- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000

Imagine being locked in a tiny wooden box. Its dimensions are just 3 feet by 4 feet. You aren't allowed to leave for an hour and a half, even when you have to go to the bathroom. And since you're an elementary student who is autistic, you can't hold it for that long so you use the bathroom on the concrete floor on which the box sits.

This sounds like the horrible kind of story you hear about orphanages in Third World countries. But this nightmare actually happened in this country, in two different elementary schools in Oregon.

Jose, an 8-year-old, and Raphael, 11, both ended up in these so-called "time out" boxes after their autistic behavior disrupted the classroom. Jose has now been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But Raphael, who was locked up on numerous occasions sometimes more than once a day became so deeply disturbed that he attempted suicide on two occasions to avoid going back to school.

The boys were enrolled in Individual Education Programs, a special track designed for students with disabilities. Neither boy's parents, however, realized that this special program would employ such radical disciplinary measures.

Since discovering the truth, they have filed a lawsuit charging the school district with violating the Equal Protection and Due Process rights of the boys, in addition to their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

Of course, no legal proceeding will ever remedy the damage these boys have suffered. Jose can no longer sleep in the dark he becomes hysterical, screaming and crying until the lights are turned on. And how do you repair the damage that results from a child twice attempting to end his life?

It is impossible to imagine the kind of torture these two youngsters experienced. Although it could be dismissed as an isolated incident, a tragedy that could never happen at the schools in your hometown or mine, I can't help but wonder if this is a symptom of a larger disease in American culture.

Coincidentally, the parents of these boys filed their suit within a few days of another event that grabbed national headlines the FDA's approval of the abortion pill, RU-486. After years of languishing in a political swamp, the controversial drug should be available to women within the next month.

Proponents of the drug hail it as the end of the abortion debate. No longer will women have to look to an ever-dwindling list of doctors willing to perform surgical abortions. A few pills, a follow-up visit to your family doctor, and the abortion is complete.

But RU-486 isn't just the possible end of the public fight over abortion. It is also the official stamp of society on the types of children we're willing to bring into the world children who come at convenient times, who don't interfere with daily life, who only arrive when they can fit seamlessly into the world that we have taken great pains to perfect. Only the perfectly timed, perfectly formed child is acceptable.

Raphael and Jose, however, weren't "perfect." They weren't convenient. They didn't fit seamlessly into the daily life constructed by their teachers. Even though they were enrolled in a special program, their "unusual" and "disruptive" behavior wasn't acceptable, so the boys were locked away in their dark, wooden wombs.

Someday, our society might become a place where there are no more Joses and Raphaels. Then we won't have to worry about ignorant teachers placing them in wooden boxes because of behavior they are unable to control. We'll be a nation of perfect children, who arrive at perfect times and disrupt no one else's lives. But I can't imagine it will be a better world. That's because it's children like Jose and Raphael who reveal our true humanity, for better or worse.

John W. Whitehead is a constitutional attorney and author and is the founder and president of the Rutherford Institute and editor of Gadfly magazine.

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