Today’s guest author is Alexandra Stack. Alexandra is a mother of a nonspeaking son and an advocate in New York. Alexandra first became passionate about Cameras in Special Education Classrooms years ago. Alexandra is a member of the Keeping Students Safe – NY group which is organizing to promote bills that will protect disabled students in NY and nationally.
One day in August 2013, I walked into the cafeteria of my son’s school, looking to speak with his teacher. The room was crowded and noisy, filled with disabled kids, their teachers, and aides, assembling before the start of a day of Extended School Year (ESY) services or summer school. I couldn’t get very close to the teacher.
I leaned in to speak, and as I did, an aide leaned across me and growled in the face of an autistic child in a wheelchair, and said “Do that again and I’ll lock you in the bathroom, and this time it will be without…”
Honestly, I think I nearly fainted because everything went white then. White noise. White light. I entered another dimension and looked out at everyone else, continuing as if nothing had happened. No reaction from the teacher, the other aides. Disoriented, I walked to my car. Opened the door. Closed it. Walked back to the school, this time to the main entrance. At the office, I told the admin I needed to speak to the Principal, and it was urgent. She directed me to a chair. I waited 20 minutes. Then I sat at the principal’s desk and she asked me what was up. I melted into choking, gasping sobs, getting the story out as best I could. She looked alarmed and said, “Let’s find them – now. Come on.”
We walked to the child’s classroom. He wasn’t there. The teacher said he was at the nurse’s office. We walked to the nurse’s office – not there. The principal now looked like she was barely containing panic. She pulled out a walkie-talkie and demanded that the aide show herself in the hall immediately. The aide arrived with the boy. I can’t remember the bullshit story she gave to cover her ass, but I do remember the principal asking the boy if the aide had threatened to lock him in the bathroom. With his limited verbal skills, he was able to articulate a clear, “Yes.” The morning ended with the principal assuring me that that aide would never be in my son’s class and that they would conduct a full investigation. By that afternoon, they called me to say that this “investigation” was complete and that it was her word against mine, so the aide would continue to work at that school.
Thus I entered the alternate universe of special needs parenting and education. The one where there are “a few bad apples.” The one where “99% are good people.” It is the same school your kids go to.
The one with the cupcake fundraisers and the fifth-grade play. The one where your kid is safe and the teachers are heroes. It’s just the shadow side you only enter with a special pass. It took me a while to acclimate to this new universe. I still thought I was in yours. So, you may be surprised to hear, I sent my son back to school there in the fall. Still, there is such a thing as gut instinct. There is such a thing as what my mother used to call “mother’s ears.” That’s the thing that causes you to touch your child’s forehead before you know they are sick – the thing that wakes you up at night just before they start to cry. You have learned to hear something that is almost inaudible. You can hear danger, even when it is silent. That is a particularly important skill to have when your child is non-verbal.
So one day, just before Thanksgiving, I sent a small recorder to school with my son. Would you like to hear what I heard? I don’t think so. It was a chronicle of cruelty.
Denial of food.
Here are just a few examples:
Reading instruction: “Say the word. SAY THE WORD. Say the word or TIMEOUT!”.
To a child gently singing: “STOP SINGING! STOP SINGING! Get the sprayer and spray him.”
“Stop singing. Hands down. Hands down! No lunch for you! No lunch…Look! I’m throwing your food out!” [child screams] “I’m throwing out your food!”
The ringleader was the teacher, at points shrieking like a lunatic, with one aide weakly attempting to intervene, the others following the lead of the teacher. This was a classroom of nonverbal 6-year-olds.
One teacher. At least three aides. All mandated reporters. No one reported this.
Try to imagine walking by that classroom and not hearing that. Try to imagine being in the next classroom and not hearing that. You can’t. It’s not possible. It is not possible that this went on day in, day out and it wasn’t known around the school. Not possible. Still, no one reported this.
I tell this story first, to illustrate the power of a recording. Without this recording, I would have had no knowledge that my son was being abused. He did not complain about school or resist going. He was a very compliant child.
The second reason I tell this story now is to illustrate what something like this does. It leaks poison into our souls and into our communities.
Today, we can work to protect the children in our state.
We can say, “NO.”
We can say, “NOT. HERE.”
We can fight our hardest to make sure the most vulnerable students in New York are safe.