Luis Morillo’s young autistic son started coming home from school with bruises at the beginning of the school year, but when Morillo contacted the school to express his concern, he was told the bruises were the result of children fighting. He took that answer at face value, even as the injuries escalated — his son at one point came home with the knees of his pants damaged like he’d been dragged.
His son, however, was trying to tell a different story. Morillo’s son is a nonverbal autistic child who started expressing himself through drawings this year, and he kept drawing the same motif, featuring adult and child-sized stick figures, people calling for help, and other signs of violence. Those injuries weren’t the result of playground fighting, something the school should have been addressing anyway. They were the result of abuse by the boy’s own teacher.
Once Morillo finally understood what was going on and came forward with a report, other parents started joining in with similar stories, noting that their disabled children had been coming home with comparable injuries. Troublingly, the teacher involved worked in a special education classroom with two aides, both of whom may have been involved in the abuse or at the very least covered it up. While the teacher has been removed from contact with students, what happened with the aides is unclear.
William F. Finkl Elementary, the school Morillo’s son attends, is primarily Latino and low-income. Almost 18% of the students qualify for special education services like Morillo’s son did, and the K-8 school serves nearly 600 students. It’s one of many neighborhood schools scattered across Chicago, and it evidently suffers from a lack of oversight in an overworked and crunched school district if it tolerates teachers abusing students for almost an entire school year.
Cases like this unfold across the nation every day, and they illustrate a networked series of issues faced by disabled students and their parents, especially in the case of disabled students who are nonverbal. In a society where talking or writing is considered not only the best but the only way to communicate, people who are not verbal for a variety of reasons including cognitive and intellectual disabilities struggle to be heard and understood — in fact, some of the “outbursts” attributed to autistic students who are considered out of control are sometimes a desperate cry for someone to pay attention.
Morillo’s son reached out using a method he felt comfortable with to report something that endangered him, just like another student in the same classroom hid behind his mother and pointed at the teacher in an attempt to express himself. Reaching out to establish contact with nonverbal people can take time, and can be frustrating for both parties, but it’s critical, because otherwise, their messages won’t be heard. Had children in that classroom been empowered to speak for themselves and listened to by adults at an earlier stage, perhaps action would have taken place sooner.
Furthermore, it’s troubling that the school wrote off a series of injuries to disabled students as playground fighting. If students were getting into fights, the issue should have been addressed, as disabled students are often targets for bullying, and zero tolerance policies for bullying are critical for student safety. Had an investigation uncovered that no fights were actually occurring, school officials could have started searching for another explanation for the injuries, and they might have found the abusive teacher that much sooner.
The isolation and devaluation of disabled students can tend to create a situation where abuse festers, and if those students aren’t understood or the school isn’t proactive, it may endure for an extended period of time, leading to emotional trauma and other long-term problems. In this case, the school hasn’t provided specific details about the decisions it will be making in coming months because the case is so new and no formal investigation has been conducted, but one hopes the situation sets an example to administrators here and elsewhere.
It’s critical to establish communication with disabled children to make sure they can be heard when they want to communicate, and it’s important to have protocols in place for protecting the safety of a school’s most vulnerable attendees.
Photo credit: Marg