This morning I spoke with New Jersey dad Stuart Chaifetz, who audiorecorded a teacher and classroom aides bullying his 10-year-old son, Akian. Akian is autistic, and although he is verbal, has significant difficulties with communication.
I can’t help but point out that this is the fourth story like this I’ve covered in five damn weeks. Something is very, very wrong, and it’s not that parents are MacGuyvering recording devices onto their kids.
A family in Alabama attached a digital recording device to their son’s wheelchair. In two cases, a school’s own videocamera captured children being abused: a Virginia girl was assaulted by an aide; a Massachusetts teen was restrained and subjected to repeated electric shocks. There were well-publicized incidents like this last year in Ohio, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Texas.
For parents of special needs children, these stories are absolutely terrifying. They should be just as terrifying to parents of typically-developing kids, too.
About a year ago, when our family was living in Texas, we had two major incidents with our elementary school. In one case, my daughter, and in fact the entire first grade, was denied water as punishment for being “too loud” at recess. Putting aside the fact that recess is the time kids are supposed to use their “outside voices,” I can’t imagine how any teacher would think it was a good idea to deny water to children, especially in Texas, after recess.
I don’t think that was bullying, but I do question how one teacher could say “no water” and none of the other teachers spoke up to say, “Hey, perhaps we should let these small children have, you know, a basic human need.” Plus, it’s a complete fail as a discipline method. Would you want to try to control a classroom full of sweaty, thirsty first graders?
Exactly one month later, one of my older daughters was denied a trip to the nurse, even after specifically telling her classroom teacher that she thought she might have taken the wrong prescription psychiatric medication. My daughter asked again, explaining that I had told her that if she ever felt like something was wrong with her medication, that she needed to tell the teacher so I could be called. Again, she was denied a trip to the nurse’s office. When I picked my daughter up from school, she was slurring her words. While the medication error happened at home and I take full responsibility for it, I still can’t fathom how one ignores a child attempting to advocate for her own health.
Were these instances bullying? Probably not. Just crappy teaching, frankly. And in both cases, the principal was suitably horrified and handled things beautifully, conducting meetings to re-train all staff on protocol.
But the other thing that separates these two instances is that the children involved happened to be my two neurotypical (non-autistic), gifted, extremely verbal children. My other two children have autism. I am thankful every day that they are verbal and considered “high-functioning.” If something happened in their (mainstream) classrooms like what happened to Akian Chaifetz, they’d tell me about it. Or another student would rat the teacher out.
For many parents, the possibility of their child being mistreated at school and not being able to report it, is both real and terrifying. For parents of children with communication disorders or Down Syndrome or nonverbal/low-verbal autism, there is a worry every day. Even when you think your school is fabulous and that your child’s teachers are great, there’s a worry in the back of your mind.
I shared Stuart Chaifetz’ story on my blog’s Facebook page today, and some of the responses were deeply troubling.
I can’t say enough that teaching special needs kids is a calling, and we have been blessed with amazing teachers who have consistently gone above and beyond the call for my kids. But it is a very high-stress job, one that requires endless patience. No one knows better than me how challenging it can be to be patient with a special needs child. I get that it’s hard.
But there is something particularly heinous about bullying these children. Nonverbal autistic children may not be able to speak, but more likely than not, they can understand everything you say. To be verbally abusive to someone who can understand it, yet not report it, compounds the crime.
We know that special needs kids are at higher risk for being bullied. A recent study showed that autistic children are three times as likely to be bullied as their typical peers. (Of course, that study only looked at peer-to-peer bullying.)
Given the number of stories like this that have been breaking lately, it is time to step up and make sure these children are being protected.
Special needs teachers need to have regular training on not just basics like CPR skills, but on communication, positive behavioral interventions, and on managing stress and frustration. Classroom aides and one-on-one aides for special needs children are, across the nation, poorly paid and under-trained, resulting in high turnover. We need to find ways to keep the great ones and get rid of the terrible ones.
Of course, you can’t train the moral bankruptcy out of people, so we do need laws to protect our children — all of our children, not just the special needs ones. As schools move toward zero-tolerance policies on student bullying, we must insist on the same standards for educational professionals. The teacher who bullied Akian Chaifetz is still teaching. Her only punishment was being moved to a different classroom.
As Mr. Chaifetz’ petition requests, when schools are confronted with incontrovertible evidence that a teacher or staff member has bullied a student, the teacher should be dismissed. No exceptions.