Dear Educators – In Autism Land, Arrests and Suspensions are Not the Answer

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay

This is Day 19 of the Ali Family #AutismTruths – April 19, 2017

Dear Public School Special Education Administrators and Educators,

I admire a lot of you. I really do. To educate students with special needs and disabilities takes intelligence, patience, innovation, passion, compassion and superb listening skills in droves. You are working closely with parents and an entire administrative team to come up with Individualized Education Plans that tailors curriculums for each student you teach.

You work to find the best fit for each student – are they in a mainstream classroom but pulled out for extra help in certain subjects? What supports do they receive, and how are those supports administered? Are your students ones who spend some of the day in a self-contained special ed or autism classroom and other parts of the day with their neurotypical peers in “regular” classrooms?

Or, do your students spend their entire day in a self-contained classroom, like my D did during his public school years – only joining his peers at times for “specials” – music, gym, art and recess?

It’s a lot to figure out, and at its best it’s a fluid-type of education that changes to accommodate a student’s educational, behavior and social progress.

Good educators pay attention to the individual strengths and weaknesses of their special needs students. Let me speak to autistic students, educators and classrooms now, since that is where my experience lies. At any time in an autism classroom, there can be a mix of students with a vast range of autism spectrum disorder, from nonverbal to those presenting with Aspergers.

D spent five years in the public school system in an elementary school where we were lucky to have a supportive principle, a student body that worked to be inclusive of the autistic students and autism teachers (and aides) who genuinely cared for our kids. Sure, I didn’t care for a few of the aides, but we were blessed to have a pretty good group, and the turnover wasn’t too bad.

I think the mark of a good teacher-administrator-parent relationship is when the child is always centered in the educational decision making, and there can be respectful disagreement and compromise. I’d say most of our five years – from grade one to five – in public school went like this.

That being said, we did butt heads on a few things over the years. There’s pretty much no way you can  have an autistic child in the public school system and not butt heads over something at some point. Some of the things that happened and the way they were handled I’m still bitter about. A mother doesn’t forget.

All this came roaring back to me when I read about 10-year-old John Benjamin Haygood, an autistic boy at the Okeechobee Achievement Academy in Florida who was arrested, taken away in a police car (his mother not allowed to ride along) and put in a juvenile facility overnight for an October incident:

On Oct. 27, the educator reported, John Benjamin was being disruptive in class, “throwing paper balls around the classroom and hitting other students,” according to a probable cause affidavit.

“When John Benjamin was asked to go to timeout he refused,” according to the court records. The educator “attempted to remove the student and sent him back to the timeout place. At this point, John Benjamin started kicking and scratching and punching” him.

The educator “had to restrain the student, he advised he came around the student and wrapped his arms around the upper chest as to not restrict child’s breathing,” according to the documents.

Let me start with this – to all the special education educators and administrators – I know it is not easy teaching students with autism. I know aggression, meltdowns, defiant behavior and self-injury can be part of the classroom landscape, and teachers and aides can be on the receiving end of said aggression. It is mentally and physically taxing. I feel safe to say that the majority of parents and care givers (and probably the kids themselves) feel badly when or if these incidences occur.

Safety – the safety of the students and of the educators, is such an important part of an autism classroom. It must be. That being said – these things will happen. You have to know this, if you take on this job. Autistic student may have carefully crafted behavior intervention plans (BIP) accompanying their IEPs, which are written after an FBA is conducted (functional behavior analysis).

What purpose does it serve to arrest a 10-year-old boy on third-degree battery? To lay hands on him, take him away from his mother and have him spend the night in a juvenile facility away from his parents. He has autism. He has a legitimate disability. He is a 10-year-old child.

D has had his share of incidences – being the instigator and being on the receiving end. There has been biting, there have been meltdowns. Once he received a half-day in-class suspension, which I protested to no avail. Do you know anything about my kid? He is not going to understand nor get anything out of being suspended.

Twice after biting incidences, he was ordered to have blood drawn, including testing for hepatitis and HIV. He was around 8 and 10 years old at the time. You think he’s going to have HIV? Do you know how incredibly difficult and punishing it is to hold him down for a blood draw? It felt like retribution against him.

Once, on the bus, he was hit by another autistic kid, who was getting aggressive and coming at the bus matron. Instead he clocked D. I was asked if I wanted the other kid to receive suspension. I knew it was a sad accident and suspension wouldn’t help. I declined.

I know the health and safety of teachers, administrators and aides is important. I also know we need to analyze the function of an autistic child’s behavior and work to discover the root cause, and then how to address it.

I know arrests, suspensions, unsafe restraints and isolation rooms (among other things) are not the answer.

I know by that criteria, D is lucky to have dodged arrest. By the time he hit middle school, he was back in a private autism school. He’s a big guy now. I shudder to think how middle and high school would’ve treated his bouts of aggression and other alarming “noncompliant” behavior (don’t get me started on that word).

Please think about this. These are kids with disabilities. These are kids, whether they are in elementary, junior or high school. Full stop.

Yours with respect,

Dilshad D. Ali

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