Jewish Journal


September 13, 2012

Shining a Camera At the Dark Side of School Discipline



It’s hard for any parent to leave their five-year-old at his or her first day of Kindergarten. Will our child make friends easily? Will some bigger, nastier kid bully them? And most of all can the teachers and school administrators be trusted to take good care of our child?

This whole transition is even scarier when you have a child who is non-verbal or very limited in his ability to express himself in any meaningful way. That’s why my stomach churned when I read a recent NY Times opinion piece on the ugly side of school discipline, made worse by the fact that my husband had gone to college with the author, Bill Lichtenstein.

In that piece, Lichtenstein relates how he and his wife found out that their 5-year –old daughter Rose (who had speech and language delays) was being kept in a seclusion room at school for up to an hour at a time over the course of three months as punishment for behavior issues at first and later, for not following directions.

When the parents were finally called by the school to get Rose because she had taken off her clothes they found her “standing alone on the cement floor of a basement mop closet, illuminated by a single light bulb. There was nothing in the closet for a child — no chair, no books, no crayons, nothing but our daughter standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands. On the floor lay her favorite purple-striped Hanna Andersson outfit and panties.”

Really hard to read, and jolted me back in time when our son Danny (with cerebral palsy and developmental delays) was 9 years old and having a lot of trouble with walking and balance issues. We were working with the doctors to get the right “cocktail” of prescription drugs but he was losing a lot of hard-won mobility and whining even more than usual.

His 4th grade teacher at the local LAUSD elementary school was convinced that it was all “behavior” and when he wouldn’t sit down one day in a chair, she kept him in a kneeling position for hours waiting for him “to get up and walk over to the desk” where his juice and yogurt were waiting for him. I went a little berserk upon hearing this, and starting calling the principal, the Special Ed Administrator for the Sub-District (don’t ask) and even the School Board Member.  Meetings followed, and plans were drawn up, and basically the teacher was told she wasn’t allowed to do that again. I also looked around for a class to transfer him away from this teacher as fast as I could. Other staff members took me aside and whispered to me that I was doing the right thing.

These examples of abuse in the name of discipline are why many parents of kids with special needs are beginning a national crusade to get cameras put into special education classroom.  According to ABC News, parents in states such as Ohio, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and Tennessee have started on-line campaigns with petitions, videos, etc to bring awareness of this issue. Some parents have smuggled in audio recording devices along with their children’s backpacks so they can hear for themselves what is happening in the classroom, and then can document abusive behavior to doubting administrators.

One parent in Ohio, Tara Heidinger, said that her son Corey, 8, has autism and can become very upset if changes are made to his schedule or usual routine. One day he came home from school and said the teacher was "mean" to him. Later on some of his more verbal classmates told her that the teacher’s aide had grabbed Corey by the arm really hard and screamed in his face to stop him from crying.  When she went to the principal to complain, “She didn’t believe what I was telling her” and said that the boys were making up the story due to their autism. Without any proof of the attack, nothing changed.

Having cameras inside classrooms may sound too much like “Big Brother” for some people, but for kids who aren’t verbal, having an extra set of eyes may be what is needed to prevent abuse.

If you want to sign on, go to http://www.change.org/petitions/cameras-in-special-needs-room-for-safety

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