Today’s guest author is Kathleen Chojnowski. Kathleen has been blessed with six beautiful children, two of them have special needs. She is a teacher, by trade, but has been able to stay home over the past few years and focus on the needs of her children. Kathleen’s greatest pleasure in life is to be able to help other families with special needs. She was even able to establish a special needs support group at church. Having children with special needs can be challenging, but it is abhorrent to us, when their basic human rights are dismissed. This situation must change.
I am writing this on behalf of my son, Kieran with his consent. Kieran is a beautiful boy who is now twenty. The events I will describe happened when he was 15 years old. As a bit of background, Kieran was born with multiple disabilities. He has cerebral palsy, autism, a cyst on his brain (which was mostly removed when he was 5), ADHD, and epilepsy. He has been receiving physical, occupational, and speech therapy since he was a year old. He has been receiving special education services since the age of three. With a few exceptions, I was delighted with the dedication of his teachers and the care providers. You are about to hear of a huge exception!
On the 3rd of November, Mr. T, his classroom teacher, called me to pick Kieran up from school. He said Kieran was upset and had lost control. I asked Mr. T what had prompted such behavior. Mr. T said he was upset about something that occurred related to People First, a special needs organization that ran a program in his school. His teacher told him that he could not run for two offices, as he had done in the past. Mr. T said the shame of it was that the gentleman who runs the meetings is very easygoing and would not have minded Kieran running for two offices.
When I arrived at the school, I was distressed to see Kieran upset, sitting in a chair, crying, with an obvious eye injury. The next morning I discovered bruising and carpet burns. There were carpet burns on his hip and shoulder.
Mr. M, the principal, Mr. W, a teacher, two paraprofessionals, a security guard, and Mrs. S, the school counselor, were in the room. To see him sitting there so distraught, broke my heart. I just wanted to get him home, put some music on and make him a cup of tea. As I was leaving the room, I reminded Kieran he was never to use his hands to hit anyone. Mr. W, who had restrained him on the floor for twenty minutes with Mr. J, the security man, with his hands behind his back responded by saying, “yeah, especially since I can’t hit back.” I was quite alarmed to hear him say this. Kieran at this point weighed about 135 lbs. Mr. W, who restrained Kieran, weighed over 200lbs. He is a bodybuilder and ex-sheriff.
The next day we sent Kieran to school. My husband and I both teach. On the way to work, my husband received a call from Mr. M the principal, to say that Kieran had been suspended for three days. I was at a loss and rang the principal to say that Kieran had no place to go and could not be left unattended due to his disabilities. Mr. M said that Kieran could stay and work with him and they would call it a cooling-off Between Mr. W and Kieran. I expressed my concern to Mr. M that Mr. W would need a cooling off, especially in the light of the comment Mr. W made about not being able to hit back. I asked the principal if Mr. W was not the adult in the situation. We then went on to discuss our own experiences dealing with difficult situations like this. Mr. M was supportive of my position. I also reminded Mr. M that Mr. W is not shy in making it public that he cannot deal with behaviors and that is why he transferred from his previous elementary school.
I picked up Kieran around lunchtime. Kieran repeated many times his joy being with Mr. M because he listened to him and Kieran felt understood. On Thursday Kieran was on the special education bus and was leaving for the day. On this bus were children from the middle school, my other son Sebastian, the bus driver, and his paraprofessional. My son Sebastian told me that Mr. T, the special ed teacher, got on the bus and told Kieran, as the consequences of his poor behavior, Kieran would not be able to run for president of People First. Kieran started to cry, the bus driver tried to console him and they went home. The next day I rang Mr. M and Ms. L, the special ed director about this. I wanted to know if Kieran had lost his right to privacy because he was special needs and why, after Kieran was so upset on Tuesday, the teacher would upset him again and send him home on the bus for the paraprofessional to deal with. Mr. M agreed that this was inappropriate. Ms. L encouraged me to go to human resources with my concerns.
The following Saturday, Kieran went with my husband to Albertson’s to pick up a prescription.
Kieran told my husband that he had not scratched or bitten Mr. W until Mr. W was throwing him down on the floor. The only thing he said he did was to place his hand on Mr. W‘s shoulder for about two seconds.
My husband rang me immediately at home to let me know about this and I immediately sent two emails to the school asking that this be investigated. Kieran also said that Mr. W told him he could not run for president
The following Monday we met with Mr. W vice-principal and Mr. G, from human resources. Before this, I did not question Kieran anymore about the incident. I explained that he had made a serious accusation against a teacher and I did not want to ask leading questions. I explained that he would need to answer all questions honestly, although since I have never known Kieran to lie I did not worry too much over this. Mr. G and Mr. W then listened to Kieran’s side of the story and what led up to the incident. Mr. W explained to me that this was just the beginning of the investigation and that based on this report, he would see if further action was required. Kieran spoke about his poor behavior in the People’s First meeting and how he had done the wrong thing by blocking the path of a paraprofessional as she wanted to exit the room. Kieran spoke about the punishments he had received from Mr. T. He told him how Mr. W would tell them how he hated to be touched and that at his previous school he’d been touched every day. Mr. W then took us downstairs. We passed Mr. W‘s classroom. I was horrified to see that Mr. W was teaching. What was the point of investigating? I could see the school had already made the judgment that Mr. W was fit to be around children. I told my husband that night that the school had decided on the report even before we had gone to speak.
The next day was Tuesday the 10th a week after the incident and the last day Kieran attended school at East Valley high school that year. I received a call from Mr. W, saying that he had questioned Kieran again and he dared to say that Kieran had lied to us. I was outraged. I have the courtesy and honesty to seek the truth and not question Kieran until we are in the presence of Mr. G and Mr. W, but he pulls Kieran out of class and now he says the story changes, along with now Kieran is allowed to run for president. When I expressed my displeasure over the way Kieran had been treated Mr. W twice told me that it was either that or call the police and have him arrested. I reminded Mr. W of Kieran’s multiple disabilities, CP, Autism, epilepsy, and having a plate in his brain after neurosurgery, to no avail. Mr. W had seen the CCTV footage of Kieran’s aggressive behavior. Apparently, placing a hand on someone’s shoulder is now considered aggressive behavior. Since I had not yet seen the video I could only take Kieran’s word that this is what I would see on the CCTV footage. Mr. W then called my husband that evening on his cell phone and had a 15-minute conversation with him that was reduced to one line on his report. My husband at this time was in the presence of the family lawyer, who advised us to file a police report on Mr. W, but we still felt this could be reasonably solved. how wrong we were.
On Tuesday the 17th, I met with Mr. S the superintendent of the district, and Ms. L, who is in charge of special education. The meeting was held just as a huge storm was beginning that resulted in a power outage for almost a week. I told Mr. S and Ms. L that I would prefer to have Kieran educated somewhere other than East Valley high school and that the only reason I was here is that Kieran loves his school and wants to spend his life in a job that advocates for the needy. Kieran was able to express this to all those present. My husband had decided that we should somehow try to work this through for Kieran’s sake. Mr. S asked me what were my concerns about having Kieran return to school.
I mentioned my two major concerns. One was the possibility of Kieran getting arrested. The only time this behavior has occurred like this is being with Mr. W. Two, I said I hate to be small-minded, but I fear retaliation, Mr. W, or someone instigating another incident and saying “see I told you he was like that”
Miss L addressed my first concern by saying the decision to arrest someone is usually done by the police officer and usually for drugs or weapons or an all-out brawl. These things don’t apply to Kieran, but she could not give me a 100% guarantee. Mr. S addressed the second issue and said he had two children and would feel the same thing, but I wanted to know what measures were put in place that guaranteed this would not happen. Mr. S suggested measures be put in place so that there would be no retaliation to Kieran.
We then watched the CCTV footage of the incident, this was my first viewing it. Kieran had indeed simply put his arm on Mr. W’s shoulder, for about two seconds. Ms. L said she could see Mr. W had not seemed to take this as an aggressive act, as he did not even shake off his arm. During this meeting, Mr. S asked me what I thought should be done about Mr. W. I thought carefully before replying and said, I did not want blood or his career, I know he has a family to support, but I don’t think he should be around special education children. He has been vocal about not being able to deal with behaviors. I have not liked his attitude in meetings. I named one incident when he refused to listen to Mrs. B’s opinion and she is a behavior specialist. I could’ve mentioned more of my concerns, but left it at that. I left the meeting feeling that the situation could somehow be resolved. I rang the lawyer I had consulted before the meeting to tell her we had a good meeting, as she had been the one to suggest I meet with the superintendent.
The storm hit, the school was closed and I had no contact with anyone until Friday. we were busy trying to deal with the power outage which lasted six days. On Friday Officer S called me. I returned his call at about 11:15 AM. Officer S informed me that my son Kieran now had a police record. He had reviewed the CCTV footage of Kieran and Mr. W and saw Kieran‘s aggressive behavior towards Mr. W. I said I’d also seen the footage with Mr. S and Ms. L, I said we must’ve seen a different clip because in the CCTV footage I saw there was no aggressive behavior. Ms. L had and even said the judging by Mr. W’s response to Kieran putting his arm on Mr. W’s shoulder that Mr. W had not seen this as an aggressive act as he didn’t even shake his arm off to respond. Officer S informed me that we had indeed seen the same video. Officer S said that he understood that I was a “mama bear” but that Mr. W was the victim and that he could place Kieran in handcuffs and throw him in jail. When I responded that Kieran was in special education, a child with multiple disabilities including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, a cyst on the brain, and Autism, Officer S informed me that he had seen Kieran around the school and that Kieran knew right from wrong, and that Mr. T and Mr. W had the right to come to school and not be touched by Kieran. In fact, “I could go into any mental institution and arrest any inmate that touched a worker and throw them in jail as every citizen has the right not to be touched”, apparently every citizen, but my son Kieran. I explained to Officer S that Kieran had a behavior plan that was not being followed and let Mr. W had inflamed the situation and placed Kieran in an illegal hold which was not the right response. Officer S said ”this did not matter Mr. W was allowed to defend himself any way he wants” this does not apply to my son as he was being forcefully thrown to the ground and sat on with his hands pulled behind his back. Officer S said he had seven witnesses to the event. When I asked if they had seen Kieran scratch or bite before or after he was thrown to the ground, he said he didn’t remember, but he would have to look it up in the report. Again Kieran told us that he had not scratched or bitten till he was on the ground, and this makes sense because the bite mark was on Mr. W’s lower leg. I asked if he had discussed this with the superintendent or the special education director, he said no, he reminded me, “that he was there to protect the citizens”, which apparently did not include Kieran. I ended the conversation by saying that Kieran would not be back at school, that the school is not a safe place for him. We do not need to worry about Kieran being arrested at home. After the phone conversation, I did wonder why a witness statement had not been taken from Kieran by Officer S. When did he lose the right to defend himself?
That afternoon the phones were still not being answered by the district headquarters. I sent an email to Mr. S and Ms L, Ms. L rang me back and said that Officer S had come to see her and also and let her know he had indeed said these things. She let me know that she had not changed her opinion about the situation since Tuesday’s meeting. She said she would be meeting with Mr. W and Mr. M the following week.
On Monday before Thanksgiving, she reminded me it was my right to seek legal advice and she said she met with the principal. I asked how the meeting went. She encouraged me to talk to them. When I said the talk got us nowhere, she reminded me to write the addendum that Mr. S requested. Nothing would progress until this was done so I wrote the addendum for Mr. S.
Kieran ended up being out of school for months. I could not see school as a safe place for Kieran. I did my very best to advocate for him. I spoke to the Arc of Spokane, and their lawyer. I wrote OSPI and human rights groups. I went to speak to politicians in Olympia and took Kieran with me. I spoke with disability groups. I could get no justice for my son. It would not be an exaggeration to say I cried every day, for a year, over this. To watch Kieran suffer so much!
When I saw the horrendous clip of George Floyd last year, all I could think about was that happened to my son, and I was not there for him. When Kieran was asked by a psychologist, when he was 18, if he had ever been abused, he said yes, then went on to describe the time he was held on the ground for twenty minutes.
How come I could not get justice? Does Kieran not have human rights? Why is there no accountability, if I treated my son Kieran, like the teacher did, Kieran would have been taken away from me, and I would be arrested for child abuse.
To this day, Kieran panics when he hears the teacher say, “I will call security”. He worries for the safety of children that are so much more fragile than him.