My heart broke when I heard the account of 10-year-old Akian, a child with autism who was bullied by his teachers in New Jersey. Who wouldn’t feel the pain of Akian’s father when he heard his son’s special education teachers tell Akian to “shut your mouth” and talk about vomiting from drinking too much the night before? You would expect a special education teacher who is supposed to understand disabilities to be compassionate toward our most vulnerable kids.
A similar incident happened a few years ago with my granddaughter, Victoria, who has Down syndrome. One day, on the way to the bus, the teacher thought Victoria was not listening and took her to a “time-out” room. During a call to Victoria’s mother, the teacher said, “If she doesn’t listen, you’ll have to pick her up from school. She won’t be allowed to take the bus.
“Oh, and, by the way, when she was in the isolation room, she took off all her clothes and was screaming and banging on the wall.”
An isolation room?
Victoria isn’t able to speak clearly because of an expressive language disorder. She wasn’t able to tell her mom that the teacher had put her in a 6-by-6-foot cinder-block room at least four times recently for “fooling around.” Victoria’s inability to communicate clearly frustrated the teacher, who in turn bullied Victoria. In the same way that Akian — who also does not have the ability to report such an abuse of power — became more combative in his behavior, Victoria compensated for her inability to talk about the isolation room by acting out.
One of the cases I am working on as an expert witness also involves a special education teacher who physically and emotionally abused her autistic students. She hit them with a yardstick, a brush, even her own fist and palm. One of the teacher aides told the court she saw the teacher force-feeding, punching, scratching, and insulting the children. These victims, who also have difficulties speaking, were 6 and 7 years old when the abuse took place. The teacher is on trial on felony charges of child abuse and neglect.
School should be safe
As parents, we want to trust that when we send our children to school in the morning, they will be loved and taught by example to be kind to each other. But when we find out that the teachers of our most vulnerable children bully our kids, we have to ask, “Who’s looking out for them?”
I’ve been a school principal. I was the one responsible for supervising my teachers, setting an example, and developing a climate in my school where every student felt safe. It was important to me that the most vulnerable students had great teachers with compassion and were trained to help these students learn to the best of their ability. I did my best to assure that my students were not treated poorly — and I understood the importance of this firsthand. As a parent of a child with a disability, I was always concerned that teachers understood my daughter and treated her with respect. I had to be involved with her education, visit her class now and then, and let her teachers know that I was an engaged parent.
Now, as a grandparent of a child with a disability, I am just as involved — attending school meetings, observing, and talking with Victoria’s teachers. But even as the account of my granddaughter being placed in an isolation room goes to show, we can’t be everywhere at all times. And unfortunately, some teachers take advantage of the times we can’t be there by unleashing their anger and frustration on our kids.
A teacher’s abuse of her nonverbal, vulnerable children is worrisome — and rightfully so. It’s understandable that a parent would agonize over the possibility that his child might be mistreated and unable to let him or anyone else know about it — at least verbally. Acting out at school and at home, increased anxiety, and a change in eating or sleeping habits all can be signs that your child is experiencing stress — and the cause of that stress is the school.
What to do
Parents, be aware of any behavior from your special-needs child that might be different than usual. If you see it, your child might be the victim of teacher bullying. Here are some suggestions for learning whether your child is being treated with respect in school:
- Visit your child’s class a few times a year and talk with the teacher often.
- Attend all school events — even if just to observe when your child is not participating. Bring your child and talk with the teachers.
- Volunteer to be the class parent.
- Volunteer to be a chaperone on class outings.
- Participate in all special education meetings — but remember, this is not where you will see interactions between your child’s teacher and your child or other students.
If you believe a teacher may be bullying your child, the first thing to do is to call the principal and simply ask to visit the classroom for an hour or so. At this point, without knowing the facts, you are not suggesting that inappropriate behavior is occurring; rather, you are sending a clear message to the principal and teacher that you are involved in your child’s education.
When you are there, talk with the teacher. Ask how your daughter is doing in class and if there is anything you should know about. This puts the teacher on notice that you are interested in your child’s behavior and how the teacher is handling it. If the teacher says, “Yes, I’ve been meaning to call you,” ask the teacher how he or she is responding to your daughter’s behavior. Get as much detail as possible. Say to the teacher, “I would like to work with you to resolve this. How can I help?” Try to get a commitment from the teacher that he or she is willing to work cooperatively with you. Set up a regular review with the teacher to talk about progress toward a mutually agreed-upon goal for your child. Stay involved.
If communication with the teacher isn’t working, go back to the principal. If you feel as if that gets you nowhere, go up the chain of command to the superintendent and the board of education. And if you know that your child has been bullied or abused by the teacher, consider filing a complaint with the federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). When my granddaughter was put in the cinder-block closet, I met with the teacher and principal the next day. They agreed that it wouldn’t happen again, but I still filed a discrimination complaint with OCR; I believed that the teacher violated Victoria’s constitutional rights by treating her differently than classmates who had the same problems.
We all need to be more diligent when it comes to eliminating the scourge of bullying. Especially when children can’t defend themselves from the very caretakers we trust.