Countering a Culture of Abuse

15 Dec

I said last time that I would give some ideas on how to prevent or avoid the pitfalls that I listed and detailed in my previous post. It’s one thing to criticize, but another to propose concrete steps to right the wrongs and prevent things from getting so bad as they did in Fulton County. So I’ll take it point-by-point:

  1. Open up the classroom, at least to the parents but also to others: Transparency. Make the place visible! This addresses the problems of isolation and powerlessness. The tendency to isolate this population is exactly the opposite of what should be done. Being visible will minimize the risks of abuse because everyone will see. It also helps educate everyone else about this population. And if there are problems, it will be more difficult to sweep them under the rug. The privacy concerns for these students are secondary to the safety concerns and that needs to be looked at. The privacy and confidentiality provisions of the law have been used to keep things out of the light that would have prevented abuse had they been known in the Fulton County case. Parents did not know their children had been abused until almost 2 years after the final report was released! Keeping secrets never benefits the students.
  2. Get them out of the single room and enforce LRE. Least Restrictive Environment is built into the law, but with the most severe group, it is the least enforced. Community-based outings should count toward LRE as they are in the community with nondisabled community members. Also more than one teacher should be involved with these students in a given day. That means they need to move around within the building and spend some part of their day, even a short time, with nondisabled peers. This is a VERY inconvenient thing, but it is part of the law and it is part of the solution that can keep classrooms for the students with the most complicated disabilities from becoming incubators of abuse and neglect.
  3. Hire people that are the most qualified and experienced possible. And some schools are not doing that because they need a coach or because there is a relative of someone who needs a job, or because there is a teacher they know of who needs a job but can’t teach in another area. For whatever reason, some administrators are NOT hiring the most qualified and experienced people. This alone might have saved years of abuse, if the recommendation that the existing teacher not have her contract be renewed would have been followed. But that did not happen in the Fulton Middle School. And it does not happen in many other counties. The nepotism and corruption will eventually find your district and be costly. And this goes also for the paras and assistants. The most needy students need the most competent people. But they tend to be staffed in the reverse fashion.
  4. Make sure that those who need the most training have some good models. One of the most beneficial things I ever did my first year was visit the classroom of someone who was experienced and qualified. That totally helped change and shape the way I would teach this population. So even if you can’t find someone who is experienced, the chances are there is SOMEONE in the district who is. In my case, that first year it was a middle school teacher. In later years, I was allowed to travel and visit the classrooms of new teachers to help model and demonstrate things to do with them. And sometimes they came and visited me. One of the biggest breakdowns I had was when I asked to visit any other school that had a program the size and scope of the one I had. Sometimes just seeing is believing and if I could have connected with other teachers who were coping with similar challenges I think it would have made life more bearable.
  5. Keep the class size manageable. Doubling the size literally triples the problems in this sort of classroom. The logistcs of having enough floor space for wheelchairs, adaptive positioning equipment and just space for the students to be able to move becomes a serious issue. We ended up stacking a lot of the chairs outside when we had the students positioned in other devices, which also had the benefit of letting the chairs air out. Class size is always an issue for all classrooms, but for students with multiple needs, there is always a safety concern as there needs to be enough people t move students efficiently and safely.
  6. Connect with others who are in the same business. This is something that does not have to be very costly at all, but can pay dividends in professional growth. In a lot of ways, this blog has functioned that way for me. A lot of special education teachers have found their way here, and have gotten some degree of affirmation knowing they were not alone in their struggles and feelings. Other teachers take this somewhat for granted as there is almost always another math, science or English teacher around with whom to swap ideas and commiserate. It is almost never true for those who teach students with multiple needs that there is someone down the hall to talk to. BUT even having someone across the county can be a source of strength and comfort. Let these folks get together on professional learning days, where they can tackle issues and swap ideas.
  7. Let the teacher who is going to supervise and train them help hire new parapros. Imagine if the superintendent did the hiring of everyone from the central office who was going to be in the building. The principal or a committee designated does this for a very important reason, as they know their own culture and their own needs. The same should be true of the classroom serving students with severe disabilities. I actually had the privilege of doing this for a couple of years when we had an administrator who admitted he was less familiar with my classroom and allowed me to sit on on the interviews. I was able to explain what we we did and what the requirements of the job were upfront. It saved a ton of grief down the line when they knew ahead of time that diapers and feeding tubes were involved. As a side benefit, this can also help groom teachers for leadership, helps the administrator know what the teacher needs and expects as well as helps the administrator become more familiar with what is happening in that classroom.
  8. Keep the lines of communication open. And this is between everyone, including the families and the administration. This particular population requires more collaboration and communication than any other teaching I have seen or done. NOT having open lines causes more problems when things eventually come to light. I am basically reiterating the call for transparency in point #1. I always wrte something to each parent, each day, about their son or daughter. Most parents were fairly decent about keeping up with my notes and responding to any questions that I had. I tried to make sure that parents especially had as much access to my classroom and had as much awareness as to what was going on as possible. The most uncomfortable position in the world is when a body feels like they have to hide something. Whenever we had staffing cuts and reductions mid year, I always struggled on how to inform parents.
  9. Require high standards in regards to student welfare as well as professional and personal integrity and ethics. It’s hard to put a price on such a thing, but this is probably THE biggest thing that could prevent abuse and neglect. It means being conscientious, striving for excellence in all things. “Excellence” with this population is measured differently than in most, as they don’t produce test results. But steady improvement is always something to strive for, as well as fighting against stagnation and regression. This was something that I was never willing to compromise on, even though it became harder and more challenging at times. Mediocrity was simply not acceptable to me. One does need to pick their battles, but in all things I wanted to get the best from my students and then stretch them even more. And I did it. In many ways this has driven my desire to work with a slightly younger population in order to see if I might be able to coax a bit more earlier on. Perhaps we can make that next transition easier for them. But a large part of this involves personal accountability, and doing the right thing even when no one else is looking. It’s one reason why I don’t mind anyone else looking in. I always knew we were doing right by the kids.
  10. Everyone needs to be an advocate. It sure would be nice if there were not a need for advocates. But unfortunately there does seem to be a need as I see story after story of teachers abusing students, or of students not getting needed services. I honestly believe that a society will be judged mostly on how it treats its most vulnerable population. It has been my privilege to have been on the front lines of that effort and I would hope that I am on the same side as the family in regards to wanting what is best for that student. I understand the struggles of families who are doing the best they can with the limited resources that they have. I’ve been there and I still am. I am also aware of the realities of the modern school climate with the emphasis on test scores and budgetary constraints. We need to make sure we get the biggest bang for every dollar spent. This is one population where the “free market” currently has no model of service. We ARE the front line in the battle for justice and equality. The arena of disability advocacy is the last and greatest civil rights cause that we face in the U.S. The current economic climate is going to sorely test our society’s moral and ethical resolve to do what is right for those least able to advocate for themselves.

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2 Responses to “Countering a Culture of Abuse”

  1. dixieredmond December 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    Thank you for writing this. It makes me happy as an ex-teacher and as a parent of a son with autism that someone is facing this in such a pointed way.

  2. Kim December 15, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge & experience by providing specific, reasonable steps that can be taken to help prevent abuse in the classroom. I will share this with other teachers and parents and look for these things myself as my daughter transitions to a new school.

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