It's been a while since I posted anything here, and this post is of quite a different nature than my original series on food and health...
I want to share with the world (literally, so do please pass this along) a rather crummy experience I had this past year, at work. For the 2015-16 school year, I worked as an aide in an MD (Multiple Disabilities) classroom for children in grades K-2. Given my educational background, my experience, and my passion, this seemed in the beginning to be a perfect fit for me, and I was hugely excited. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a little more than a nightmare. After eight months of openly speaking my mind and praying anybody at all would hear me, I ended my school year three weeks early because my immediate supervisor and I sort of mutually agreed that I didn't belong there.
I did keep a promise I had made to myself, which was to address the numerous issues I had with the school and the outside agency that actually employed me. I sent an email to 18 different people, including the entire school board and the entire supervising board at the employing agency. Within two hours, I received a response from one person, who politely but firmly requested that my issues be added to the agenda of the next school board meeting. They were not. I never received any other response from anyone else.
Which brings me here today...
Because at that time, I also promised those agencies that if I did not get a satisfactory response from them, I would go ahead and share this information with anyone I could.
I put it off for a week or two. My writing does tend to be lengthy, and sitting down to begin a blog post just wasn't happening.
But then, the other day I was with a client, watching Veggie Tales' version of the story of Esther, with Pa Grape as Mordecai. When Esther faced a challenging moral dilemma, and came to her cousin for advice, he told her, "You never have to be afraid to do what's right."
I realized that sharing this is what I need to do, I already knew it's what I need to do, and I have been "afraid" - not because of any possible repercussion I might face, but more my personal ongoing fear of not being heard. This issue is very important to me, because many people I love and have loved are not able to speak up for themselves. Those people deserve the same respect and consideration in all of life as those of us who can easily request or demand it. So, regardless of who might take the time to read this, or what anyone will think or what might ever be done about it, I trying to do my part, and that is all I can do...
The following is the four-page letter that was sent to the entire Board of Education of Austintown Local Schools and the Mahoning County Educational Services Center...
To Whom It Concerns...
This past school year, I have had the privilege to work with six wonderful children in the Multiple Disabilities classroom at Austintown Elementary School. I grew to love every child in that class, each with their own unique joys and challenges. I learned a lot this year, had a lot of fun, and made some great memories.
Unfortunately, I will not be returning in the fall, and I feel strongly that I need to explain to anyone who might care to pay attention, my reasons...
I had always heard that Ohio has lousy services for its developmentally disabled population. But this year, the Mahoning County Educational Services Center and Austintown Elementary School proved it.
AES fails all of its children in many ways, from principals who act like they don't even like being around little children (not to mention, one principal who cannot walk through the halls without making crude sexual jokes regardless of staff or children present within hearing), to placing unrealistic expectations on children (i.e. making up to 20 or more grade-schoolers wait in a tiny foyer before school starts, and then scolding them for politely holding the door open for adults to enter, and expecting others to stand in single file lines in the morning just in an attempt to keep them under control, or bringing their coats, hats, gloves, etc. with them to the already crowded cafeteria for lunch, which no doubt contributes to the ridiculously large "lost and found" pile), and the dependence on electronic devices for learning (when exactly did YouTube become part of the curriculum?). But the most difficult thing for me to see there is the way children with special needs are ostracized.
I have asked myself continually in what day and age am I living, that a school still keeps their students with disabilities mostly segregated. Children in the MD class do not go on field trips and rarely attend assemblies. They have their own table in the lunch room, away from the others. They are able to attend "specials" classes (art, music, etc.) about 50 percent of the time, and those teachers are not always accepting. I should state here that most of the staff at AES are absolutely wonderful with and towards the MD class. Sadly, it only takes a few "bad apples" to make the general atmosphere unpleasant for these little ones. When a second grader shows up for library class regularly, yet never gets an assigned seat as every other child in the class has, and never even gets her name on the class roster, that is simply a deliberate exclusion on the part of staff. When the art teacher offers a kindergartener a different paint brush because he is "smashing" her "good brush", and then gives him an already ruined cheap-quality paint brush instead of a an adaptive one, that is just being mean. When the principal's wife complains about the noise in the hallway from children who may not have control over their voices or bodies, the message is sent that those children are not welcome there. When a class's Halloween pumpkin is simply disposed of because it does not "comply with the rules", the message is sent that that class is not good enough to participate. When a visiting attraction has time for every class in the school except for one, the message is sent that those children are not worth the time. When school administration sets up for the class photo with no thought to how students with limited mobility will access the seating, the message is sent that those students are not important enough to be remembered. When a principal regularly uses a classroom full of disabled children as an "example" for disciplining unruly students, the message is sent that those children are in some way "bad". As I said, most teachers and staff at AES are wonderful. But it is the general attitude of the administration and a handful of staff that these children do not belong and are not welcome in the school.
**Perhaps these children would be better accepted if they were given the opportunity to learn social skills and appropriate behaviors, which would be possible if they had the support staff needed. But I have been told the special education director at Austintown does not "give out" one-on-ones. I am sorry, but support staff are not cupcakes. They are not desserts, that a school can simply decide to not distribute. Denying 1:1 support for children who actually need it is a violation of their basic right to an education.**
This brings me to my thoughts about the MCESC, which is supposed to be the agency responsible for ensuring these children receive the services they need. This is the agency I was employed with this past year, although only through a temp agency, which looking back I should have seen as a red flag right from the start. It would seem that the qualifications to be hired as a classroom assistant are a high school diploma or equivalent, and ability to pass a drug test. I would not see this as being inadequate, as I met and worked with some very nice people this year, however working with children with special needs can be very challenging and truly does take a "special kind of person". Classroom assistants should be given some training and knowledge of the types of situations they are going into before beginning work in the classroom. This past year, I was required to complete 18 online training courses, and not one of them had anything to do with working with children. The only training I received upon hire was CPI/behavior management training, which is hardly relevant to the types of behavior issues staff encountered in the classroom where I worked. How can the ESC expect its employees to serve children with special needs that they know nothing about? A few things I encountered each day, simply because staff receive no education or training, and because enough staff are not provided:
* Two children who could possibly be toilet trained are not, because there isn't enough staff to take them to the bathroom at regular times and sit with them until they "go".
*Two children who could be learning alongside their typically developing peers in a regular classroom, but are not because they do not have 1:1 support.
*An eight-year-old child who is completely non-verbal has never been given effective communication and is still being taught at the most basic preschool level. Over the course of this year, I watched this child go from lethargic to angry, acting out to get attention, but truly enjoying academics on the rare occasion full attention could be given for any length of time.
*Because they lack qualified support staff, children only attend "special" classes (art, music, etc) when convenient , and not consistently. How are they to learn acceptable social skills to participate in
learning alongside their peers if they do not have regular opportunities? One child, a second-grader, never attended art class all year.
*A child with cognitive and emotional delays, ADHD and anxiety, is constantly "in trouble", because there is not enough qualified staff to keep ahead of his energy level and sensory needs. Said child is far behind his classmates academically, and "clams up" or acts out when pressured to participate. Because staff do not have an understanding of his disabilities, this child is punished far more often than helped or encouraged.
*A certain child is favored, because they are "cute", and given special attention, treats, and rewards for undesirable behaviors, while another child is picked on by staff constantly.
*A completely immobile child has to wait for toileting and position changes, and often is not safe from behaviors of other children (i.e. throwing objects, bumping into child's wheelchair). Said child is supposed to be receiving extensive physical and vision therapies, but mostly gets neglected while staff deal with challenging behaviors from other students. For the better part of the school year, this child's parents thought she was receiving 1:1 care, because the ESC led them to believe this. This was, in my opinion, a deliberate deception.
*Staff do not get regular breaks and feel guilty just taking five minutes to use the restroom once a day, because the absence of one adult for that little time could lead to the disruption of an entire activity or lesson. I lost 15 pounds this year, because I refuse to try to scarf down a lunch in the cafeteria with little children who should be learning table manners, social skills, and self control, rather than climbing under tables while staff eat. Not to mention waking up in the morning with a flu or common cold and having to choose between going to work and exposing two children with compromised immune systems, or taking the day off and feeling terribly guilty for leaving the classroom short-staffed, because substitute aides are not provided.
I could go on. I have not even mentioned the classroom teacher who is so overworked she has little to no time to actually "teach" (since when did "billing for services" become a requirement of school teachers?). I have not mentioned the other classrooms I worked in this year - one where all students and staff spend their entire day in fear of one student who is dangerously violent because of mental health issues that clearly are not being treated and no qualified staff is provided to keep said student from harming others; another where high school students with "emotional disabilities" who are considered dangerous are kept in the same building with preschool classes, with no real way of keeping the little children separate and safe.
All of these things and more add up to a lousy school experience for some of our most precious students - children who should be receiving extra help and care, but are instead being denied even a safe and healthy place to spend their days, let alone an actual education. It all also adds up to a crummy work experience for someone like me, who is passionate about working with children and families with special needs. To spend each day watching the "system" fail these children, while most of the adults involved seem to have settled for only being able to offer mediocre services, is a tragedy. To try to comprehend how a school system can afford a beautiful new campus with smart boards in every classroom, but somehow cannot afford support staff for its students with special needs, is beyond me. Similarly, the idea of an agency spending money on a brand new office building, yet has nobody in place to interview, hire, and properly train staff makes no sense at all to me. This is a direct reflection of the value you place on the children you serve.
I can no longer be a part of the problem.
As much as I hope my words here will have some impact on somebody at the top, I truly do not have that much faith in the MCESC to think it will make a difference. To say I can no longer be a part of the problem is not to say I will keep quiet about it. I would like to see the ESC actually do something about these issues. For that reason, I have decided to share this letter with everyone I can, to get the word out about how children with special needs are treated in our schools. I will, however, give Austintown Schools and the ESC seven days from receipt of this email to respond before I do that. I am very interested to know - from the perspective of administration - why these children are given second-class treatment, and what might be done about it. My hope is that, ultimately, change will be brought about for these children and for the people who care for them on a daily basis.
In closing, I thank you all for giving me the opportunity this past year to get to know a few amazing young people who are learning to fit into this world with incredible challenges before them. I sincerely hope that each person who reads these words will take advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow, and to do better for these children.
Danielle R. Gregory
I do still hope that some day, some changes can be made regarding this situation. But what I want people to take away from reading this is that this is not just an isolated incident or situation at this school. Schools in two or three counties are served by this same agency. Additionally, I have no doubt a good many schools throughout the state are running under similar outdated methods and attitudes. Ohio needs to step it up. A lot. Parents and caregivers can help by stopping in for unannounced visits to your child's classroom. And stay for a while, to observe what really goes on. Be that parent that everybody knows and a few people dread. Be your child's best advocate.
"You never have to be afraid to do what's right."