I posted my last article of 2014 last night, and I talked about how my son needed an MRI after he received a concussion at his school stemming from his 8th physical assault since the end of August. Since then, the number one question I have received is why. That’s not an easy question for me to answer. If I knew the answer I could try to fix the problem
It’s very easy for me to focus on Priority Schools, FOIAs, charter school financial mismanagement and non-profit tax forms for educational lobbyist groups. The answers come very easy for me with just a little bit of investigation. Disability bullying is a very tough topic. It’s personal for me because it involves my son. And I will need help from other parents who have gone through or are going through these types of ordeals. This needs to be an ongoing conversations between parents and schools. It can’t just be the schools.
When I was a student, way back in the glory days of the 1980s, I never once saw a fight in a classroom. Granted, I lived in a wealthier area than most, and I’m sure that contributed to the lack of classroom violence. I saw fights in gym, lunch, in the hallways, or after school. But never in an instructive environment. Students never swore at teachers, they never hit teachers, and they certainly didn’t get expelled at the alarming rate they do today. For the most part, these teachers respected their students. They allowed them to be individuals and they knew their individual cognitive abilities, when put together in a collective form, led to a safe and stable environment. This isn’t to say the system was perfect or I was the ideal student.
I got in trouble, quite a bit. My senior year of school the main office got a brand new attendance system called Scantron which was supposedly unbeatable. I found the loophole, which allowed me to skip many days of school without a single red flag. The only reason I got busted for my hookie free days was because I forgot to take one of the crucial steps in my mischievous process which blew my whole game. That problem never occurred again at my high school. This was probably my worst behavior at school.
Today, parents get a call from the school if children are not in the system and the school hasn’t been notified. Administrative staff and support are in our schools at greater numbers than they were in years past. Special education support in the form of occupational therapists and speech and language pathologists are in our schools everyday. We have behavior coaches, reading specialists, and physical therapists. So why does bullying against students with disabilities occur in far greater numbers than they have in years past?
There is no question disabilities among our youth have risen, and will continue to rise. We are a society poisoned by the horrible chemicals around us; in our food, our air, and the water we drink. Evolution is actually changing with human beings, and our children are changing genetically as a result. It is allowing humans to survive and co-exist with these chemicals but the results are vastly different brain functions.
Some children can acclimate and successfully thrive in an inclusive environment. Others need to be isolated with their disabled peers to be able to get through the day. And some are right in the middle. Some days they tip towards the inclusive world, and other days, the opposite. After years of experience, I believe my son is in this group. I also firmly believe it could be prevented, for him and many other students. I believe these students who are in the middle of this special education world have to be the most frustrating and complex for all involved: other students, teachers, administration, school staff, parents, specialists and even the individual student. I’m quite sure many wonder which version of that student they are going to get each day. The IEP process can be torture, and if one side sticks to one subject, long meetings can be assured. These are usually very smart children who can function most days, but the wiring in their brain doesn’t always allow them to be who we want them to be. This is not their fault. It is who they are, and we ALL need to accept that.
Add to this the pressure of demands put on educators these days: professional development, Common Core curriculum, the fate of their jobs resting on standardized test scores, so afraid of doing the wrong thing and facing retaliation, afraid of fighting for the right of a student to an administrator, and so on. This is the world our teachers live in, and this can’t be ignored either.
Yesterday, on Twitter, education activists were asked to use the hashtag #whatif to state their stances and ask questions about public education. I got on, and I started asking some tough questions. One teacher had a very interesting response to my what if question of “Whatif school staff & students had mandatory monthly training on each student’s IEPs instead of professional development each week?” This teacher wrote the following responses: “Wow! I say no to both! #respectourtime.” I wrote back “#respectmytime & not 7-8 IEP meetings in 3 months cause some teachers don’t get it, nothing personal.” Her responses included the following “But SPED is a whole other ball of incompetence and mandates that have nothing 2 do with amazing multiple degreed educators.” “That’s more of a instructional/leadership issue, LOL.” I responsed: “I agree, but IEPs work if they are followed. Ignoring accommodations is not a crowd pleaser.” What this teacher completely ignored in my initial questions was the word students. I firmly believe the more other non-disabled students know about an individual student’s disabilities the more willing they are to accept those differences and ignore manifestations of those disabilities when they come up. This has actually been proven time and time again in case studies and especially for those who have Tourette Syndrome.
I’m not talking about a once a year training, I’m talking about ongoing, throughout the school year training. With staff and students. Going to students at the beginning of the year and saying “This student has Tourette Syndrome. He may have tics which are body movements or vocal sounds beyond their control” is good, but it is a process. Most students without disabilities lack the ability to understand things that are vastly different unless they are educated on it with a continuous process.
I see many schools, and I walk in, and see big banners about “No Bullying”. I often see posters students have made with reasons why bullying shouldn’t happen or why it is so wrong. These are good, but actions speak louder than words or posters. When is the right time for an educator to intervene when they witness a situation developing? When they witness students joking around and they overhear something another student could view as offensive? Are educators actively listening to conversations among students? Do the words “Stop” or “Don’t do that” carry any weight with students?
During my brief time as a paraprofessional in an 8th and 9th grade math class at a charter school, I found the answer to this. I would say those words all the time to students, and I would get either “the look” or “but he/she said…”. It wouldn’t defuse the situation. I tried a new tactic. I would get right in the middle of the disagreement or argument, tell a joke, or say something so ridiculous or off the wall the students would think I was the weird one. This brought tempers down. Then I would try to find something the students might have in common, such as a recent movie or a sports team. Not only would this help bring the counter back to zero, it could also be a bridge for these students to realize they could actually be friends if they put their differences aside. Did it work in the long run? I have no idea but I know it was better than telling them to stop or shushing them.
I know one thing, and students will always respond better to verbal praise then talking down to them. I have seen this written in IEPs, and I always ask myself, “Shouldn’t this be for EVERY student?” On the flip side of this though, is the dreaded active parent of a student with disabilities. When something goes down, and the administration knows Mom or Dad will be calling or coming in and fireworks will fly. The hotheads that can turn a day into a nightmare. I am one of those parents. And this is why, and any parents like me will assuredly agree:
1) We don’t like being ignored. We want to know immediately when something happens and the details around it. We hate hearing “we have to do an investigation.” We hate even more when we never hear anything back about the results of that investigation.
2) We don’t like people showing up late for IEP meetings, or people leaving early. We don’t like being told “we have to move on, time is running out”.
3) We don’t like when educators or staff tell us they will do something, and when they don’t, and we call them out on it, we are continuously ignored. We don’t like being told the best way to communicate with a teacher is through email and then we don’t hear back from them three weeks later.
4) We don’t like having to wait until yet another IEP meeting to address these issues, because no matter what the agenda is for that IEP meeting, parents feelings of being ignored WILL become the top priority. And we will not be happy about it.
5) We hate when anyone from a school does not follow the IEP and decides to arbitrarily and unilaterally change something without discussing it first or at least giving the courtesy of a phone call or email.
6) We don’t like being blindsided in an IEP meeting with “behavior” issues and being told the school thinks events happen because the student chooses to have something happen. The whole point of an IEP is so people understand the manifestation of disabilities and how to work with them and not against them.
7) We understand our special needs children can cause conflict. We understand they can royally tick someone off. We also understand the guilt our children feel about it afterwards or when they come home from school. When they are crying or upset and start blaming their disability for who they are. When any school staff says behavior is the issue and not the disability they are undermining the entire process. The student is most likely going to have this “behavior” more because it is being treated as such. This is why it is crucial for all staff to understand disabilities and their natures and characteristics.
8) We will never understand how physical bullying can occur. Schools are supposed to be safe havens for children and teenagers. Excuses such as “we couldn’t get there in time to stop it” or “we don’t have the funding to give that amount of supervision” will fall on deaf ears. Most bullying situations CAN and SHOULD be prevented before they explode into physical violence. More vigilance is needed, and if that means teachers need to be more active during transitional times or during recess or lunch, then so be it. And this is not social time to discuss events with your colleagues. This is the most crucial time of the day. Schools should also ramp up efforts for parent volunteers to help out. But if parents are having problems with the school, this will be difficult. It’s a double-edged sword.
9) Office staff serve as the front lines between parents and school staff. They should NOT, under ANY circumstance, be disrespectful to parents or their concerns. They should not get in their face if the parent is upset from a situation that caused their child physical pain or emotional turmoil. When a parent wants to speak to an administrator because someone dropped the ball in a big way, they should make every concerted effort to get someone as soon as possible. In a way, you are the face of the school, and if you present yourself in such a way that a situation will become worse, that is not a good place to be. If this means actually interrupting an administrator during a staff meeting or a training meeting, at least you are showing an attempt.
10) Administrators, counselors, and disciplinarians need to FULLY understand any and all students IEPs. When parents hear someone say “I skimmed it over”, it sends a clear message of “I don’t understand your child but these are the rules and that’s how it’s going to be.”
We can be difficult, but this is not our goal. What you don’t understand is that we WANT to work with you. We WANT our communication to be pleasant. But if we are rebuffed or ignored, your right for respect went out the window. We are not your “guest”. We are not there by privilege. We are there as an EQUAL member of the community.
For the parents of those who bully with physical assaults against our children: Talk to your child. Get them counseling if they need it. Help them to understand that differences are something that should not be made fun of, but something that should actually be celebrated and admired. I have actually heard some parents (not all) tell me they don’t teach their child to bully but in the same conversation they have told of situations where they “whooped their ass” or “beat them”. You ARE creating a bullying environment with your actions. You ARE teaching your child might is right. YOU ARE CREATING A BULLY!!!!
Like I said, I don’t have easy answers to this. I can’t go into people’s homes and change the environment. As much as I would like to, I can’t go to schools everyday and look for the answers. This needs to be a community conversation. It is more important than Common Core, or standardized tests. In fact, the environment created by those two monsters has most likely led to increased bullying. Rigor is a very dangerous thing, and it should not be what school is about. Save that for high school or college when students HAVE to do well, or it will be much harder for them to succeed in the outside world. But the reality is this: bullying was around way before Common Core and Smarter Balanced. It was around before the New Math. It was around before No Child Left Behind.
I’ve said this before, and the only way to change a conversation is to confront it, head on. This is my New Years resolution for 2015. If people don’t like it, that’s just too bad. I didn’t create this, but I will not sit idly back while ANY child with disabilities goes through what my child has gone through. If you feel the same way, let’s start our own IEP Task Force, without any teachers or educators or legislators or members of this group or that group. Just parents, with no strings tied to any organization or person that could limit our ability to speak candidly or honestly.
As for the school districts: I will start keeping track of these things. I will find out if you are skimming numbers in regards to bullying in any type of way. I will call you out on it if I find out. Fair warning. This isn’t a threat. This is the new reality. I am NOT a parent who will ignore this reality. These are children’s lives. These are matters of safety. NO CHILD should get seriously hurt or God forbid, killed, when it could and should be prevented. I don’t care if you are a charter school, public school district, vocational, magnet or even a private school. If you are fostering an environment of bullying or ignoring it, I will expose it.
If you are of a like mind, and want to join me, please reach out to me about joining a Facebook group I have created called Delaware Special Needs Parents. To all my educator friends and legislators or members of different councils, please only request to join this group if it is for the sole purpose of eliminating these types of things. This is not a group to discuss educator rights. This is a group to discuss our children and their own rights, especially in terms of bullying and the IEP process. No disrespect intended to any of you, but this needs to be a parents first thing. I stand with you on many issues, and you know that, and I will continue to do so.