Advocating for change in Pennsylvania

A mother journey to become an advocate and a member of the local school board

Today’s guest author is Becky Harlan. Becky has been married to her wonderful husband for twenty-four years and they have two amazing kids. Their 14-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter were both adopted and they receive both of them when they were both 48 hours old. Becky takes great pride in her work as a special education advocate for the Arc of Chester County. Her life experiences are what made her the person she is today and she wants to share a little about that with you today. Becky’s hope that if one person can walk away from reading this today feeling less alone, that she did her job.

Being an advocate is not just my career. From the day we brought our daughter home, I have fought for her. You see, my daughter is on the Autism Spectrum with severe anxiety. This journey hasn’t been an easy one. Before she was diagnosed it was a constant battle getting doctors to hear me when I said she was on the spectrum, most wouldn’t listen because she was a girl. Even after her diagnosis, it like an all-out war just to get my daughter the correct supports she desperately needed in school.

Our son who has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and adores playing basketball was supposed to be the easy one; and I can honestly say, from birth to 6th grade he was! However, that all seem to change in the middle of 6th grade. All of a sudden, my little boy started skipping class, then elevated to eloping from the building. One day he left school at 8:30 am and not a soul knew where he had gone. Not a teacher, administrator, attendance secretary… no one person in that building knew that he was gone until I called the school at 2:00 asking where he was.

Thankfully I was equipped enough to know what to do because of my job as an advocate, and I knew I had to protect my son.

He was becoming truant at school and aggressive at home. My first step at school was to get him evaluated so that he could be protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act. This way, if they decided to suspend him again, they would have to have a manifestation hearing. That worked for the school; however, the home was a little more trickery to navigate.

He started running away from home. As his aggression at home began to escalate, our family also began to fracture. You could feel the tension between my husband and our son grow, as they were always at odds with one another. He would also become aggressive towards me when I would wake him up for school. I hate to say it, but I was scared of my own son. What was happening? I never could have imagined this life for my son. I knew he was headed for the closest juvenile detention center, but I didn’t want him in the “system”. I knew I had to step in before something like this happened.

At one-point Child’s Youth and Services (CYF) was called out to our home. Most people would have been nervous, but I can honestly tell you that I was relieved. Why? Because then I knew we could get the help we desperately needed for our son. Thankfully the charges were unfounded, however, we were still given a case manager who would be able to help us.

We first tried outpatient therapeutic schools. However, our son was too much for them. He refused to hand over his phone and wouldn’t participate in group therapy. There was a time he fled from the building and the staff was unable to get him back into the building.

The day after he attempted to be Houdini, I was called in for an emergency IEP meeting so they could inform us that they were changing his placement to a more “restrictive environment”- where the staff could and would restrain him if need be. My husband and I agreed, but only because we didn’t know what else to do.

The very next day we allowed our son to go to his friend’s house, but then he didn’t come home. The morning my son didn’t come home, I told my husband – enough was enough. When he came home from work, we need to take our son to the hospital and get him the proper help he needed. And when my husband got home that evening, we did just that. We took him to our local hospital, where they found a psychiatric hospital that would take him.

After a lot of fighting, discussion, and more fighting, he finally ended up being placed in a Residential treatment for 6 months. Now, I am often asked why or how I made that decision. The answer is simpler than you may think. You see, his aggression had become so troublesome that he began to threaten to kill his father. Our daughter, his sister no longer felt safe in her own home. The truth is that we had no other choice. Thankfully, there is light at the end of this tunnel, folks. Without him going to this residential treatment we may still be wondering what is so different about him. We may have never been able to discover that our son had Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Just like when my daughter was given her diagnoses, I did the same with my sons. I took a deep-dive into researching everything I could on what this syndrome was and how it affected my child. As I sat there reading, I felt as if I was reading my son’s autobiography. I was glad, no relieved to finally have some answers.

In September of 2019, my son was discharged. It was now time to go out into the real world, with the new and very real diagnoses. Now that we had an explanation for the behavior – we could easily have some understanding and get our child the services he needed. Not only had we been working with our son on preparing him for a new school year by working on new coping mechanisms for how he could reduce his anxiety while at school; but we also went into the school to explain to them in detail that our son struggles to see authority and that he essential views everyone as the same; I explained that in high anxiety situations, my child tends to go into flight mode while also using a variety of colorful words at times. I even went as far as to make an interaction sheet that the office would keep so that we could track his interactions with authority figures. I simply asked the school to have their staff sign it if there was an interaction. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I thought it could work.

One day I got a call from my son’s school with the principal informing me that my son had pushed a security guard. Our son had met us in the office and he told us that the security guard laid hands on him and our son had told him twice not to touch him or he was going to push him. When my husband and I arrived at the school and we asked to see the video. At first, the principal was unwilling to show us the video, but then told him we were not leaving until we saw it.

As we watched the video, it showed our son was standing by the locker not doing anything. Then we saw the security guard walk up to him and say something to him. My son then walked in the opposite direction of the security guard; not the direction the security guard wanted him to since then the security guard stepped in front of him to block our son from walking away from him. The security guard continued to do this three different times.

At the very end of the disagreement you can see the security guard pulled my son’s shoulder and that, my friends, is when my son pushed him.

Now, remember how I said we were preparing our sons for situations such as this? We told him that if he should feel his anxiety starts to heighten, the best thing for him to do would be to walk away from the situation altogether. Here our son was taking our advice and putting them into action. This was progress. But even this small victory was overshadowed with a lack of empathy and understanding from the administration and half-truths against my son.

You see, when we arrived the principal never made mention that the officer laying his hands on our son – just that our son had laid his hands on the adult officer. When we asked what gives the officer the right to touch our son, he couldn’t answer us. He kept saying our son should have never touched him. When I asked to see the interaction sheet and noticed that he did not sign it, I was informed that it was not given to him to sign because he was a sub and someone in the office forgot to give it to him.

We left that day and our son receiving 10 days of suspensions, pending a hearing to see if his behavior was a manifestation of his disability. Thankfully because of my due diligence to get my son an IEP and protect him under IDEA, it was founded that his behavior was a manifestation of his disability and the suspension was wiped from his record.

However, it didn’t stop my very real fear that they (the school) would attempt to lay their hands on my child again if they felt it necessary.

As an advocate, I have seen this time and time again. Our boys, the ones that are labeled with ODD, ASD, ADHD or FASD, are being carefully watched… just waiting for them to screw up. However, my concern goes beyond the school walls. I see this happening daily with my clients that their boys with ODD, ASD, ADHD or FASD – Schools continue to give detentions, suspensions, and even use physical force on my client’s children – Not a single one of them willing to learn why the behavior is reoccurring. Even worse? They do know why, but they just don’t care that it’s a disability.

Educational establishments must start making more of an effort to understand and educate their staff on these disabilities. It is never ok for a school to use restraint or place children in “calming” rooms when students become angry, have outbursts, or display behavior that they may deem harmful. Why?

Because these methods do not work. In fact, in most cases, the school is only making it worse for themselves.

What does work? Schools having proper training for your staff, while also creating safe and proper precautions. But you know what else goes a long way? Simply kindness and patience. When adults extend grace and kindness to students during this time, as well as give them time so they can learn how to self-regulate – that will go a long way. Don’t just assume, always ask questions. A lot of times our boys are looked at as being “jerks”, being “punks”, or maybe just seen as lazy because of their behaviors however, that is just an untrue assumption. Our boys have a lot to say, we just need to listen and ask at the right time.

My mission is to bring awareness to situations like this and my passion is to educate everyone so that we can start to make a more positive change for anyone who is suffering with one of these disabilities.

I also want people to know that if this has happened to them – they are not alone, and you should always feel safe to reach out and ask for help.

I believe that change is possible. I wouldn’t have run for school board if I didn’t think it was. For the next four years, my goal will be to shift the mindset of not only my fellow board members, staff, and district administration, but our community as well. I also hope to see us all proactively work together to create better solutions for all the kids in our district. Sure, my advocacy work started out because of my own children, but now it’s for all the children in our district. The children that don’t have a voice or an advocate speaking up for them. The only voice many of these kids is their “bad” behavior. We have to start listening!

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