This is the first of a series of posts about trauma due to criminalization of disabled students by Amy Sequenzia.
The Trauma Is Real
Everyone has heard of the school-to-prison pipeline. It is the system that criminalizes students’ minor infractions of school rules. It is the result of “zero tolerance” policies, of the presence of cops (School Resource Officers – SRO) in schools. It has become so extreme that a student kicking a trash can, due to frustration, can lead to a criminal record, detention in a juvenile facility and criminal charges instead of a school disciplinary action, like after school detention or, in some cases, suspension.
The school-to-prison pipeline affects mostly students of color and disabled students.
When it comes to disabled students, especially Autistics, the expectation of compliance is met with the children’s inability to process and respond to the situation in a typical way, and it usually ends up with injuries, trauma and even death.
All this is known and discussed in the mainstream media. In social media, disabled activists are always sharing stories of disabled kids being attacked by school officials, about disabled kids – as young as seven and eight years old – being handcuffed for being a little disruptive – like young children usually are. Disabled students are treated like criminals because their disability is seen as defiance, not as difficulty in dealing with situations in a way that is not typical.
Arrest instead of De-Escaltion
There is also an expectation that disabled students must always do what they are told, without questions about fairness. Their reactions to situations that are overwhelming to them are said to be “behaviors”, not only considered undesirable, but also deemed dangerous. The school ignores the IEP’s, which must contain the steps necessary to de-escalate such crisis, and decide to call the cops to “control” the child.
When cops (or Student Resource Officers ) don’t know what to do or which steps to take according to the disabled student’s IEP, they see a criminal act and they act as if the student is a criminal. They use mace, handcuffs, and violence. They arrest children and don’t allow parents to be present during the arrest. Sometimes the children spend the night, or several nights in jail, sometimes in solitary confinement.
All this because some paraprofessionals, teachers and principals see disabled students as a nuisance, as a burden. There are cases of teachers hitting students, abusing them, restraining and isolating them. They don’t see disabled students as people, so they don’t care if they are treated with humanity.
Most of the time, we don’t hear about the case after the initial report. Sometimes the case is dismissed, because the absurdity of a child being arrested, and criminally charged for being rowdy or disruptive in class is acknowledged. Sometimes because the human and civil rights violation is so blatant, the schools settle with the families to avoid bad publicity. Many times the whole case is forgotten by everyone, except the victim.
The Trauma of Remains
But the trauma remains with the children.
I want to write about some of those cases because, even though I was never arrested, and even though I have some privileges (I am white), I do know trauma from the treatment I received from teachers and principals. The trauma still remains with me, after all these years. I want to remind you of students who were restrained, put in duffel bags, isolated in very small rooms without windows; of students being arrested, charged and sentenced for being black and disabled; of students being beaten by principals and by the police.
I want to tell you how I felt when similar things happened to me, so you can have an idea of how children who are forced to go through much worse situations that I did might feel, and how this might impact their lives, forever.
I want you to feel outraged and uncomfortable because those are not isolated cases. I want you, if you have a school aged child, to ask your kid’s school if they will protect the disabled students, even the ones they consider “difficult”. I want to make you feel the need to do this because disabled students are children who need supports, they are not criminals. The trauma on us is real and I want you to know the consequences of such trauma.
“Nationally, students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student population, but are 75 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.” ACLU
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue, Ms. Sequenzia. As a parent of a young man with autism and someone who hears a lot about the criminalization of children with disabilities, I am horrified by what many children, as young as 5 or 6, have to deal with.