AMERICA KEEPS CRIMINALIZING AUTISTIC CHILDREN

When non-white autistic students get in trouble, schools have a track record of escalating tensions and treating it as a criminal matter. Two recent cases in Orange County, Florida, help illustrate the problem.

 

 

Why would a school cop in Florida throw a slender, autistic fourth-grade student to the ground? You might assume that the child must have presented some kind of serious threat to himself or others, that other skilled experts had already tried de-escalating interventions, and that there was no other choice. Such was not the case for 10-year-old Seraph Jones. This spring, a school cop threw him down and held him against the ground with sufficient force to cause rug burn.

It turns out that Seraph’s worst day at school—so far—happened because he was clicking a key too loudly, then ended up trapped in a situation where he had no good way to safely calm down.

By the time Seraph and I connect via Google Hangouts, the rug burn on his face has long since healed. He’s a beautiful boy with light brown skin, expressive eyes, and an infectious smile. In between talking about general frustrations about school, we make up games. Most of them involve zooming our eyeballs or palms up to the camera, way too close, then laughing and laughing at the weird images on our screens. After a bit, Seraph shoos his mom, Andrea, away. She’s been trying to keep him on track with the interview, but I’m at least as incorrigible as he is. I like seeing him smile. I hate breaking the mood by asking him about the time a school resource officer threw him to the ground and pinned him there.

The violence that disabled children experience in American public schools should be a national scandal. It’s certainly gotten enough coverage. In 2014, ProPublica published “Violent and Legal,” finding over 267,000 incidents of violent restraint in 2012. In 2015, the Center for Investigative Reporting offered a state-by-state analysis of the school-to-prison pipeline, showing that black, Latinx, and disabled children—especially those who were non-white and disabled—were far more likely to be arrested and charged than other children. And, just last May, Education Week published a study finding that at least 70,000 students covered by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) had been restrained or secluded in public schools in 2013–14. Because reporting standards vary, that’s likely an undercount. Between these large-scale stories, there have been thousands of viral and semi-viral tales of abuse, restraint, arrest, and even death. We’ve covered some of them here.

 

Seraph Jones.

And yet, despite the media coverage, we have yet to see any coherent national response. Based on our best available information, the rates of violence at the hands of school officials and criminalization of disabled children, especially those who are multiply marginalized by factors such as race or poverty, continue unchecked. I’ve been following this beat for years, trying to leverage outrage over individual incidents into structural change, and often responding to families who reach out for advice. Still, it was a surprise this spring when, within the space of a few days, two different families in Orange County, Florida (in the shadow of Disney World, as one parent describes it), contacted me about the dangerously escalating experiences that their sons were having in school. I spoke with both families, read every document I could get my hands on, and reached out to the school districts and states attorneys for comment (with few results). Both families are determined. Neither is optimistic. Here are their stories.

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Seraph’s story, like so many of these tales, starts with something small. In his case, it was testing day. Testing is a fraught time, with students and teachers under lots of stress, even in fourth grade. After 80 minutes of being forced to sit still for the test, the warning signs should have been clear. Seraph tells me that, following the test, the teacher put on a movie, but the sound bothered Seraph, so he put on headphones at a computer. The headphones didn’t drown out the sound, so he started hitting a key over and over again to make a loud noise. That, right there, was the original “offense” that ended up landing him face-down in the carpet, his skin abraded: aggressive key hitting.

PUNISHMENT CAN’T FORCE AN AUTISTIC CHILD TO BE TYPICAL.

Seraph was sent from the room, with the assistant principal, dean, and school resource officer (SROs are, essentially, school cops) summoned to address the situation. Seraph made it to the media room, according to the incident report, where he struck a teacher and was thrown to the ground. As he relates the story (and as confirmed by his mother), he admits he went in without permission, looking for a good space to try and recover. Another teacher began to read a book to try to calm things down, but Seraph was upset by that noise too. Hands over his ears, he approached the teacher and struck at the book with his elbow.

This isn’t good behavior, but it’s also not dangerous. Try, for a moment, to hit something with your elbow while keeping both hands on your ears. It’s nearly impossible to generate much force, even if you are fully grown. Seraph is a slight boy; when he hit the book with his elbow, he was quickly taken to the ground by the school cop, his face ground into the rug, his skin burned against it.

Seraph was suspended briefly before being allowed to return to school, but since then, according to his mother, things have gotten worse. She’s trying to raise money to get a therapist to explicitly link his behaviors to his disability, and thus make the school write a behavior plan that might protect him. “Since the fundraiser was put up, he has moved schools in the district, but has again been restrained by school personnel and spent hours crying without anyone calling his dad or I despite my request,” she says. “Until we get a decent protective behavior plan, this is going to keep happening.”

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Ashton Gelfand’s story isn’t really all that different. He’s black, 14 years old, and recently diagnosed with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder, according to both his father, Bryan, and local news reports. His family also lives in Orange County. Ashton attends West Orange High School, a massive school with over 4,200 students. As we spoke, Bryan wearily laid out a familiar, frustrating sequence of events: Ashton has had three different teachers and two counselors this year, not because he’s been moved but because staff turnover is so high. The first counselor, Bryan tells me, “was good. Some thing her hands were tied on, but we could get ahold of her. She had special education knowledge.” The new counselor didn’t know much about special education, and, moreover, the parents were never able to meet with her before “everything went south.”

 

Ashton Gelfand with his father, Bryan.

 

Ashton has no individualized education plan (IEP). According to his father, he was told he’d have to flunk first to get an IEP. That’s not legally true, but it’s emblematic of understaffed, underfunded, big school districts that rely on parents who don’t know or lack the resources to defend their rights. Ashton does, however, have what’s known as a “504 Behavior Plan,” precisely the document that Seraph’s parents are trying to get. Such plans are often coercive—we’ll get to that—but they are supposed to provide clear procedures to help children with specific behavioral needs to avoid escalation. Too often, as with Ashton, that didn’t happen. His father tells me that he kept finding out about situations in which his son wasn’t allowed to go cool down, especially by substitute teachers. “About two to three weeks before ‘the incident,'” Bryan says, by way of example, a substitute teacher refused to allow his son to leave a too-noisy room and go to the office and cool down, despite the 504, which stipulates that “Ashton will have a cool-down pass when needed.”

Ashton’s parents knew things were getting worse and put in for a transfer to a smaller school (where his sister attends), but the process was slow. Weeks passed. “The incident,” as Bryan calls it, “happened at 7:30 in the morning. I get the approval for his transfer at 2:30 that day.” That morning, Ashton and a friend entered class, where, yet again, another substitute teacher was in charge. The kids were joking about being gangsters. According to Bryan, “They came in loud, so the sub teacher, said, ‘Shut up and open up your laptops.'” When they didn’t quiet down fast enough, she told Ashton to get out of the classroom. Bryan tells me: “Sub teacher said just get out, but my son went to open up his laptop. She slapped my son’s hand away. As soon as she slapped his hand, zero to 100 for my son.”

 

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