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.