I was not going to write this. I was going to follow the rules and play it safe (or what counts for playing it safe in my world) and only go public if nothing else worked. And, then I went to church.
And in church, our visiting minister, Right Reverend Doctor John L. Selders, Jr., gave an incredible sermon on courage. Not blustery bravado, but courage. And, in that sermon he paraphrased Dr. Cornell West, and encouraged us to look in the mirror and ask “when did I become so well-adjusted to injustice?” And, I held my breath. And, then he spoke on about being courageous enough to speak up when you’re not surrounded by your people, like when you have to fight for your baby at school, and you know s/he is one of many babies who need fighting for. And, that’s when I audibly gasped, and decided I have to write about this. Because, compared to so many other families I have tremendous privilege and resources, and I can stick my neck out when others can’t. And if not now, when?
Yesterday, a Friday, I was ironically sitting in a meeting with my local school district, the one which my kids attend and one of the districts I partner with in my work, when I got a text from my 7th grader that she’d gotten in-house detention again. She explained the situation via text – a boy who constantly annoys her was doing it again, she asked him to stop, he kept on, and she screamed. She got sent to the Assistant Principal’s office, a place and a person with whom she is very familiar, because this happens multiple times per week. Sadly, the only time it happens is when she’s in her Special Education class, the class where she’s supposed to receive extra supports to help her learn. But the teacher doesn’t manage her class well, the kids run all over her, and her class is chaotic and loud, which is not a good envirnment for any kid, least of all as special needs kid.
My daughter has both diagnosed Reactive Attachement Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She’s medicated for the ADHD and has it fairly well under control, but the first one is a killer and results in her mistrusting most adults. She’s also a very good con artist and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In short, she can smell blood at 100 feet. So a teacher who she doesn’t respect is done for pretty quickly. This is the situation with the Special Education teacher she’s had for nearly two years. From her descriptions of the classroom, I would say she’s not the only one who runs all over this teacher. Since kids learn from people with whom they have a relationship, this makes learning difficult. To the school’s benefit, when I adamantly requested that my daughter be removed from this woman’s class, they mainstreamed my daughter in all but Math and Science, for which I was very grateful. I still see no improvement in those topics, though, and I’m unhappy with the lack of any real approaches to helping her in those subjects, and I’m of course unhappy with her being sent to the Assistant Principals’ office on a nearly daily basis. And, yes, I signed the IEP and said I was OK with it, because my requests for different interventions were met with blank looks. But, I thought if my daughter could tough it out for the rest of 7th grade, I’d make sure she didn’t have this Special Education teacher in 8th grade. I thought I could get her a tutor over the summer, get her up to speed, and that would be a good solution without increasing the drama in our family.
And, then when I got home the letter that had been sent home was not about in-school suspension for my daughter, as we both thought, but an actual suspension from school. A three day suspension from school. I honestly didn’t believe my daughter when she said it was for screaming at the boy who wouldn’t stop talking. I thought surely she had punched someone, or been caught with girls who were smoking pot in the bathroom, or some other action that would require such a punitive response. I grilled her, and her story didn’t change. When I looked closer at the letter, I noticed the reason given – “214 Disruptive Conduct; a Tier 2 offense.” I searched the school district’s website for a definition, still thinking my daughter wasn’t being truthful, expecting to find some explanation that made sense. Here’s the definition – “214 — Disruptive Conduct: Inappropriate behavior, including horseplay, offensive language and arguing, that substantially disrupts, hinders, or interferes with school activities” which was right in line with my daughter’s explanation of her actions. And, listed in the same document are the possible disciplinary response, which follow:
“A. Parent/guardian conference
B. Administrative conference
C. In school disciplinary action (loss of privileges)
D. Behavior Support/Modifications Plan with interventions /consequences
E. Detention (teacher or site based)
F. Community Service or Saturday School
G. TRAICE Satellite
H. Student Conduct Contract
Responses above must have been applied in previous infractions first or in rare occasions as the incident warrants.
M. Short term out of school suspension
N. Referral to TRAICE Academy
O. Long term school suspension”
Of the A through H options that should be applied first, we’ve had conferences, which are of course required with an IEP, which my daughter has. We had one within the last 30 days, with no discussion of suspension as a possible option. The school has never written consequences into the behavior support/modification plan, nor have they modified the plan when Trinity fails. For a kid with an IEP, this appears to be a fairly obvious response, especially before a kid is kicked out of school. She’s had in-house detention but not in the last two months. She also doesn’t have a Student Conduct Contract. Also, ironically, on the same day my daughter was suspended I received a letter from the district (below) encouraging me to bring my kid to school (my daughter has missed zero days of school in 1 1/2 years at this school) and that “missing just a few days a month can add up to a lot of lost learning time.”
In short, I’m shocked that the school didn’t follow their own district’s policies and went for the nuclear option, especially with a kid who has an IEP and is clearly not getting the supports she needs in the one class where she’s supposed to be getting them and when I’m receiving condescending letters about how important attendance is.
Here’s the thing, though – I shouldn’t be shocked. My daughter shouldn’t have been in Special Education to begin with. She was failing 6th grade, because she wasn’t doing her work and talking too much, and so I had a conference with the administration and her teachers. The educators at that meeting suggested a “smaller classroom environment” where my daughter would get “more specialized attention,” which sounded pretty good to me. I was clearly naive – please learn from my mistakes. The phrase “Special Education” was never mentioned during that meeting. I only learned my daughter was in a Special Education class when she broke down at the end of 6th grade, because kids were making fun of her. Let me be clear – I have no issue with Special Education classes when warranted, but my kid doesn’t have any issues with learning. She has issues with closing her mouth and doing her work, like a lot of other 6th and 7th grade students do. She should never have been put into a Special Education class. And, since the beginning of 7th grade, I’ve been doing what I can to get her out, because it’s negatively impacting her emotional health. There are only so many times you can be sent to the Assistant Principal’s office before you become hopeless and give up on the relationships and trust you have built with adults. Unfortunately, my experience represents a nationwide trend that is being addressed by the Obama Administration, one where minority students are more often singled out for Special Education and receive harsher discipline than their white counterparts.
The District itself has gone public with its need to revamp its discipline system, and the new Superintendent has moved quickly in doing so. At the last school board meeting, two proposed contracts were discussed that would address the district’s discipline issues – specifically its high rate of suspensions especially for minority children and it’s special education programs. One of the consultants would “help train teachers and others on how to incorporate restorative practices, or de-escalating situations on the front end, to reduce the number of suspensions.” This is a practice that’s been used very successfully in many urban districts and one that will hopefully be implemented in our district in a quality way, but also as quickly as possible. You can read about Restorative Justice on the Resources page of this blog. In laymen’s terms, Restorative Justice is a way to figure out what’s keeping a kid from succeeding, and re-engage the student so he’s successful in school, rather than kicking him out. There’s a ton of research that demonstrates kicking kids out of school doesn’t help with bad behavior – it only helps the kid to disengage from school further, trust less, and to ultimately be much more likely to not graduate and to become involved in the justice system, thereby feeding our country’s tremendous school-to-prison pipeline. I can’t overstate what a huge issue this is.
I am a huge advocate for public education, especially urban districts, which are the only districts my kids have ever attended. In Oklahoma, where I live, we have worked hard to defund the public school system, and districts are struggling with massive cuts. Educators in my state are so mistreated that many of them are leaving the profession, not because of the dismal pay, but because of the environment we’ve created in which they work. So, let me be clear when I say I am not criticizing education overall, or educators overall, but a very broken system where a kid like mine, a minority 14-year-old with needs I’ve very clearly articulated via multiple meetings with faculty and staff, can be booted out of school for yelling. Yelling in a classroom where the teacher clearly needs professional development, which she’s obviously not getting.
I question who that’s helping, exactly?
Does it help her to modify her behavior? No.
Does it help her teachers, all but one are doing their best to help her learn? No.
Does it help her succeed in any way? No.
I don’t see the point unless the point is to make her feel tremendous shame, lose what trust she has in the Assistant Principal, and to fall further behind academically, which is certainly happening. And, what about all the other kids who are being suspended for disruptive behavior when they ask questions in class, or when they defend themselves against a bully, or when they’re just having a shitty day, because they don’t have enough to eat or their parents are fighting, or they don’t have parents? Where are their people? Who supports them? Where is the empathy, understanding, and patience they need to build relationships and learn? They’re just crushed by a system that doesn’t even see them or recognize their pain. When did we start treating kids like grown ups or like widgets? And, when did schools become prisons? While I commend the district for recognizing it’s weaknesses and attempting to repair them, I wonder if maybe a courageous first step might be to stop kicking black 5, 7, 10, 14 and 17-year-olds out of school? Can we do that please? If not, then perhaps we can just give them orange jumpsuits on their way out the door.
UPDATE: MARCH 2, 2016
Today I presented to the Site Suspension Review Committee at my daughter’s school, and they upheld the suspension. When I wrote this blog post a few days ago, I did so in an effort to build awareness around how broken our special education and discipline systems are in so many schools, and I’m going to continue that effort in this update. I had hoped to continue being somewhat vague about the district in question, because I really don’t want to draw special attention to our district – these issues are happening everywhere. There’s no way I can discuss what happened today without revealing the school district my children attend, and the organizations involved, however. Please remember – these issues are happening everywhere, not just in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Below is the text of the document I presented during the hearing today. It clearly demonstrates the school did not follow its own policies and is likely in violation of state and federal law as well. There are a few places where I was incorrect, because I don’t understand all the lingo involved, or I wasn’t sure what interventions had actually been used. I’ve noted where those inaccuracies are and provided revisions.
Presentation to the Thoreau Demonstration Academy Site Suspension Review Committee
This appeal is based on the 3-day Suspension’s lack of compliance with the Behavior Response Plan, per Oklahoma State law. I’m requesting that Trinity’s suspension be deferred in lieu of In-School Intervention (ISI) time served. Additionally, Thoreau administrators have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by implementing disciplinary removal of Trinity for more than 10 cumulative days during the 2015 – 2016 school year for behaviors that are a manifestation of Trinity’s Reactive Attachment Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, since Trinity has been sent to the Assistant Principal’s office by her Special Education Teacher, on a nearly daily basis, and has served many days of in-house suspension as well. Please see the attached “An Open Letter to Educators Who Work With Students Who Have Been Diagnosed With Reactive Attachment Disorder Or Who Have Suffered Early Trauma” By Carey McGinn Ed.D, CCC/SLP for symptoms and recommended therapeutic accommodations. I assume this Committee is familiar with the symptoms of ADHD so thus have not included them here.
Trinity’s three-day suspension is not in compliance with the Behavior Response Plan, because she has no Behavior Response plan. [Edit: I confused two plans that have the word “Behavior” in them, so technically this is incorrect, but the gist is still the same for all the reasons below. The Behavior Response Plan is another name for the Student and Family Guide to Success.] Additionally, of the responses that “must have been applied in previous infractions first or in rare occasions as the incident warrants” according to Tulsa Public School’s own policies, many responses have not been applied or have been applied so long ago to call into question whether they have been used progressively, leading up to suspension, as required by TPS policy. Specifics follow:
- Parent/guardian conference – two have been held during this academic year.
- Administrative conference – I assume these have been held, but I cannot confirm.
- In school disciplinary action (loss of privileges) – I am unaware of when this has been applied.
- Behavior Support/Modifications Plan with Interventions/consequences – This does not exist.
- Detention (teacher or site based) – This has not occurred this semester to my knowledge and may not have occurred this academic year.
- Community Service or Saturday School – This has not occurred.
- TRAICE Satellite – This has not occurred this semester or potentially all academic year. [Edit: Today I confirmed the last time my daughter was in TRAICE was last September, five months ago.]
- Student Conduct Contract – This does not exist.
In addition to the many options listed on page 18 of the “Student and Family Guide to Success” that are Intervention Options and Student Supports, many have not been implemented with Trinity to my knowledge, including a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) nor a Functional Behavior Plan (FBA). Additionally she has not been assigned a mentor/coach, received peer mediation and/or other behavioral supports including restorative approaches as applicable.
As mentioned above, the administration at Thoreau has substantially violated the IDEA by changing Trinity’s educational placement on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, by removing her from her classroom environment and instead placing her in In-School Suspension or in the office for part of or entire days for behavior that is a manifestation of her Reactive Attachment Disorder, as represented by the repeated 214 violations documented within her record.
Consequently, I’m requesting that Trinity’s suspension be set aside, since it violates TPS policy and federal law. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Prior to my presentation, the Assistant Principal provided information on the infractions that caused my daughter to be suspended. She explained that my daughter told her teacher that she didn’t care what the teacher said, that my daughter was angry and defiant, that she wasn’t doing her work, etc. Sadly, those behaviors directly correlate with the behaviors of Reactive Attachment Disorder, which can be found in the “An Open Letter…” document above, which I also presented to the Committee. The Assistant Principal is so ignorant of my daughter’s disability, its symptoms, and the appropriate therapeutic interventions, that she literally made my argument for me during her presentation to the Review Committee.
I’d like to think the Tulsa Public Schools Special Education Program Coordinator and her staff for attending the meeting. They asked great questions, ensured answers were clear, and gave me great guidance about next steps. It turns out my kid is likely in the wrong category and likely shouldn’t be in a special education classroom at all. And, she needs a Behavior Plan, which I’ve been asking for for over a year. It was nice to have that confirmed. I know you’re likely saying to yourself, “but wait, they’re with the District, can’t they just clean this mess up?” No, they can’t. Have I mentioned the system is broken? I think it’s important to note the District’s good faith efforts, though.
Unfortunately, in spite of the Assistant Principal’s unwillingness to follow the district’s own policies, state, and federal law, the committee upheld the suspension, and my daughter will not attend school for the next three days. Tomorrow she’ll go with me to Oklahoma City where I’m doing a presentation in the morning, and then we’ll swing by the State Capitol for a tour and to visit some legislators, so she can see firsthand how our legislative process works. Friday she’ll spend the day with a friend of mine who is like her second mother, but way cooler. Monday, I’m lining up job shadowing opportunities with professional women friends. I’m doing all this, because I don’t want her sitting at home by herself all day, feeling demeaned and broken. This is a kid who was beaten, raped, and starved by her family of origin, and she manages so well that the majority of her teachers don’t even realize she has a seriously traumatized background. She has fought hard to get where she is and to be who she is, and the last thing in the world I want is for her to begin feeling shame, because that’s what will jump and bite her and send her back to inpatient psychiatric care or worse. So, we’re treating her three days of suspension as a learning opportunity, which I hope to hell is successful.
Finally, I’m asking that you share this blog post far and wide to help build awareness of not just my kid but every kid like her. Use the hashtag #3.5 to call attention to the rate at which black children are suspended versus their white peers. If you’re local, I’d love to drop off some #3.5 lapel stickers so you can wear them around town and share with friends. If you and your family have had similar experiences, please comment below, so your story can join our story, and we’ll build a mighty, mighty chorus, my friends.