disabilities to be the special education department chairperson.
* She smartened up the principal even more.
* We employed three excellent teachers of students with severe handicaps.
* They smartened up the principal a little more
* They developed a community-based program for their students and taught them to use the community as a learning environment.

Today I am proud to tell you that we have a school where students are a student body and each helps the other to understand their limitations and their strengths. We have developed a peer tutor program that has full credit from the State Department of Education. The program has been very successful and we cannot place all the students who want to help their fellow students.

What is the secret to a successful Least Restrictive Environment program? There are many, but the most important things to me are to recognize that people are people, and that all people and learn and need to experience self-worth and dignity. We all need help from others to realize our potential. We all need to understand that all of us have exceptionalities to overcome or to learn to live with to make us better people.

I would like to close by telling you of the sophisticated process I use to evaluate our programs to see if students are learning. There was a young man who our work-coordinator was teaching to use the public transit system to travel in the community. Each day she taught him to catch the bus at school and ride it to his place of employment. When work was over for the day, the young man would catch the bus at his worksite and return to school with the work-coordinator. The day arrived when he could use the bus by himself. He did just as he was taught to do. He caught the bus at school, rode it to his job site, worked and caught the bus back to school…but he never got off. He continued to ride the bus for several hours since the work coordinator wasn’t there to tell him to get off! The work coordinator finally located him and taught him to get off the bus when it arrived at school. This young man’s experience showed me that he learned exactly what he was taught! When the teacher taught him correctly, he learned very well.

We believe our program is giving our students the skills necessary to become increasingly self-reliant and independent members of our community. As we begin to acknowledge that schools exist to provide instructional programs which meet the varying needs of all student, we must stop labeling some students and begin to recognize that all individuals have abilities and can live productive lives as contributing citizens in our community.

Dennis Martin, Principal
Bloomington High School North
Bloomington, Indiana

Courtesy of MAAP


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