Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do you really need special training to know not to cram an autistic 9-year-old into a duffel bag?

Every once in a while, I come across a story so mind-meltingly unbelievable I think I’m reading something from the Onion. This is one such case. I sincerely hope that this is a false allegation (which would be troubling enough in its own right) and not what it appears to be.

Anyway… there’s a story coming out of Mercer County, Kentucky about a 9-year-old boy—an autistic child—named Chris Baker who appears to have been punished for some transgression at school by being crammed into a bag intended for gym balls. Yes, really.

This much of the story seems not to be in doubt: The boy is enrolled in a program for children with special needs at Mercer County Intermediate School. He was apparently misbehaving at school to the extent that two things happened: 1). he was restrained in the bag and 2). his mother, Sandra, was called to the school.

Here’s her description of what happened next, pieced together from a number of news reports (the one linked above, plus here, here, and here):

“When I walked in, I went down his hallway, and I saw this big green bag laying in the floor beside the aide that was sitting beside the bag. And I saw it moving.” As she approached, a familiar voice from within the bag asked “Momma, is that you?”

The bag had “a drawstring at the top and it had a hole about this big around left in the top of it,” (she made a motion with her hands.) “There was no way he could get out of it, could not get his head through if he needed to.” Ms. Baker expressed concern about what would have happened in the case of an emergency: if, for example, there were a fire: “The comment I got on that was, well, we would have drug the bag out of the school. Okay. It's okay. Just drag my son down some steps and break his bones.”

A teacher’s aide was present when Ms. Baker arrived. “I told her, I said you need to get him out of the bag and you need to get him out of the bag now.” At first, the aide struggled with the drawstring, but Chris was eventually pulled out of the bag, which also had some small balls in it. “When I got him out of the bag, his poor little eyes were as big as half dollars and he was sweating. I tried to talk to him and get his side of the reason they put him in there, and he said it was because he wouldn't do his work.” Ms. Baker says that the school subsequently alleged that Chris had smirked at the teacher when she asked him to put down a basketball and threw it across the room; he was “jumping off the walls.” This was apparently not the first time he had been punished by being put in the bag as punishment.

Afterwards, Chris “was to himself, went to his room, was in there all night, didn't communicate with anybody,” and has been especially taciturn since then: “It's to the point that I don't even know he's here. That's how quiet he is.”

I yield here to Landon Bryce, a San Jose-based teacher and tutor to students with Aspergers and autism, who describes young Baker’s treatment as “careless and disrespectful.” His website, thAutcast, is subtitled “A Blogazine for the Aspergers and Autism Community.” He cites reporting from April Ellis of the Harrodsburg Herald (sorry, I can’t link it directly):
The next day, Baker said she met with MCIS principal Dana Cobb and District Special Education Director Emma Jean Tamme to discuss the incident and told them her son was not to be put back in the bag. “No matter what my son did, he did not deserve to be put in a bag and set out in the hallway like trash, and I feel like that's what they did,” Baker said.

She added she knew the bag and balls were being used as part of her son's sensory therapy, but said she did not know he was being placed inside the bag. “I think they should have made themselves more clear, and I do not approve of it,” she said. “It disturbs me and makes me mad. I want other parents to know this is going on in the school system, because they may be like me and not fully understand what's going on.”
Superintendent Dennis Davis responded to Bryce’s signing of an online petition with an apparently pro forma e-mail (but a response of any kind is welcome). Mr. Davis may or may not be engaging in lawyerly disingenuousness: his hint that there is more to the case than meets the eye (“I am not empowered to correct misinformation and misconception”) does make a certain amount of sense.

On the other hand, the missive is rife with platitudes about “qualified professionals who treat students with respect and dignity while providing a safe and nurturing learning environment” and similar slop. More to the point, the confidentiality concerns cited by Mr. Davis are relevant only with respect to student behavior. The fact that there is no denial of the salient pieces of evidence is not legitimately attributable to confidentiality. The only reasonable interpretation of Davis’s remarks that doesn’t make him simply an accomplice is that the essential facts are true, but we may not be getting the full context.

Interestingly, none of the players here—not Ms. Baker, not Mr. Bryce, not petition-creator Lydia Brown—are out for blood. Here’s the first demand of the petition, for example:
That the teacher(s) responsible for confining and restraining Christopher Baker inside the Abilitations BagOBalls bag be dismissed from position for abusing a vulnerable person (a person with a disability) OR be required to successfully complete extensive continuing education professional training in interacting with and educating Autistic students and students with other disabilities, not to be fewer than at least the equivalent of a semester-long graduate level course developed using existing standards and best practices in model state systems, and which shall specifically include techniques for appropriate de-escalation and crisis intervention.
And here’s (most of) Mr. Bryce’s response to Davis’s e-mail:
Without discussing the specifics of this case, I think it is reasonable to ask you to do the following:

1) Assure us that equipment not intended to be used for restraining students will be not be used in that manner in your district in the future, regardless of whether or not it has been used in that way in the past.

2) Provide a copy of your district policy on the use of restraint with students who have disabilities.

3) Describe the training that your district has done with staff, or required staff to do elsewhere, regarding the appropriate use of restraint with students.

4) Describe any training that your district plans to do in the future on the appropriate use of restraint.

I understand that you cannot discuss the specifics of the allegations. However, you can provide us with information that will tell us about how seriously you have previously taken the issue of ensuring that students are only restrained appropriately. Certainly you can tell us that nothing like what is alleged to have occurred will happen again, and let us know about your plans for making sure of that.
And Ms. Baker is described as having “stopped short of calling for the dismissal of school employees, but she said they should be suspended. They also need more training, she said.”

I guess I’m sort of at a loss here. I couldn’t possibly handle being a special ed teacher. I have a couple of friends who do those jobs, and I marvel at their patience and fortitude. But what kind of special training does it require to figure out that acting like a junior high bully is not appropriate behavior for any teacher with any student, special needs or not? How is this not self-evident? There may well be something else that we don’t know to this story, but I can envision no justification for what is alleged to have happened. That means either the facts as we know them are wildly distorted and Ms. Baker is flat-out lying, or firing is too easy on the (unnamed, curiously) teacher. Assuming the facts are pretty much as we have them, in a just universe, she’d be dragged off campus crammed into a duffel bag, preferably going down as many stairs as possible.

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