Who Is Watching The Adults?

Published on June 13, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

I was just reading about that Florida teacher who asked her kindergarten class to vote on whether or not to keep a little boy with autism in the class.  The reason for the vote, apparently, was that he was exhibiting inappropriate behaviors in the classroom, for which he was routinely being sent to the Principal’s office.  Why a boy with autism was being punished for inappropriate behaviors, one of the hallmarks of his disability, I don’t know.

Perhaps the teacher was so willing to kick the kid out of the class because he was a reminder to her that she does not know how to properly educate a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

The teacher was suspended for a year, but the school board just voted to reinstate her.  Now, I do not profess to know all of the details of this case, and I am a big believer in the rights of teachers, with tenure being an important part of those rights.   But the whole thing just gets me mad.  She has reportedly stated that she regretted her decision; I’ll bet she does.  Her regret, however, begs the question:  how could a person who is employed to work with children, especially children as young as kindergartners, even begin to think this might be an acceptable activity?

It just goes to show how little consideration our society gives to individuals with disabilities in general, and children with special needs in particular.

You don’t think so?  Well, let me ask, would a public school teacher who asked her class to vote on whether or not to keep a child in the class based on gender, religion, or the color of the student’s skin be treated the same way?  My guess is that such a matter would result in termination of employment, period.  It is this same atmosphere of indifference to the experiences and feelings of individuals with disabilities that allows the word “retard” to continue to be used on sitcoms and radio shows…and therefore our playgrounds.

If this is the way adults in our educational communities treat kids with special needs, can we be surprised by the attitude of the kids?

As an attorney representing children with special education needs in Connecticut, I am routinely saddened by the number of phone calls I get from parents whose children with disabilities are being teased and bullied in our public schools.  Indeed, the severity of this type of abuse actually prohibits many students with special education needs from attending school, because the atmosphere becomes so toxic that they fear going.  So often, when I raise the parents’ concerns to the school staff, they will say that they have not seen the bullying.  If it occurs, they say, it occurs when the adults are not watching the kids.

But who is watching the adults?

When teachers in our public schools think it’s okay to alienate and disenfranchise children with special needs, they send a very clear message to the kids who do not that it is acceptable to treat them like second class citizens.  And it is not just the teachers, administrators, and other adults who work in our schools, it is the parents as well.  The parents who complain that they will have to pay for their son to play football that year because “the budget is all going to those special ed kids.”  Parents who do not understand, unless they have been personally touched by a disability, that learning to speak or read should trump learning to play football any day of the week.

Special Education rights may well be the last frontier of civil rights in this country.

Students with special education needs have rights; they actually have a lot of rights, including those under the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, numerous other civil rights’ statutes, and in many states the same right not to be bullied that their “non-disabled peers” are entitled to.  They also have many constitutional protections.

But if the only way that a child with a disability is treated fairly is if their parents have the means, courage, and access to the legal system to vindicate those rights, then we, the adults, are failing to meet the goals of these laws every single day.

It’s a good thing for that Florida teacher, and others like her, that kids with special education needs don’t get to vote on whether she should be allowed to stay.

6 Responses to Who Is Watching The Adults?

  1. Cyndi
    June 14th, 2009 | 7:59 am


  2. sherri
    June 14th, 2009 | 8:55 am

    This would make a nice editorial!

  3. Barbara Giordano
    June 14th, 2009 | 10:48 am

    This article hit home with me. My son was in kindergarten last year and every time he had a sniffle or runny nose, he was sent to the nurse’s office. I got more calls from the nurse’s office last year than I can count on my finger & toes – no exaggeration. My son was sent to the nurse because he was having a very difficult time understanding how to blow his nose properly. At one point, the nurse actually told me that my son needs to “control it” regarding the mucuous in his nose. I was aghast and livid. I reminded the nurse that my son has special needs! He has PDD – pervasive developmental disorder and labeled a child with learning disabilities.

    Why were the 3 adults (1 spec ed teacher, 2 aides) in a class size of 8 not able to offer the guidance and repetition my son needed to be reminded and instructed of proper nose blowing, etc.? From my perspective, it seemed too much of an inconvenience. Was I expected to keep my child home although all he had was a common cold virius – no fever, vomiting or diahhrea.

    I’ve experienced other difficulties with this school district regarding my son. My son is oppositional/defiant and will sometimes refuse to eat the packed lunch because something else is interesting on the school lunch menu. The O/T who has observed the behavior suggested to me that I wasn’t packing lunch my son likes! And, why wasn’t I making food he would eat! Again, I was totally shocked by the insinuation and thought the OT didn’t want to deal with my son’s refusal to eat.

    What do parents do in cases such as these?

  4. Jennifer Laviano
    June 14th, 2009 | 11:25 am

    Barbara, that’s a sad example of the type of thing I see all the time in my practice. It would seem appropriate to me that if the people working with your son don’t appreciate the aspects of his disabilities that would result in these types of behaviors, maybe you want to ask to have an IEP meeting convened where you can request that they be provided additional training. Another thing I often recommend in situations like this, where the school staff are not understanding something the child is doing but the parent does (like his not knowing how to blow his nose, their not realizing that it’s not what you pack for lunch that’s the problem) is to request that “team meetings” (not necessarily IEP team meetings) be written into the IEP to occur on a regular basis, like perhaps every month or every other week. The team would include the parents and necessary members of the staff (teachers, related service providers as appropriate). That way you can share concerns and problem solve more frequently than the Annual Review IEP meeting. Good luck!

    I appreciate all the comments and thank you all for reading.

  5. Rochelle Dolim
    June 14th, 2009 | 12:24 pm

    What’s more than abusive about adults not being monitored when they put a child with no documented emotional problems into a cluster with students who have severe emotional problems … or her twin being put into a class with severely learning disabled students while she tops WISC out at grade 18 comprehension?

  6. Catherine A. Hogan, MSW, LCSW
    June 15th, 2009 | 7:52 am

    I reviewed the information sent to me on the copaa listserve–videos of hearing etc. It appears that the
    decision was influenced by whether or not intent to embarrass was present.
    I am not an attorney and do not have access to the hearing in its entirety.
    However, as an educator familiar with our system’s problems, I would ask
    the following questions:

    In the videos, there is disagreement about whether or not the teacher
    apologized. Was there any adult present during the discussion that took
    place between the teacher and parent? Why did a staff member suggest to the
    parent the day of the event, “You’d better get in there?” Who was this
    person? This staff member’s statement does not sound like the teacher was
    happy. What were the principal’s discussions with the teacher regarding
    all the times the student was sent out of class? Why didn’t the teacher try
    “all” the strategies that were given to her (she only tried “some” of them
    according to the video) by the student assistant team? Can she the describe
    the ones she tried? Was it common practice for her to make a decision that
    was counter to the
    principal’s (principal sends to class and she is not ready to
    accept the principal’s decision)? In other words, there are many questions
    that I could raise for consideration about intent. Inaddition, sounds like
    this teacher has been working in the profession for years and would
    therefore know from observation and teacher trainings that
    one cannot just assume behavioral dysregulation is within the control of
    students. Finally, the teacher would also know that 5 year old children are
    not capable of judging the intentionality of behaviors and if anything, they
    need to be led by teachers who help them understand that many learning
    difficulties result in behaviors that do not respond to consequences or
    reason. One could also question whether the teacher was looking for support
    of 5 year olds to back up her decision to send the child out again.
    Collaborative decision making with students is good practice for learning
    to work with others; however, it is out of the question for students’
    emotional safety to ask them to participate in teacher disciplinary decisions.

    Catherine A. Hogan, MSW, LCSW
    Psychotherapist for Families and Children
    Certified School Professional
    National Consultant on Bullying
    Former Clinical Instructor Yale Child Study Center
    School Social Worker of the Year 2006