Educated in the shadows
Educated in the shadows
Anette Dowideit

GELSENKIRCHEN - It was just a few days before summer break that nine-year-old Lisa Bahlhaus (not her real name) came home in tears. The teacher had announced that after the school holidays the whole class would be presenting a play, and she’d assigned roles. Of all the kids, only Lisa didn’t get a role.

The teacher also made this announcement to the class: Lisa wouldn’t be returning in the fall, as she would be going to a special needs school. To Lisa and her classmates that meant just one thing, and Lisa expressed it to her mother this way: "I’m stupid anyway, Mom, but now I have to go to a school for stupid kids."

A few weeks before, the teacher had put a note about Lisa having special learning needs in the child’s official school records. Translated, the note’s mumbo-jumbo of politically correct wording boiled down to this: Lisa is disabled.

And yet Lisa’s parents have a medical certificate saying that Lisa is not disabled. The certificate says that Lisa suffers from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Syndrome (ADHS). "The teacher just wanted to get Lisa out of her classroom," says Lisa’s father.

Lisa Bahlhaus’s case could of course be unique – a regrettable mistake on the part of the teacher and school authorities. After all, an official policy of integration and inclusion in German schools has been operative for the past three years following Germany’s signing of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which became binding in Germany in March 2009.

The Convention says that every human being, disabled or not, has a right to share all areas of life. In German schools, that meant that some 500,000 special needs children were to be integrated into the regular curriculum that would be adjusted accordingly.

But what’s going on in many places in Germany right now is exactly the opposite: children with learning difficulties, who are prone to out-of-the-ordinary emotional displays, or have trouble sitting quietly in their chair, are increasingly being described on their school records as disabled and being shunted off to special needs schools.

Bad at math, or disabled?

Lawyers specializing in education law report that since the UN Convention became binding in Germany they have been, with noticeably increased frequency, consulted by parents facing this problem – parents whose kids have been told by their teachers they need to go to a special needs school. And yet often the child in question may just be bad at math, or, like Lisa, suffer from ADHS.

Some sort of alliance between teachers in regular schools who are feeling out of their depth, and the 3,300 special needs schools in Germany that seek to compensate for demographic problems by actively recruiting, apparently underlies the phenomenon. Hubert Hüppe, the German federal government’s commissioner for the disabled, believes that it is possible that some schools shunt “problematic children” off in this way. "A particularly emotional child, or a child who keeps running through the classroom, obviously requires a different approach from the teacher. And some of them apparently can’t deal with it." Observers say they have seen the way this dynamic plays out.

"What has increased particularly are the numbers of cases in which schools attempt to pigeonhole kids either as having learning disabilities or as suffering from social and emotional problems," says Andreas Zoller, a lawyer specializing in education law who has been hired by Lisa’s parents.

A decentralized education policy

That this is even possible, three years after the UN Convention became binding in Germany, is down to German federalism. The states, not the federal government, determine what happens in schools – and when the federal government decides that the 9.6 million disabled Germans can no longer be excluded, this is not to say that the states are going to incorporate that into their education policies.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is currently in the process of drafting inclusion legislation, but it won’t be approved until the end of the year, and a great deal of time will doubtlessly elapse before the legislation actually goes into force.

In Gelsenkirchen, Peter Bahlhaus, Lisa’s father, shifts around nervously on his garden chair. The Bahlhaus family lives in a small, well-maintained terraced house at the edge of the city. They have four children, all girls; Lisa is the second youngest. Lisa had problems in her class from the beginning, Bahlhaus says. She didn’t integrate well, in fact, she often felt disturbed by other children. And then one day, he noticed that there was a difference between the homework Lisa was given to do and what the other kids were doing in class: "Her homework was asking her to add four and five, but in class they were multiplying four times five. So obviously she got bad grades."

Special needs schools need students

Bahlhaus takes a sheaf of papers out of his file, including a written request by Lisa’s teacher to school authorities to have the child transferred to a special needs school. The teacher mentions an attitude of denial, a lack of ability to concentrate; she also says Lisa has a tendency to mix up letters. "The quantity of material to be learned was cut back, and after talking with Lisa’s mother it was agreed that we would adapt German and math to a level Lisa could handle."

Lisa’s parents say this is a lie. The teacher never spoke with them about Lisa being on a slower learning track than the other kids. The news that Lisa had learning difficulties thus came totally out of the blue for them -- and they are particularly disturbed because what’s in the records could have life-long consequences for Lisa including her not being able to get on the track through high school that would make it possible for her to attend university.

Lisa’s dad pulls another document from his file – eight pages on which Lisa’s teacher’s evaluation is essentially backed up by the head of a local special needs school. He suggests that Lisa should come to his school, which is not surprising as schools like his need more students or else they will be shut down.

For Lisa Bahlhaus, the little girl who supposedly can’t sit still in her chair and doesn’t grasp her pencil in a firm grip, the ordeal continues. Zoller won her the right to stay where she is for now, so she doesn’t have to go to a special needs school this fall – but she has to make up as quickly as possible what she missed because the teacher didn’t think she could learn it, and that’s 110 pages in the math text book.

And Zoller’s win is only an interim solution. At the end of the year, school authorities will once again tackle the issue of whether or not Lisa can stay in her school. Her parents are skeptical; they don’t think the teacher will accept keeping the child in her class long-term. “It would mean admitting she was wrong,” says Lisa’s mother.

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