For dressing up like a banana and running onto a football field during halftime at a Colonial Forge High School football game on Friday, September 16, 14-year-old Bryan Thompson was (1) handcuffed by police; (2) placed in a police car; (3) suspended for 10 days; (4) threatened with suspension for the rest of the school year.
Can we call this a case of the punishment not exactly fitting what wasn’t even a crime?
According to a letter from principal Karen C. Spillman of Stafford, Virginia, Bryan has been suspended for “disobedience” and “disrespectful” behavior towards an administrator, “disruption” of a student activity, a “refusal” to follow the directions of an administrator and “continued disregard of the Student Code of Conduct.” In particular, he was seen as “presenting an immediate danger to the welfare, health and safety of any person.” How a teenage boy donning a banana costume and running onto a football field, and during halftime, could cause all that is not spelled out in the letter. The video below shows what occurred:
The Monday after the game, Bryan’s schoolmates protested his suspension by wearing “Free Banana Man” t-shirts — only to have them confiscated and to be ordered to be at school on Saturday as a punishment. Clearly the authorities at Colonial Forge High school felt that the incident had to be squashed faster than you can flatten, yes, a banana. At this point, the ACLU stepped in on the grounds that freedom of speech was being suppressed. Thousands expressed support for Bryan via Facebook as did students at his school, saying that they felt the principal had been overly harsh. Some, though, said they felt that students were objecting more to a new “principal seen as overly strict by some,” rather than standing up for Bryan.
In any event, the Stafford school district reduced Bryan’s suspension to five days. Bryan, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, returned to school this Monday morning and, according to his mother, Tavia Thompson, he “was just happy to be back at school.” Bryan is planning to launch a website on Tuesday, freebananaman.com, to sell banana man t-shirts with slogans like “Free banana man,” “Run banana man run,” and “Banana man needs his education too.” His mother says that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to an autism organization:
Thompson said he sometimes acts impulsively, and she attributed that to his behavior at the football game.
Asked whether she thought the website was fueling the fire, Thompson said: “I see it as turning something negative into… something positive and using it to support autism.”
Brian and his mother met with an associate superintendent on Monday and talked about “productive ways” that he might use both his running skills and his “affinity for cartoon suits,” by joining the track team and also, possibly, serving as the school’s mascot, an eagle.
It’s an upbeat ending to an incident that, as shown by a number of other cases of autistic students being handcuffed, shows how ill-prepared school districts are addressing what they see as “disruptive” behavior. Calling the police and putting Bryan in handcuffs was simply excessive. As Susan Moffit at Autism Key points out, Brian is not the only African-American student with Asperger’s who has been subjected to harsh disciplinary treatment by Stafford:
[Stafford] is the town where Neli Latson, another teenager with Asperger’s,†was racially profiled as he sat outside waiting for the public library to open. Neli remains in jail for assaulting an officer who suddenly threw him over the hood of a squad car and tried to cuff him after he wouldn’t tell him his name. His mother is still working feverishly to secure his release from prison.
I would be remiss not to mention the fact that both Neli and Bryan are African American, making for some unsettling coincidences in relation to unusually harsh punishments for minorities on the autism spectrum in Stafford.
Tavia Thompson said Bryan’s fellow students were “happy” to see him back today. But will such good will last? Has the debacle really taught school personnel and the community of Stafford about acceptance of students on the autism spectrum?
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Photo by clvergrrl