Stuart Chaifetz had his 10-year-old autistic son, Akian, wear a recording device after school officials at his school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, said that the child had started to hit staff. According to NJ.com, Chaifetz listened to the recording and heard a number of things that he “believed … took place because the class only contains children with autism who have trouble communicating.” Chaifetz made a YouTube video about what he heard on the recording:
In the tape, one staff member can be heard bragging to another about how much she drank the night before. …
Later in the recording, a teacher speaks to students in a harsh tone, then tells a student — allegedly Akian — “shut your mouth.”
More clips are presented later in the recording, allegedly showing teachers dismissing and mocking Akian as he cried, but it was unclear from the audio what was being said.
Chaifetz has called for the teachers to issue a public apology to Akian and to resign from their jobs but said he is not planning to sue the school district. He is calling for a legislative bill under which teachers who bully students must be fired.
More Reports of Parents Having Special Ed Students Wear Recording Devices
An animal rights activist and former school board candidate, Chaifetz went on a week-long hunger stirke five years ago to call attention to a lack of state funding for developmentally disabled children and children at risk. He is not the first parent who has had a child with disabilities secretly wear a recording device. Last year, an an Ohio mother had her teenage daughter with special needs wear a wire to record abusive comments made by classroom staff in a resource room; an aide was heard telling the student that she was “dumb,” a “liar,” “lazy” and overweight. The family was awarded $300,000 for the bullying by school staff.
In addition, in 2008, a mother of an autistic boy, Stefan Ferrari, sewed a microphone into his shirt after suspecting that he was abused in his Atlanta classroom. Stefan’s parents sued the school district and his former teacher, Sherri Jones, was charged with making abusive comments; Stefan had also been physically abused and had bruises on his legs. While the judge ruled that he had been hit by an adult at the school, who was responsible for the abuse has yet to be determined and Jones herself has denied physically abusing Stefan. The school district was ordered to pay Stefan’s family about $236,000, almost $800,000 for the district’s and own lawyers and ”a certain amount of money,” into a trust fund for Stefan’s education.
As Nirvi Shah writes on Education Week’s On Special Education blog, “is this what it has come to?” Is this what it’s like to work in and be a student in a special education classroom today, an atmosphere of potential verbal and physical abuse and deep distrust between school personnel and parents?
Creating a Contention-Free Special Education Parent-School Relationship
My autistic son Charlie will be 15 years old next month and has only been in special education classrooms and schools for his entire education. Charlie is now a happy school boy at the county autism center he attends. There are some 200 students at his school in central New Jersey and even more staff and most know Charlie by name. Charlie has been at this school since November of 2009 after a very contentious experience with a central New Jersey school district (that we no longer live in, though Charlie still attends the same autism center). We are no longer arguing with the school district about teaching methodologies, staffing levels, hours of therapies, incident reports and so forth. We now spend meetings about Charlie’s Individualized Education Plan discussing his education, instead of arguing about special ed law, placements and behavior plans.
Some might say we’re just tired of fighting and gave in and agreed to have Charlie attend a separate, out-of-district autism center rather than attempting to have him in a classroom in a local public school with the supports he needed. That is one way to see the matter.
But another is that, we chose to acknowledge the limitations of what a public school district itself could do and chose a setting that seemed to offer Charlie as accommodating, and conflict-free, a climate as possible. Looking back, there must have been quite a bit of stress on Charlie’s special ed teachers and therapists who worked in public schools, having to teach their students and also deal with the other faculty, parents and administrators who may have felt the special ed students were just occupying space and taking away resources. Charlie is extremely sensitive to other people’s emotions; being minimally verbal, he is incredibly attuned to non-verbal communication. I am sure he was well aware of contention between school staff and parents and was often confused and frustrated that we adults couldn’t get along, when he was trying so hard to learn.
Charlie has always wanted to go to school to learn and to do his best to have good days, not to find himself the cause of angry disputes. Parents sending in special ed students wearing secret recording devices is a sure sign of one thing: Something is very wrong with a special ed program and with communication and interactions between parents and school staff. So much contentiousness is too often the case but it must be addressed. How can we make sure that everyone is truly on the same page about providing the best education possible for our students?
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