“The Fulton County School System will not tolerate the mistreatment of any children and has strict policies in place to prevent such actions. We have hundreds of caring, devoted individuals who work every day with our students with disabilities.”
This is a statement made by a spokeswoman for Fulton Couny schools in a case where the system is being charged with neglect and abuse. To be sure I have no doubt that a part of this statement is mostly true. There are some caring and devoted individuals working with students with disabilities. But the first part?
Let’s just say that Fulton County is not alone in having a culture where those who have the most severe disabilities are systematically marginalized, neglected and outright abused. It is not an isolated case. It is a systemic problem where several heroic and caring individuals manage to overcome a bias against these students and those they care for that is inherent in our present system. To be sure, I think this is an extreme case that was allowed to go on well past what it should have. Reports show that there were loads and loads of reports, interviews and statements by faculty and staff that this was going on. You see stacks of CDs with videos with these interviews on them. I don’t think anyone seeing this video can be anything other than outraged. It truly makes my blood boil which is why I am so moved to blog about it. And I am so close to the business as a parent and as former teacher of this population, it does touch a raw nerve.
So how could something like this happen? There are SO many reasons…let me see if I can count them…
1. The students are nonverbal and powerless. These students represent the most vulnerable segment in the entire school population. They are vulnerable to anything and everything because they can not tell what happened when they get home from school. Many of them can barely move. They have severe and multiple needs including limited language and limited mobility. They can not escape and can not fight back. Actually, some of them can and try to escape and fight back in their own way, but they are largely at the mercy of who ever is caring for them.
2. These students (and the staff that care for them) are the most isolated group in the school. If you want to create an environment for abuse and neglect, the recipe is fairly simple: Take a bunch of people, put them in a room together all day and then put some stress on them. I’ll talk a bit about the stresses in a moment, but the isolation is one of the things that makes this so bad in so many ways. Despite the provisions in the law for “least restrictive environment” the students with the most severe disabilities continue to spend their entire day in a single room. Many do not even eat in the cafeteria. With budget and staff cuts, community-based instruction is largely a thing of the past. If the staff in Fulton County saw abuse in the halls, you can only imagine how hideous conditions were in that room. There are reasons for the isolation and I should do a blog post just on that alone. But isolation provides a place where bad things can brew and incubate, especially given #1 above. Students and their teachers need to get the heck out of that room once in awhile!
3. The staff are some of the most poorly trained and unqualified. I have had a chance to work with and around some wonderful and brilliant people in the field. Some of them were truly amazing, especially a lot of the paraeducators. With a bit of training they really shined, and were tremendously good with these students. And then the administration promptly transferred them somewhere else. To be honest, many of them may have asked to be transferred. But many did not. As a rule, truly competent paras usually were moved into other settings outside of those who have multiple and severe disabilities. As a rule, teachers have little or no say as to which paras get assigned to their classrooms. They are expected to be thankful for whoever they get.
4. Overcrowded and understaffed classrooms. If you simply look at the numbers, you would wonder how something like that could be. How could a class of 10 students in a classrom with 5 adults be overcrowded and understaffed? Part of it goes back to #3. If I had the most qualified and capable staff, I could do a lot more with a lot less, and that is the way I would prefer it. More adults CAN add to more overcrowding and more stress. But each of these students demand total and absolute care. It isn’t necessarily the ones who have the most impairments that have the greatest needs, either. It is the combination of the physically immobile and fragile, combined with those who might be totally physically capable that causes many of the problems. If I have 10 students and 5 are in wheelchairs, it takes 5 people to to push 5 chairs such as during a fire alarm or assembly or fieldtrip. However if I have 5 kids who like to run, it puts the teacher in a dilemma about leaving the one child to chase after another. So this leads to problem #1. It’s simply easier for an understaffed group to hunker down in the one classrom and play ‘zone defense’. By the way, the state of Georgia once had a class size limit of 5 for individuals with profound intellectual disabilities. Since waiving class size requirements, class sizes and caseloads have routinely doubled for this population. I know of a teacher who at one point has 15 students. And no matter how many paras you cram into a room to help, each student needs direct 1:1 time with the teacher, something more than just changing a diaper.
5. The noise level adds to the stress and isolation. These students may be nonverbal but they are not silent. Not by a long shot! I have had several students that could rattle every window in the hallway with their various noises and screeches. And they would do it often, they would do it all day and they would do it LOUDLY! Many of the most frustrating instances of abuse occur over the noise and the stress it causes. And the more students in the room, the more the noise level increases and the more stressed it feels. It’s not that these students are necessarily in pain. Sometimes they are expressin happiness. But sometimes they are verbalizing their own frustration and stress. And sometimes I’ve found myself with some of the loudest staff on the faculty! Talk about days where I wanted to just wear earplugs! But that is a big reason why many of these classrooms are as far away from other classrooms as possible so as to not disturb those who are trying to take and pass a standardized test.
6. Where is the administration? Probably not in the self-contained classroom where none of the students help increase AYP, the graduation rate, test scores, athletic prowess or college enrollments and scholarships. The sad fact is, is that not many administrators know what happens in these classrooms. Not many know what should be happening in these classrooms. This is a different world where things are not as easily measured as bubbling in answers. The principal in Fulton county should have known that students were not supposed to be pushed, hit, kicked and kept isolated in little dark rooms. But she probably also had no idea what should have been going on instead. Many of my observations were conducted in the lunchroom while we fed the students. At least once, I had no idea I was being observed! And my final year, the principal never observed me. He watched this video and based his observation on that. I had videos of me actually teaching that he could have watched, but he made me take those down. I’ve tried to show people what I do, but the administrators frankly do not care that much...until something happens:
“Many schools do not have a sufficient number of students with disabilities to ‘count’ as a subgroup for Adequate Yearly Progress,” the auditors wrote. “School-based leaders could not answer questions regarding the performance of students receiving special education. Their answers included these: ‘I will have to look it up,’ ‘It’s not as good as they want it to be,’ ‘I can’t remember the exact number but it was not good,’ and ‘We don’t have to worry about the group because there are not enough to count.’”
And this often leads to them hiring someone who is unqualified because they are unsure of what ‘qualified’ looks like beyond the certificate….
7. The #1 question I get asked by teachers who are just hired and new to this field is “What do I do with these kids all day?” Anyone else see a problem with this? I think it is good that a new teacher reaches out and asks for help. And I am more than happy to help them! Teachers in this positon are usually pretty good at listening and taking direction and they pick things up pretty quickly and are able to run with it. I have no idea the credentials of this Fulton County teacher, but I do know of at least one very highly qualified and experienced teacher who has been passed over for jobs like this only to put someone less experienced and qualified into it. Why?
8. Speaking out against abuse, neglect, inequality and discrimination will get you fired, it may make you unemployable and/or make working conditions more unbearable. In an age of accountability and feedback, this is one area where the tolerance is very low. Teachers who talk too much, who blow the whistle and try to point out injustice and outrage find themselves in big trouble in a lot of ways. In the Atlanta Public schools we saw this before in the cheating scandal where the district tried to fire teachers and humiliated and intimidated those that tried to report instances of cheating. I have tried my best not to be overly critical in my blogging of specific instances in my home district, but my advocacy efforts using this blog might be one reason why I am writing this at home right now instead of delivering outstanding services to students with disabilities at a school near you.
9. Parents have no idea. And that is probably the most frightening thing of all, as a parent myself. At least my children are verbal and can talk. That doesn’t always mean thay will but at least they can. So how can a parent know? Sometimes their kids DO let their parents now through behaviors. But mostly the parents of these students are in the dark, and the system likes to conspire to keep it that way. See #6 and #8 above, and you see why a teacher who knows will not necessarily tell you. Everyone in the building may know that your child’s teacher is horribly incompetent and abusive but you, the parent, will be the last to know. Unless you sew a microphone in your son’s shirt collar.
10.” Something bad has to happen before anything will change.” This is what a former principal once told me while I was sitting in his office. We were discussing a letter that I had written and I was getting ready to send home to parents, telling them about what was going on in my classroom. He was not happy with my letter because it was written in such a fashion that it made it sound like the district and the school cared less about my students than other students in the school or less than I cared. See #8 and #9 above. That letter never did get sent out to the parents. My job was to make sure nothing did happen, while the system was making choices that seemed to guarantee and foster an environment where something bad had to happen.
THAT is why I resigned at the end of that year. I could not speak out and tell my parents. I didn’t feel like I was being listened to. I was feeling more and more powerless as things deteriorated. Keeping bad things from happening was getting to be more difficult and more stressful. I am not a pessimist by nature, and always seek to turn situations around by finding new and creative solutions to whatever problems may exist. But I was faced with a situation where those above me were pretty much going to continue to let things deteriorate until something bad happened and then who would be to blame?
The system is set up so that bad things have to happen before people are motivated to do anything. And even then, sometimes they are reluctant to make the necessary moves. Which of you would volunteer your child to be the victim of abuse, injury or neglect in order to turn things around? I know the parents of Alex Williams would not have wished this on their own child for anything. I don’t think Stefan Ferrari’s parents would have volunteered their child for mistreatment. In both cases the school district is aggressively trying to cover up and defend itself and seems rather unrepentant throughout the entire process.
The environment in education today is ripe for this sort of thing to happen in a school near you. Is it happening in your school? In your classroom? With your child?
What happened in Fulton County is happening all over. Much of what is happening can be summed up by the term “Willful Ignorance.” Everyone acts like it is all okay, especially those within the institution itself. Anyone who speaks out is shut up and silenced and intimidated. Heaven forbid we let one of these people who see the problems back into our organization!
Next time, I would like to talk about what a teacher, a principal and/ or a parent could do to minimize the risk of this sort of thing. Are there things that could be done to prevent this sort of abuse and neglect? Yes! But for now, I’ll leave you with an informative video about the tyranny of positive thinking: