Some of you who have read my previous posts or listened to my live presentation may not be surprised, but I am no longer working in K12 education for the district in my county; this is not by choice. During my live event, Guy Stephens, founder, and director of Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, referred to me as a disruptor. I have never wanted to align with that description of myself, though I know it to be true in my heart of hearts. I think I have always known that when you push back on a system, particularly one built on compliance and obedience and punitive responses like the education system, there could be repercussions. So I have walked this delicate line of advocating for my students and families and being a collaborative part of the system. I had hoped I had found the balance of always being professional and staying within those professional boundaries while still using my voice.
I was wrong.
Let me recap for anyone who hasn’t read my previous articles or listened to the live conversation about how educators can create more inclusive environments that can help support neurodivergent students (as well as all students).
I used to work in an offsite program for students exhibiting intensive behaviors. When I started, the program had multiple large escalations daily that often resulted in either restraint of the students or brief seclusions. I had a pivotal moment with a student where I was directed to restrain him when I did not feel like it was necessary. I was afraid of being insubordinate, so I complied. The look of betrayal and pain on his face is seared into my brain. Something changed in me instantly. I have spent every moment since that incident trying to be more thoughtful, reflective, and proactive in my interventions with students. I stayed under the radar for a few years, just closing my classroom door and working collaboratively with my team to change from the inside. And it worked. We saw progress, and we all but eliminated both seclusion and restraint from the program.
Since we had proven it could be done in such an intensive environment, I believed it was time to get vocal. It was time to start putting it out there.
As many of you may know, I started by proposing that the crisis prevention program being utilized was looked at and either adapted in its implementation or replaced with a program that didn’t include the restraint portion. This was ultimately a professionally dangerous place for me to start, and I was naive not to understand that. I had an administrator who managed by fear and retaliation. She was very rigid in her thinking and, I believe, was uncomfortable with me suggesting and pushing hard for concrete, systemic change. I was naive in thinking that the data would lend to my credibility and that my work, team collaboration, and reputation would protect me from retaliation. Wrong again. I began getting threats to my employment. Where my teacher evaluations had always been glowing, they became riddled with words like unprofessional, not open to feedback, insubordinate. I became scared. I reached out for help from upper leadership, believing in the message that they ‘took care of their people.’ Those words mean something very different to me now. I was asked to sign a letter of directive that stated I would no longer speak about not using restraint or seclusion, as it was considered a “safety tool.” I couldn’t bring myself to sign that paper morally, but I also realized she was on a mission to justify a nonrenewal of my contract. So I resigned. I did my very best to support my students through an unexpected goodbye. In refusing to cause more trauma through the use of those practices, I was also responsible for causing a different trauma. The countless sleepless nights of having to sit with that were brutal. This wasn’t just a job for me but a second home. There is a lot of toxic positivity in education around that sentiment, but what we created was, in fact, a school family, and it was incredibly painful to walk away from it.
I thought I had gotten through the worst of it. I knew it would be a long healing journey because I didn’t want to leave. But the system was not done punishing me. I found out that the administrator was retiring. So I reapplied. I was met with silence. I applied for several other positions, but again silence.
The silence was deafening.
So many educators who are working so hard to do what is right for their students and advocate for change in an archaic system also have to do it quietly. I got too loud. Even though my ‘loud’ is advocating for more effective and less traumatic interventions, even though my ‘loud’ is asking for students to be supported rather than having their day reduced down to nothing, even though my ‘loud’ is showing how it can be done (which is backed up by data and concrete evidence of growth)…it’s still too loud. It’s too loud for a system that has no intention of changing its hierarchy and power structure. The system is not generally supportive of disruptors.
I am writing this article not to scare anyone into not speaking up but to encourage it. The laws are changing to support students with disabilities more effectively. Parents are joining parenting groups and empowering each other to advocate for their child’s needs. Advocacy groups and services are becoming more prevalent. The tide is turning. You cannot be trauma-informed and embrace restraint, seclusion, and abbreviated days. You cannot claim to be inclusive and equitable when you know those practices disproportionally affect students of color and students with disabilities. Those are not things that can be true at the same time, and more people are making that connection. It always scares people in power who have benefited from the system the way that it is when its people on the bottom start getting loud.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop disrupting. Don’t stop advocating. Don’t stop growing and reflecting on your practices.
It seems as if I am being punished or rejected from the system. Why am I writing this, then? Have I not learned my lesson? Writing this is LOUD. Because I won’t stop. Our students need us to take whatever punishment is being handed out and continue saying the things they cannot.