"It's About Dignity": Dad of Autistic Boy Records Teacher, Aides Bullying His SonJoslyn Gray
When single dad Stuart Chaifetz started getting reports that his son Akian was being violent in school, he knew something was wrong. Akian, a 10-year-old boy with autism, had always been very gentle. After six months of meetings with school staff and still no change in Akian’s behavior, this Cherry Hill, NJ dad made a decision. One morning, he slipped a digital audio recording device in his son’s pocket and sent him to school.
He was shocked by what he heard.
Over the course of six and a half hours of audio tape, Akian’s teacher and classroom aides can be heard discussing their use of alcohol, joking about lying to parents, colluding to thwart the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), complaining about their husbands, and making fun of students.
In one particularly crushing clip, a teacher calls Akian “a bastard” after making him cry.
After giving the entire audio tape to the school district, one classroom aide was fired, but the teacher was simply moved to another classroom. A third unidentified adult in the room was also not fired, but moved to a different classroom.
Despite pleading with the school district to terminate the employment of the teacher and other aide, Stuart Chaifetz was only told that it’s “a personnel matter.”
I spoke with Mr. Chaifetz this morning about his goals in making the audiotape public.
“I really don’t have a problem with the school district,” said Mr. Chaifetz. “My problem is that we hit a wall, where they were as outraged as I was. They took some immediate action. They fired the aide, because they could fire her. I sent an email to them two weeks ago [saying] that they needed to fire the teacher and the third adult in the room making fun of my son. They’re telling me, ‘It’s a personnel issue, and we can’t talk about it,’ and that was it. But that’s not it for me.”
Mr. Chaifetz is concerned not just for his own son, but for other special-needs children: “How is it possible that teachers and staff can do these type of things, and you have evidence — not just accusations, but evidence — and they’re still teaching? To me, that’s the bigger outrage here. How many times has this happened before? How many times would it happen again if I remained quiet?”
In addition to creating a powerful video on YouTube, Mr. Chaifetz has started a website, a Facebook page, and a petition on Change.org asking New Jersey legislators to enact changes that would create a zero-tolerance policy for teachers and educational staff who bully.
“I do hope that when this picks up some steam, there will be legislative effects,” said Mr. Chaifetz. “I’ve gotten dozens of emails from parents in similiar situations. Special-needs adults are contacting me about how teachers bullied them in school. We really need to talk about this, about how we can stop this, because a lot of people are being hurt.”
Mr. Chaifetz has already e-mailed every legislator in New Jersey with his video and plans to contact them again after the petition has gained more signatures. (The petition already has over 5,000 signatures.)
I asked Mr. Chaifetz what advice he had for parents who are concerned about what may be happening in their schools. Obviously, for parents of special-needs children, particularly those with nonverbal children or children with limited communication capability, this is terrifying.
Mr. Chaifetz shared that a small digital recording device costs about $30, but cautioned parents to check on the legality of recording in their particular state. In New Jersey, recordings are allowed as long as one person knows they are being recorded, but in some states the law requires that everyone be aware of the recording. That being said, Mr. Chaifetz admitted that he would have proceeded with the recording even if it had been illegal in his state.
“I had to know,” he said simply.
Mr. Chaifetz said the worst part of listening to the recording was that the first 15 minutes were so devastating. “And then I realized I had more than six hours to go,” he said. “That was how bad this was. How did that culture get created, where they just thought they could do this?”
Mr. Chaifetz emphasized that he believes the vast majority of teachers would never do this. “You get one or two people who just have something wrong inside them,” he said. “God knows why they’re teaching special-needs kids.”
Mr. Chaifetz also had more to say on the adults in his son’s classroom: “There was not one decent adult in that room. They laughed. The loudest person was the aide who got fired, but even if the teacher had been completely silent, I’d still hold her responsible. The guilt here is not just the actions taken, but the inaction by people who could have done something. If you watch someone get bullied and do nothing, you’re just as guilty.”
The elementary school in question, Horace Mann Elementary, instituted a new bullying policy just last year. It’s a very strong anti-bullying policy, but it doesn’t affect teachers.
“I appreciate that they fired the person they could, but just moving the teacher and the other aide to another classroom isn’t enough. Why is she allowed to teach anyone?” Mr. Chaifetz wondered. “I really hope some changes come out of this. I hope that there are people in power who say, ‘Nothing against teachers, and nothing against tenure, but there have to be consequences for clearly inappropriate behavior.’ You don’t have a right to be a teacher; it’s a privilege. Part of that having that privilege is to treat children with respect.”
Mr. Chaifetz’s point about the culture of bullying is a good one: the fact that there were three adults in that classroom, all employed to educate and protect children, and not one of them said anything, exemplifies just how much this really is bullying. Why didn’t any of those women speak up? Why didn’t any one of them say, “Hey, don’t talk to these kids like that”?
I expect my children to stand up and do the right thing if they see a peer being bullied. Why shouldn’t we expect the same from adults?
As more and more schools move toward zero-tolerance policies for bullying, we need to be examining what the rules are for teachers. As Mr. Chaifetz said, the vast majority of educators would absolutely never treat students in this heinous way. But as more and more of these stories surface, we need to realize that teachers and aides do bully students, and special-needs students are the most at-risk.
Mr. Chaifetz’s words are ringing in my ears right now: The guilt here is not just in the actions taken, but in the inaction of people who could have done something. Bullying of children by adults needs to be everyone’s issue, not just an issue for special-needs children. Everyone should be horrified by this. Everyone’s heart should ache for this child and for every other child who is being bullied by the very people who are supposed to protect them.
See Mr. Chaifetz’s eloquent video below, which includes several extremely disturbing audio clips, and decide for yourself: action or inaction? If you want to take action, sign the petition on Change.org, visit the website No More Teachers/Bullies, and follow Aikan’s story here and on Facebook. As parents, as human beings, we cannot permit this to happen any longer.
(via: Yeah, Good Times)
Related Autism Awareness Month posts: