Florida teacher Lillian Gomez, who was fired last year for soaking crayons in hot sauce and then placing them in a bag labeled with the name of an autistic student, has been reinstated by the Kissimmee school district that had fired her in February 2012. A judge has ordered that Gomez be rehired on the grounds that, as an administrative law judge ruled in August, there was no evidence that she had been trying to punish the student.
The administrative judge did say that Gomez had acted inappropriately. Parents whose children attend Sunrise Elementary School where Gomez was formerly employed have certainly not been pleased to hear that she will again be working for their school district.
The parents of the autistic student who Gomez gave the hot sauce to have expressed shock at her rehiring. As Jose Holguin said to ABC News’ Orlando affiliate, WFTV, ”She proved already that she’s a danger inside a classroom. What else can she do to prove to the system that she doesn’t have it?”
Another parent, Todd Cinetti, commented that the rehiring of Gomez is simply “kind of ridiculous” and asked whether she ought to be working with children at all.
The Kissimmee school district did not want to reinstate Gomez and has spent more than $50,000 in attorney’s fees on the case, claiming that her “effectiveness” in the classroom had been “severely impaired” as a result of the hot sauce and crayons incident. Gomez will not return to Sunrise Elementary School but will be employed at another elementary school in the district to “support other teachers” and could still come into contact with students with disabilities.
“We don’t want to come out and say anything bad about the teacher or say anything to worry parents,” school district spokeswoman Dana Schafer said.
As Holguin’s and Cinetti’s comments suggest, parents are more than a little worried and with good reason. At issue is not whether Gomez was seeking to punish a student or not but her use of frankly inhumane techniques to address challenging behaviors that autistic children might have.
Gomez has said that she was not trying to force the students eat the crayons. She had soaked them (apparently for days) in the hot sauce to get the children to stop eating them. It is not uncommon for an autistic child to have a condition called pica, in which he or she eats non-edible items such as dirt, paint, sand or paper (my own son used to eat the latter). As the Autism Society points out, eating such things can definitely be dangerous and could “cause choking, digestive problems, parasitic infections and illness.” By giving autistic children access to crayons that had been placed in hot sauce, Gomez was endangering their health.
Pica occurs in about 30 percent of autistic children and there are ways to address it, by “pica-proofing” environments that autistic children are in, teaching them to recognize what is a food and what is a non-food and understanding the sensory sensitivities reasons that might lead a child to attempt to eat something like sand.
The “method” — not that it deserves to be called that — which Gomez used to address the students’ pica was simply inappropriate. The Kissimmee school district also bears responsibility: given the seriousness and commonness of pica, school staff need to have educational strategies — which do exist — to address it.
As a recent report about New York city schools calling ambulances and sending students with disabilities to emergency rooms suggests, many school districts are simply ill equipped and unsure about how to address students’ challenging behavior issues. There are ways to address such, but schools need to be proactive and put strategies in place and provide teachers with support and training. If a teacher thinks that hot sauce is a way to address a child!’s challenges, the educators all need to get reeducated.
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