Sunday, January 29, 2012
Star Belly Schools Revisited
When The Boy first started kindergarten, we got into one of the nicest public schools in the city through Seattle’s now-defunct school choice lottery. I was so excited, because this was an alternative school that touted its commitment to social justice and empathy building. This was in our pre-diagnosis days, back when I still harbored a secret hope that The Boy would somehow stop being so volatile…but worried like crazy that he wouldn’t. Getting into a school like that gave me great hope. “He’ll be safe here,” I thought.
Two years later, we left. I tell people it was because our neighborhood school offers a service model that can better meet his special needs, as well as an advanced learning program to meet his academic needs. I tell people how wonderful it is to walk to school every morning instead of driving across town four times a day. And all of that is true.
But the deeper, more painful truth is this: There was a deal breaker, a last straw that drove me to finally pull him out of the school I’d loved, the school I’d been so happy to get into. He was being bullied. And the school – this social justice/empathy-building school – believed that it was his own fault.
It’s funny how reluctant I’ve been to call it “bullying.” Just like other, more serious forms of abuse, the situation was never quite black-and-white enough to feel entitled to that label. These were boys he’d been friends with, boys he probably would still consider his friends. He’d really wanted a playdate with this new kid Dudley (fake name), but Dudley’s dad was extremely uncomfortable with that. He was worried about Dudley’s safety. He wanted to see some references first – references from other parents of kids who’d been to our house without any major incidents.
I should have told the guy to go jump in a lake, but The Boy kept asking when Dudley was coming over. What was I to say? We’d talked to him about his Aspergers by then, but I simply wasn’t ready to talk about the fear and prejudice that sometimes comes along with it. Instead, we invited Dudley to his birthday party. And it actually went really well.
But the Monday after that birthday party (The Boy’s actual birthday, incidentally), I got a call from the principal that The Boy had been in a fight. Apparently, Dudley told another kid to hit The Boy, and The Boy fought back. Both were sent to the principal’s office. Not Dudley, though.
Every day that week, there were calls from the principal with some Dudley-related incident. Dudley’s best friend Millhouse (another fake name, but an apt one) was involved now, too. They weren’t in The Boy’s class, luckily, but all three of them were in the same reading group that met in the library every morning. And that’s where it always happened.
On the walk to the library, they’d get out of line to be right behind him. They’d whisper and laugh and refuse to tell him what they were saying. He’d try to talk to them and they’d hold their ears, pretending they couldn’t hear. They’d wait in the bathroom and jump out at him as he was walking by. They’d push him when the teacher wasn’t looking. Eventually, he’d melt down, lash out, and the reading teacher would send him to the principal’s office. Dudley and Millhouse were having a ball.
We had an IEP at that point, but it wasn’t enough. There were no teacher’s aides in the building, and the special ed teacher was spread incredibly thin. The reading teacher was this softspoken older guy who firmly believed that The Boy had a discipline problem. He’d been to every team meeting and knew about the Aspergers diagnosis, but all he wanted to talk about were “consequences.” He’d send notes home with The Boy, telling me about the latest meltdown and lamenting how hard this is for the other students. You know, the normal ones. There’s that empathy building.
“If that is considered normal behavior at this school,” I said, “then I think it’s time for us to start looking for a new school.”
The principal was only too happy to get the ball rolling on that. I’d always assumed she was a hands-off kind of person, because she’d been so passive and silent at all the team meetings. But now she was springing into her proactive best, being extremely helpful in getting us the hell out of her social justice school. (At least this was better than the previous principal, who’d actively tried to discourage a friend of mine from sending her Down’s syndrome daughter to the school in the first place.)
We agreed to let The Boy finish out the school year, but I wanted him out of that reading group post haste. Again, the school was happy to comply. The special ed teacher agreed to teach him one-on-one in the resource room. He loved it. His behavior improved dramatically.
Everyone at the school, even those I would consider our advocates, made it out like The Boy had such an “extreme” case of Aspergers that he belonged in a more intensive special ed program. I know now that is simply not true. They told me the sort of teasing he had to endure was “normal” and he must learn to handle it. I know now that not all schools see it that way.
Last fall, he was getting teased by some girls at his new school. His teacher and the principal both took it very seriously. They had a class meeting about it. At pick-up time, the teacher took me aside and thanked me for reporting it. He was glad they had a chance to address it before it got out of control. I haven’t seen those girls tease him since. I’ve even seen them playing four square together.
What this guy doesn’t realize is that it’s already happening. There are already children being told “No. You can’t go” to the fancier, more popular public schools in our city. Last year, in response to strong parent advocacy, the school district commandeered another nearby school and changed it to a foreign language immersion school. When special ed parents complained that this wouldn’t work for their children, they were callously told to simply transfer to our school.
And now that these unhappy families who wanted the international school have been reassigned to our school too…you can tell where this is going, right? There’s talk of changing our school to foreign language immersion as well. “Clearly the parents want it,” the school board says.
Well kiss my grits. Just take over our “too urban” school and force us out because the important people want it. They don’t seem to have given a thought to what they’d be replacing. Never even crossed their minds. Or perhaps they assume we’ll greet them as liberators.
I’ll tell you what parents really want. How about, before we colonize any more Very Special Schools, we get all the special ed students in Seattle the teacher’s aides and speech therapists and OT services that they need? How about instead of telling them to suck it up and be bullied and stop being so autistic about it, we give teachers the tools to help them? How about instead of saying “Maybe you and your autism would be more comfortable over there at that less popular school…oh, until we decide WE want it for OUR purposes,” we could focus on serving all kids at all schools.
Yes, a lot of parents want these fancy schools. But we’re here too. And sadly, a lot of us aren’t speaking up. Some fear retaliation from the school district or from their queen bee neighbors. Some simply believe, on some subconscious level, that as special ed families we deserve to be treated as “less than.” Some are just too tired and overworked to have the luxury of speaking out. But make no mistake: we are here. And our kids’ needs matter too.