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Amy Storch lives in Washington D.C. and blogs at Amalah, a wonderful confessional and often hilarious source of anecdotes from Amy's life with her husband, Jason, and their two sons. She was a Babble Top 50 Mom Blog and now blogs for Babble Voices.

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Casting Light on the Dark Side Of Special Education

By Amy Corbett Storch |

Confession: I am writing about a video that I have not watched. That I will not watch. That I CAN’T watch.

OH HI THERE I'M A CHICKEN.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of messed-up things on the Internet. I’ve seen all the shock sites and videos, I’ve laughed at truly inappropriate jokes and images, I’ve backed away slowly from the weird and unsettling underbelly of the web, like ooooookaaaaay, let’s go bleach our brains with some harmless non-stop nyan cat for awhile.

But I can’t watch this one. I could barely make it through the descriptions on Strollerderby without having a visceral reaction of anger and sadness.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about yet: A dad sent his 10-year-old son with autism to school with a recording device in his pocket. His son came home with six and a half hours’ worth of audio recordings of special education teachers and aides bullying their students. Name calling, cruel joking, open disregard for the children’s Individualized Education Plans and parents, and making them cry.

I just…I CAN’T EVEN, YOU GUYS.

I have a son with special needs. He spends much of his school day in a special education classroom with a teacher and two aides, just like the little boy in this video. I have no reason to suspect that there is ANYTHING amiss at his school — certainly no reason to send him to school wearing a wire. But oh. Good God.

Several years ago I sat in a sensory gym with an occupational therapist from our country’s Early Intervention program. It was the end of another painfully frustrating session, as my son refused to have anything to do with her or the equipment or any of the activities she wanted him to try. His needs were fairly profound back then — he’s come soooooo far — so it made sense to me that he was going to struggle and fight anything that seemed remotely challenging or upsetting to him. And the therapist had admittedly struggled to establish a rapport with him. He was also for the most part, non-verbal and dependent on sign language beyond a few basic words.

“I don’t think this behavior is sensory-based at all,” she told me. “I honestly just think he’s a B-R-A-T.”

I stared at her and blinked.

“It’s probably because you’re here. Maybe we should try a session without you in the room.”

I blinked again. Yeah. Sure! I’m completely down with leaving my two-and-a-half-year-old who can’t talk yet with a woman who just called — sorry, SPELLED — him a brat because he won’t cooperate with her treatment plan. Who clearly has BOATLOADS of patience and understanding for him. That sounds like a fantastic idea.

I opted not to go with that. Instead we ceased the one-on-one OT sessions altogether (not necessarily the right call long-term, but I was a total rookie back then) and I moved him to a mock-preschool-type group therapy with a different occupational therapist.

I’ve never spent much time thinking about what could have happened if I sent my son to private sessions with that woman — a woman who had the giant balls to call my kid a name TO MY FACE, so God knows what she’d say to a small, nonverbal child who was throwing a tantrum or something. Maybe nothing. Maybe she was just having a bad day and didn’t think I would take that word so personally. Maybe she had no idea what it was like to be in my shoes — a first-time mother with a small, challenging toddler, navigating a confusing world of developmental delays and acronyms and therapies and the fear of an autism diagnosis hanging over her head. A mother who LOVED that child, that frustrating, confusing child, more than life itself, and who was just trying to get him help.

I complained to our caseworker and wrote EI a letter, and later heard that I was not the first parent to suggest that she was unsuitable to work with that young age group. I don’t actually know what happened to her, if she left EI, if she went back to her former position with the school district, or to a private center, or to work with adults, or what. Nearly four years later, that remains my Worst Story To Tell, which is pretty good, considering. I don’t want to use the word “lucky” because it should have nothing to do with luck. It should just be the way things are.

I cannot watch Stuart Chaifetz’s video about what happened to his sweet, wonderful son. But I am so proud of him for posting it, all the same.

If you can watch, please do so. And even if you can’t, please read about the school district’s unsatisfactory response to the situation. Sign his petition on Change.org, visit the website No More Teachers/Bullies, and follow Aikan’s story on Facebook.

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About Amy Corbett Storch

amalah

Amy Corbett Storch

Amy Storch lives in Washington D.C. and blogs at Amalah, a wonderful confessional and often hilarious source of anecdotes from Amy's life with her husband, Jason, and their two sons. She was a Babble Top 50 Mom Blog and now blogs for Babble Voices. Read bio and latest posts → Read Amy Corbett's latest posts →

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14 thoughts on “Casting Light on the Dark Side Of Special Education

  1. Trish says:

    This whole…..thing…..has me all up in arms. My son goes to a school that’s all ASD kids. I have complete faith in his staff and the school. We are blessed that our son is verbal (sometimes not so blessed – ha!) and he will tell you every. single. thing. that happened that day if he feels inclined. It makes me so sick that this happened to this child and his family. I watched the video and I just got more and more angry. I hugged my son a little more that night. My husband was more vocal in his anger. One of the more disappointing parts was that the aide who called this child a bastard, spoke to him in ways I would never speak to my own child- she was fired and yet the teacher and other staff in the room were merely transferred. TO OTHER CLASSROOMS. Asinine. They should all lose their jobs and licenses to teach. I’m sorry if that sounds extreme but if that was my child, I couldn’t guarantee that I would be as calm as that father.

  2. Ashley // Our Little Apartment says:

    What an amazing father. He is such an advocate for his son. Wow.

  3. Jessica // The Marpepps says:

    I got through 7:41 and almost threw up. Enough. I am devastated to even hear that these things are happening. I can only hope that this creates good legislation to control teacher behavior. It is unacceptable. I am so proud of that father.

  4. Portia says:

    I worked as an assistant special ed teacher in an ASD classroom, and this video has been making the rounds on facebook among my special ed colleagues. Everyone is disgusted and horrified. I know you will always worry about Noah — and of course you should always be aware of what’s happening in his classroom — but please let me assure you that this is not common. Working with special ed kids is, of course, at times frustrating and can provoke unexpected anger or annoyance — but most special ed teachers are extremely aware of those possibilities, and know how to mentally or physically distance themselves from the situation, call in backup, etc. And I have never known ANY teacher who thought a child’s distress was amusing.

    But, this video is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable our kids are, and how everyone needs to keep an eye on their situations (HOW did no one else in that school report this??)

  5. Melissa says:

    He is amazingly calm for what’s happened to his son. The audio is unbelievable, it’s almost as if they’re behaving as if they work in a pet store vs caring for children that need a little extra attention. I hope he wins whatever fight he chooses to take to these people.

  6. Joyce says:

    This made me cry in anger. I cannot believe that people can be this vile to a little helpless kid. Amy you are right. this video is very important and i think you made the right choice to not watch this. I have no children and i cannot imagine how much this must hurt a parent. I imagine very very much.

  7. Mouse says:

    E had a special-needs preschool teacher who was great with kids with profound difficulties and more obvious problems, but really had no idea of what to do with my Aspie (not yet diagnosed at the time). She suggested his biggest problem was being a “spoiled only.” Even with autism training she just didn’t get him because he seemed so able, but had these spectacular meltdowns and couldn’t handle lots of quick transitions. (And I won’t even get into the pain of these comments as someone who’d miscarried two VERY planned pregnancies in the previous 18 months.) “Luckily,” he only had her for a semester and that’s the worst story I have.

  8. Judy says:

    The venom in her voice! I listened to about 7 minutes of it and couldn’t stand any more. It is unbelievable to me that this can happen, and that the school didn’t fire everyone in the classroom. Nobody, NOBODY, should be spoken to in that manner.

  9. Becky M. says:

    I’m frustrated and appalled that it took a freaking sting operation to make these people accountable for their actions. I’m livid on behalf of this family and others like them.

  10. ramsay says:

    That video was upsetting to me on many levels. I work as an assistant teacher at a school for teenagers with ASD, the majority of whom were pretty much kicked out of public schools. Let me start by saying the audio is appalling. I cried when I heard the teacher say “You are a bastard” to the crying child. My coworkers and I are universally appalled that ANYONE would do that and nobody should be able to call students names like that and keep their jobs.

    Other parts were difficult for me to watch for reasons that are difficult for me to put in a public forum– but they just hit too close to home. I am sad to say I would be lying if I said my coworkers and I never talked about our alcohol use in front of our students — although never in the context of “Yay morning group, it’s Friday, gonna get my drink on!” (not exactly what the woman in the video said, but close.)

    I would be lying if I said we never snapped at our students — but for the most part I think we do a good job of keeping our composure. Still, I feel guilty about the times I do lose my temper, and try to apologize to the child if I raise my voice.

    A few months ago, 2 of my coworkers and I witnessed a fourth coworker verbally and physically intimidate a minimally verbal teenage boy with severe OCD in addition to autism after the boy broke the staff’s sunglasses. I am at least glad to say that staff was fired.

    As a special educator let me say: I LOVE working with your children. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be in this job (because God knows we don’t do it for the absurd pay). They are fantastic, fascinating people and they bring a lot of joy to my life, and I am thrilled to be a (hopefully positive) part of their lives.

    We make thoughtless errors sometimes — we discuss our personal lives in front of the students, we discuss the students in their earshot, we mention their parents. This video and the discussions and meetings at work we’ve had on this and related topics have made me resolve to work on correcting these well-meaning but disrespectful errors. The vast majority of my coworkers and I would NEVER EVER insult and abuse children like the people in the video, but it does make me think about the conversations my coworkers and I have and whether we would have them if we thought we were being recorded.

    I am sorry for errors I have committed thoughtlessly while working with children, and I am so sorry that children with disabilities should ever have to go through what Akian did. The VAST MAJORITY of special educators want nothing more than to improve the lives of their students and enjoy their company while they’re at it, and it’s appalling that a sweet kid could be so damaged by what should be a safe space.

    I don’t really know if I’ve made the points I wanted to make here, and I didn’t really mean to go on so long. Thanks for the post, Amalah, I’ve been reading since before Noah turned two. You make beautiful boys.

  11. Amy says:

    I am a public school teacher. When terrible teachers manage to keep their jobs (while depriving new and excellent teachers of opportunities to do great things), I am embarrassed to be a part of the NEA. It sickens me that my profession is weakened by people who don’t deserve to be teachers, but who have positions that are so fiercely protected by the union that they can’t be dismissed. I’ve heard of teachers who have done atrocious things and schools did manage to dismiss them, only to be sued by the union for somehow being responsible for the dismissed teacher’s wrongdoings–and have the teacher returned to the classroom. I appreciate many of the ways the NEA supports our profession, but I think it’s awful that they put members way before kids.

  12. Lauren says:

    This man is amazing; he isn’t planning to sue, as most people would in this situation. He tried working with the district first for appropriate action to be taken. When that didn’t happen, he took it to the media and started a petition. He is doing this to make a difference and to reclaim his son’s dignity. That is the goal in this case, not how much money he can be awarded; it is refreshing.

  13. Courtney in FL says:

    I am in awe that you remained calm,I would have caused her physical harm.

  14. Cait says:

    1st off, I completely support that father. What happened to his son is absolutely appalling.
    2nd, I completely agree with Ramsay’s comments. I currently teach high school special ed students and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it (at least most days. We are approaching the end of the year and my teenagers are all a little spring-fever-y these days!). There are teachers who should definitely NOT be in a classroom- that’s for sure- but I do believe the majority are doing the right thing on a daily basis.

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