Power, Peers, and a Sad Evening: Part II

I met with the high school principal, The Boy’s special education teacher, and the band director last Friday. It was their last day before break, and it was apparent the principal wanted to clear her plate before she left for two weeks. She explained that they take any hint of bullying very seriously, and she wanted to speak with me right away without delaying the conversation two weeks. Potato, pot-ah-toh.

Let me preface this by saying it was not an adversarial conversation. The principal and I did most of the talking, and we understood each other to a great extent. But, she lost me when she could see both sides of the issue. I bit my tongue, let her finish her thought, and promptly explained that I used to be a band director for a living and that behavior was never, ever acceptable. You don’t touch other people’s instruments. She didn’t disagree.

She felt it wasn’t malicious, and therefore it wasn’t bullying but an extremely poor choice. The kids involved felt The Boy was playing wrong notes, and that they needed to apparently stop him from doing so. She said she questioned them on that when she spoke to them, asking who had given them the authority to do that. They couldn’t answer. They were very remorseful, she said.

We talked more about whether or not The Boy is included in the band class, and in the school as a whole. She said she thought I saw different things at home than they did in school. “He has a group of people that he hugs and gives high fives to every day,” she said. “I know, but he doesn’t know the name of the kid he sits next to every day in band,” I said. They went back and forth between trying to assure me that no one has negative feelings toward him, and highlighting how he keeps to himself and insists during sectionals that he knows the material. She admitted that one of the students she spoke with about the incident “guessed” that The Boy was autistic because as he explained it, “I don’t know anything about autism, so that must be what he has.”

Ugh.

They continued to prove my point while it continued to go over their heads. She insisted that they would have done the same to any other students who might have been playing wrong notes, and I knew that was preventative defense against further action from me. Because that is a load of horseshit, if you’ll excuse my language. They know my son doesn’t have the verbal agility to defend himself or get the attention of the teacher, or even explain what happened after the fact. I only found out because a friend’s kid watched it go down. They took advantage of him precisely because of his autism. If this wasn’t bullying, it was a shocking display of the bias that exists in the school culture that students with disabilities are “less than,” and that excluding others from participating will get you a stern talking to from the principal and that’s it, because you didn’t mean any harm, and are “good kids.”

Before the meeting ended, as it was clear the principal was ready to get to her vacation, I requested they investigate peer to peer programs and seriously consider implementing something so that a “poor choice” like this wouldn’t even enter their minds in the future. I got some vague promises to look into it, and the meeting was over.

But it’s not over.

I’ve already drafted a follow up email to be sent with my further reflections on the incident and how it was handled. And I will also be following up with the various and sundry promises made. I can be a magnificent thorn when I want to be.

I’ll keep you posted.

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6 Ways Schools Could Open Doors for Students with Special Needs

opening doorsPublic schools are being asked to do so much right now, and so much of what they are being forced to do is a waste of time. Music and the arts are being cut, students are overloaded with standardized tests, and even recess is being shortened so work can be completed. In short, schools are being forced to run like businesses, but our children are not raw materials, nor are they products.  They are children.  And when the pendulum swings back (I hope to God it does), when more rational heads prevail in remembering that we are teaching human beings how to be human beings, rather than filling little heads with facts, maybe then the schools will have an opportunity to begin filling gaps and opening doors for our students with special needs.  Here are some ways they could begin:

  1. Mentor/Mentee programs These programs connect students with an adult in the school community who can meet with them on a regular basis, build a positive relationship, and provide guidance to students.  The Boy has built this kind of relationship with the business and computer teacher at school, quite organically.  He doesn’t even have her as a teacher, but they use time with her as a reward for positive behaviors at school, and she is often a reason he wants to go to school.
  2. Peer to Peer programs I’ve written about how successful these programs can be not only for students with special needs, but for typical students, as well.  Building Relationships between kids, and providing avenues for them to learn about each other as people can only result in good things. When everyone’s needs are met, bullying just isn’t a thing.
  3. Peer Mediation programs These programs foster conflict resolution skills in our young people.  At first they are taught and coached through the steps of providing mediation for peers who are in conflict.  After practice, they become second nature, and the students involved with these programs become leaders, as they have the skills to help their peers relate to each other in positive ways.
  4. Social Skills programs Carving time out of a busy school day to provide direct instruction to students about how to initiate and maintain positive social interaction seems like it makes perfect sense for those students who naturally have defects in this area.  It can also make perfect sense for those students you may assume has these skills already, but may not, or may struggle with these skills privately.
  5. Critical Thinking Instruction More than anything else, we need to be teaching students how to really think, rather than regurgitate readily available information.  We need to be teaching them how to make rational decisions, how to determine whether a source is credible, how to examine their own thoughts and opinions, and how to interpret the world around them.  For special needs students, this can be especially difficult, but even more necessary as we prepare them for their adulthoods with varying degrees of assistance.
  6. Creativity and Problem Solving Instruction Children today do not have much opportunity to be creative.  And when we cut art and music programs, we are essentially saying that being creative is not a high priority in today’s job market – what could be further from the truth? There are many ways teachers can provide opportunities within their current limitations to foster creativity and problem solving, and many ways we can help special needs students be creative.

The great thing about school programs that benefit students with special needs is that they often benefit all students.  We assume that typical kids don’t struggle with the same things as those with special needs do, but they do.  They are often better at hiding it, because it may not be as dire a struggle.  What middle schooler do you know that wouldn’t benefit from a social skills class or a peer to peer program?  What kindergartner wouldn’t benefit from some opportunities to be creative?  What person on Earth would not benefit from having a mentor?

When we finally do something to correct the course of public schools, and begin to focus on the person rather than the content, these 6 programs would be a good start to guiding all of our students to being better human beings.

Peer to Peer: How to Make Sure Pranks on Kids with Autism Don’t Happen

There are too many stories of horrific acts done to kids on the spectrum these days.  The ice bucket challenge “prank” in Ohio, the boy in Pittsburgh duct-taped to a soccer goal… Targeted hate crimes if you ask me.  I’m appalled that schools and law enforcement seem to be utterly reactive in these situations, as well.  Taking plenty of time to “investigate” while handing down weak “discipline”.  It is so utterly disheartening to read about these attacks.

What I know is that the chances of that type of thing happening in the district where The Boy went to school from kindergarten through 5th grade were  and are slim to none.  Why?  Because they were proactive.  When they created an autism program, they also created a program for the neurotypical students that would be encountering this population in their classrooms.

In The Boy’s case, it started as “Grub Club” where the kids in the ASD program were able to go out into the community for lunch once a month and invite an NT student/friend.  The kids in the spectrum get real practice using social skills, and the NT kids get to know the ASD kids as real people, away from the peer pressure.

Grub Club morphed into the LINKS program (more info here), and by the time The Boy was in 5th grade, almost the entire 5th grade class had signed up to be a LINK.  They received special “training” and volunteered to buddy up with their ASD friends in class on projects.  When I watched The Boy and his classmates, they never hesitated to help him find where to go at the choir concert, and never refused a birthday party invitation.

friends

You can’t expect neurotypical kids to know how to deal with kids on the spectrum.  You can hope their families have given them some good training on how to treat other human beings, but sadly, this is not even the case the majority of the time.  If you are going to teach my kid with autism how to react to the neurotypical world, you had better also be teaching those NT kids how to deal with my kid with autism.  When you don’t, you are missing teaching lessons as important as anything in the Common Core.  And maybe your district will be the next one on the national news, dealing with some horrific act perpetrated by your students who were never taught these important life lessons.