Dear Superintendent V –
 
I wanted to take a moment and share two of my concerns with L Public Schools.  I graduated from L in 1989, and I am a proud Lancer. As a local business owner and home owner, I support the school district with my time and my taxes.  My two concerns actually work hand in hand – the faulty “Zero Tolerance Bully Policy” and lack of empathy and training of teachers in the General Education Setting to work with Special Needs children. 
 
My first concern is the “Zero Tolerance Bully Policy”.  If a child were to tell my child “I’m gonna kill you”, I would be very upset.  A “Zero Tolerance Policy” punishes the child who made the verbalization, no questions asked.  Let us add some more details to the story.  The child who made the statement is a High Functioning Special Needs child (with a diagnosed Central Nervous System Disorder) and is under an IEP for Emotional Impairment.  The child was bullied by other students in his class, repeatedly being told he wasn’t allowed to play with one of his friends anymore, told he wasn’t able to go on class field trips,  and was called a “cry baby” in a taunting tone on numerous occasions.  This discrimination by exclusion and taunting goes on for several months.  When the Special Needs boy finally reacts by verbalizing his anger, the bullies “tattle” and take great pleasure at the Special Needs boy’s removal from class.  This sets up reinforcement for the behavior on the part of the bullies.  See the Special Needs boy again, get him to react, he is removed, and we are happy he was punished again.  This is great fun!
 
Current Bullying policy relies on accurate “policing” by other students and teachers.  Let us be honest, the teachers are over loaded with too many kids, the playground is way under supervised, so many things go unseen.  A Special Needs child in many cases cannot “speak up” to tell a teacher.  When emotions run high in a child with a central nervous system disorder, the child’s verbal skills shut down.  It takes full observation of all kids to understand the true dynamics at work.  Some kids take great joy in seeing “weird” or “odd” kids react and be punished.  This is why Special Needs kids are usually the ones who are bullied.  Kids with Central Nervous System Disorders, like High Functioning Autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) and Sensory Processing Disorder are usually the “weak link” spotted by a bully, and become an easy target.  They are unable to verbalize what is happening and highly unlikely to report the incident or repeated incidents.  This was our case.  It took from October to March for my son to finally be able to tell me what was really happening.  Meanwhile, my son was labeled “dangerous” and “a threat to other kids”.  When a situation gets too “hot”, my son will go and hide to help “self regulate”.  In school, he is unable to do this, and finally reached his “breaking point”.  In a different setting (a different play area), he was physically attacked by two boys (younger than him) and he ran to me crying hysterically.  He is not a physical child and never defended himself from the two boys in that situation.
  
Anyone who is familiar with Behavioral Psychology will understand the “ABC’s” of Behavior – Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence.   Antecedent = Bullying of Special Needs Child, Behavior = Special Needs Child Reacts, Consequence = Special Needs Child is punished.  Bullies have their behavior positively reinforced.  This dynamic is why a “Zero Tolerance Policy” does not work.  Life is full of “Gray Areas”.  Children who have asthma or severe peanut allergies cannot have their life saving medicine in their lockers with a “Zero Tolerance Drug” policy.  Special Needs children, who cannot ask for help, are punished during “Zero Tolerance Bulling” policies.  Each case needs to be looked at on its own merit.  If someone had really looked into what was happening with my son, the situation would have probably been attended to sooner, and he would not have suffered the increased frustration and self esteem damage.  My son is afraid to go into the library on Late Start Wednesdays unless there is an open table (no one else is sitting there).  My son is not normally clingy, but his fears at school (how ever irrational they may seem) are real to him. He has nightmares that are disrupting his sleep as well.  We do our best at home to assist him with the stresses of school and life.  He is happy and carefree at home, and plays well with others. 
 
We are a Society of Extremes, and we expect a “magic pill” to fix things, instead of looking at the deeper problem.  I understand that you have your hands tied with the State making a blanket requirement of schools to adopt a State Mandated Policy.  What I am suggesting probably won’t work with the current State of Michigan Mandate .  There has to be some middle ground. Otherwise Special Needs kids will continue to be punished for behaviors that are trying to tell us what is really happening.  We need to look at “Behavior as Communication”, not as the “end all” and a problem.  What is the child really trying to say?
 
My second concern is the lack of empathy and training for General Education teachers who work with Special Needs kids.  My husband graduated from St. J , and we both decided that L has the morals and values that we felt were important to teach our children.  Sadly, we are finding out that this school district has a history of mistreatment of Special Needs kids.  Many Special Needs families have left the district, either to homeschool or seek out services at St. J .  After the year we have had in the IEP process, I can see why.  I believe that L is better than this, but even I have had my faith shaken and moments of weakness (considering leaving the district for schools that treat Special Needs kids better). 
 
Before school started, I gave Mike’s teacher a letter explaining Mike’s Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).  I also try to be an approachable parent, since I know my son’s quirks and needs more than anyone else.  When a behavior was brought to my attention, I asked "what was the trigger?".  Soon, contact from the teacher stopped.  Mike would ask for “breaks” when he is feeling “overloaded”.  He was denied these breaks and at that time he stopped asking.  His “sensory diet” also was not adhered to by his teacher (fidgets were taken away because he was “playing” with them).  SPD can be a difficult concept to understand.  It can come across as “stubborn, manipulative and willful behavior”, which I heard a lot this year.  The problem is that he was treated by his teacher as a “weak child” who just needed to be forced to “toe the line”.  The more his teacher pushed, the more he backed away.  He was punished for “refusals” of work.  He was put on a behavior plan that spiraled out of control, and his emotional state fell apart.  The last parent teacher conference showed me that his teacher had no empathy for my child’s disorder, and that she was unwilling to see that he was struggling.  My question to her was if his sensory strategies were being used, and her response was “he will just have to suck it up and do the work”.  My husband was not present at this meeting, but this statement was made in front of another individual attending the meeting.  His teacher’s overall attitude showed me that she does not have empathy for my son, or any desire to understand his Central Nervous System disorder.  To her, he was just another “naughty boy” who needed to “suck it up”. 
 
I have had the displeasure of being verbally attacked by another teacher as well.  This has been brought to the attention of the Principal, and I hope it is being dealt with appropriately.  The irony of this situation is that this teacher is the mother of a boy in my Scout Den.  Her son is one of the bullies.  Her verbal attack perfectly shows the greater dysfunction of the system – lack of empathy for Special Needs families.
 
I am reaching out to you because I believe that change can happen with open communication.  I am not alone in this struggle.  As I have stated previously, other parents have left the district over lack of teacher training and empathy for Special Needs kids.  With 1 in 88 now being diagnosed with Autism, L has the chance to step up, train its teachers to spot kids with Special Needs, and to think outside the box to reach them.  Our kids need to be reached to pass the standardized testing as well.  Our kids matter. 
 
I would like to take some time to sit down with you to discuss this further.  I have some solutions to this growing problem in our district.  A few of the parents who have left the district are willing to join me as well at this meeting.  I know you have a full plate, but I feel that our issues actually fit into the bigger puzzle that you are currently working on.  Discrimination and Bullying of Special Needs students need to be recognized and addressed.  I know a qualified person who has worked with St. J for a teacher in-service training on Spectrum Disorders.  L would be wise to do the same.  The purpose of school is to prepare our kids for life.  My son was taught many things this year, none of which helped his self confidence.  This can be turned around quickly by getting Mike the supports he needs to be successful in a General Education Setting.  I hope I can count on you to help me give him the Free and Appropriate Public Education he deserves as a smart, sweet, funny and bright boy. 
 
I can be reached by cell phone at ......  If I do miss your call, please leave me a time I can call back, as I understand you have a very busy schedule. 
 
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
Jackie V