I don’t even know what to say about what has occurred over the past two days. My last post seems to have hit a nerve.
I want to thank you for your support. Knowing that Jack and I have you in my corner makes me feel so very good. Thank you for commenting on that last post and sharing it and reminding me that it is important to tell these stories so more people hopefully hear, really hear, how important it is to include all students.
The thing that kills me is that, as a result of that post, I have been hearing story after story of similar exclusions happening to special education students all over the country. Every time someone sent a mean comment or told me that what happened wasn’t a big deal, someone else sent me a story of a brokenhearted kid who had been left out of something as simple but important to them as a photo.
There were the kids who were left out of their school yearbooks. There were the kids whose school forgot to read their names at their elementary school graduation.There were the kids who didn’t get included in the second grade end-of-year activities. There was the kiddo who was excluded from his first grade class photo. There were more stories, but you get the idea.
I sent Jack’s principal an email on Friday morning. It seemed like the right thing to do. In the email, I told her why I wrote the post, my intention being to highlight how much it matters to include every student in all aspects of student life. I told her how, in her position at a school that houses an autism program, she had a very powerful opportunity to not just make sure that all students are included, but to make sure that the typical students know that all students are valued and counted as well.
She responded to my email with a phone call and we talked, not just about the bulletin board, but about the atmosphere of inclusion and whether or not special education students and parents feel it at Sligo Creek. I can’t speak for everyone. I’m sure some do. I can speak for some. Even though they love the Asperger’s program, they don’t feel like a part of the school community.
The principal disputes the timeline as I laid it out in my post. She says the the photos were up before my friend posted the photo she took. My friend remains adamant that the photos were not up at that time. I know my friend and I know she was looking for her daughter’s photo. I believe my friend. Her daughter stood with her as she posted the photo. I imagine that if her photo were already up, that bright, strong-minded fifth grader would have mentioned it to her mom. Some of you will believe the principal. That’s fine. There’s some fuzzy blame about not getting messages and front office staff. I can’t know for sure what happened, but my friend is not a person who just makes things up. I trust her account.
The principal told me how our kids were left out in the first place. The photos were taken at lunchtime in the cafeteria, a time when my son and his classmates are in their classroom. Their photos weren’t taken because they weren’t there. Innocent oversight, sure.
But, I would posit that when you forget a classroom of kids just because they are not in the room, you are not fostering that atmosphere of inclusion.
To her credit, the principal sounded horrified about the whole situation. Part of that horror could be that everyone from the superintendent on down has evidently been in contact with her about this. To her credit, she apologized to me. Not to her credit, as of Friday night, she had not contacted my friend to apologize.
The principal told me stories of helping and standing up for the students in the autism program individually that I hope are accurate, because they are lovely. They are also the right thing to do and in most cases, legally required of a principal. She told me about her own disabled daughter and how it hurts her that people would think she doesn’t support students with disabilities. I didn’t mention this on the phone, but I have written here about some of the wonderful school-wide inclusion that I have seen at Sligo Creek.
She was very nice on the phone. She sounded very genuine. I don’t think she’s a bad person. Being a principal must be a very difficult job and I’m sure it’s frustrating to be called out so publicly for one thing. I understood her position. But then I thought about how I had felt at the school for the past two years.
I really do love Jack’s program. I feel very at home and welcomed by the Asperger’s program staff and the school paraeducators and one of the general education teachers. But I haven’t felt like a full, participating member of the school community
I needed to tell her that.
I hate phones. I hate confrontation. I was shaking as I spoke to the her. But I knew that I had to speak up. I am so glad that you are doing these things, I told her. (I am.) I hope that the students in the Asperger’s program don’t feel the lack of inclusion that some of the parents feel, because that is what matters, I told her. But, I said, I am not the only parent who feels this way. There are a bunch of us who feel as if we don’t quite belong and aren’t welcomed the way the rest of the school families are.
I reminded her about how last year a general education parent and I had tried for months to get a meeting with her to discuss doing some autism education for the general education kids who go to school alongside our autistic kiddos. I reminded her that the other parent works in autism research and that I have done autism education with kids—and have Asperger’s myself. I reminded her that we emailed over and over and when that didn’t work, when a meeting had been scheduled and then canceled just an hour beforehand, we submitted a written proposal that she never commented on. I told her how we eventually just gave up.
I told her about how my family had tried to attend the end-of-the-year social just last week, which was completely unstructured and held in a parking lot. I told her that my son couldn’t participate without a common activity, even playground equipment, to start an interaction. I told her how my son, who has been at the school for two years, ended up just walking in circles. I didn’t see a single student come up to him to say hi. No one was mean. No one objected to his presence. But no one welcomed him either.
There are more examples. I gave some to the principal. Some I did not. I don’t need to go into them now. Probably any parent of a child with a disability has similar experiences. Probably any person with a disability has similar examples.
I am school volunteer person. This year I co-chaired large events at each of my other sons’ schools. At my youngest son’s elementary school, people used to ask if I worked there because I was there so often. I served on the PTA board there for the past three years and for the past two, have had weekly or near weekly volunteer jobs there. I volunteered last year at Jack’s school for a couple of class parties and with some wall decorations for a big 4th grade project. The parents were nice. But I could never quite shake the feeling of “other.” I know that’s not all the school’s fault. Part of it is my own baggage. But there are definitely ways to be more inclusive of our families, many of whom come in to the school in 3rd or 4th or 5th grade, after most of the families have been together since kindergarten.
It sounds like the principal will be making an effort at more inclusion. She contacted a family who had had some inclusion concerns of their own and suggested that they meet over the summer to discuss how to make the school more inclusive. She has told me that she’d like to schedule a meeting with me and the other mom who wanted to speak to her about autism education. I’m thrilled to hear these things. I hope they really do come to fruition. I am sad that it took a firestorm of controversy to make it happen.
At the end of the day, however, we have to remember that our kids weren’t included because they weren’t in the room when the camera showed up. We have to remember that my friend went to the office multiple times and was put off, fuzzy blame about who knew what and who was told when be damned. My friend followed the chain of command in informing the secretary and had extremely valid reasons for not contacting the principal about this particular issue (those reasons being not mine to share). The school was informed of their mistake and it took them weeks to fix it. That matters to the kids who walked by the bulletin board every day.
You should know that my friend works so hard at that school. The reason she knows the photo situation was going on for so long was because she was at the school regularly. She’s a squeaky wheel, my friend, always speaking up for our kids. Part of speaking up as a parent of a special education child includes fear of reprisals—not for us, but for our kids. That is the culture of special education in this county, in this country. I panicked a little when this post started making the rounds, for that very reason. My friend is extremely brave to speak her mind the way she does and I am so glad that I could amplify her voice this one time.
I have hope that maybe this will start a conversation at Sligo Creek. I hope that the principal can put aside feeling hurt and listen to the kids and parents who are at the school now and in the future. I hope that the angry parents who responded on my last post telling me this was no big deal can look past their anger and understand that this isn’t about parent egos—it’s about young kids and their self esteem. I hope that all the parents at the school can continue to help their kids grow into people who include all people every time. I hope that I can put aside my own hurt and anger and meaningfully contribute my voice to the conversation.
I hope that this fundamental message can spread: Every person has intrinsic value and deserves to be included as a human right. Remember what my son wrote in his essay: “I would not be forgotten.” No child should have to feel that they could be forgotten at their school.
To each of your kids who has had this happen to them, tell them that that they are important. Tell them that they are valued. Tell them that they are not less than or an afterthought. Tell them that they should be included because they are worth including, not just because it’s the right thing to do. Tell them that we love them and that we SEE them.
Tell them that they are superstars.