The title of the Sept. 5 Roanoke Times article, “A Rare and Special Thing,” would normally be a story to celebrate some event … especially as it concerns education. I was horrified when reading this story, and here’s why.
Several years ago, I was asked by the director of special education in Montgomery County Public Schools to serve as a ‘parent representative’ on the Family Assessment and Planning Team. This was when my son with non-verbal autism was in the sixth grade at Blacksburg Middle School with an aide in a full inclusion program. I served on the FAPT team for more than 10 years. It’s safe to say that I have a solid firsthand knowledge about how the system works to access money thru the Children Services Act. These funds were used to support children and families in crisis working with various agencies. I must share that I always tried to talk to families about the option of keeping their children in our community … and not to send them ‘away’ to a segregated day school or residential placement.
As a parent who stood opposed to the intimidation tactics by Loudoun County Public Schools to put her son in a segregated placement after two full years of successful full inclusion in Illinois, where I once lived, I want to alert parents to be skeptical when your school system tries to sell you on their ‘fabulous segregated schools.’ They are not the answer to prepare your child to live as an included citizen in their community when he/she has finished their education. The record/statistics demonstrate that if you think otherwise, you’re simply ignoring the facts. (Please see the book, “A Live Controversy,” by Roxana and Joseph Hartmann centered on their experiences with Loudoun County Public Schools over the inclusion issue.)
One thing is very clear when it comes to autism; evidence demonstrates that behavior is communication. The Positive Behavior Support Plan must take this into consideration when deciding support strategies that work for that individual child. These support strategies must be adopted across all environments, including at school, home, and in the community. The PBS is a flexible working document that can change in days, weeks, and over the years. It must take into consideration specifics related to the child, and be open to adaptations, modifications and adjustments as needed. Some supports under the PBS would include sensory diets, schedules with planned breaks, even planned “pull outs” from the regular classroom, and the employment of a classroom aide to guide/direct/monitor/assist the child. The aide would work closely with the staff, including the regular education classroom teacher, the special education teacher, the principal of the school, speech therapist, and others, including the child’s classmates.
The incident, described in the article, at Hidden Valley Middle School, when Oliver was taken for a break to a padded room used for wrestling, speaks volumes. It demonstrates a lack of appreciation/understanding by school staff for Oliver as a teen with autism and in anticipating his needs. Sadly for all involved, these circumstances set up Oliver for what happened to the teacher … and in the end Oliver was suspended. For Oliver himself, suspensions do not teach “anything.” This is not a disciplinary problem; Oliver is a student on the autism spectrum. Roanoke County Public Schools shouldn’t treat children on the autism spectrum by the same measure as classic peers. Experience, together with research, shows that it doesn’t apply.
The director of special education for Roanoke County, the school board and the superintendent all should be ashamed of allowing students with autism and Asperger’s syndrome to be measured by the same standards used for their classic peers. This simply shouldn’t be! It is painfully clear from the article that everyone within Roanoke County’s school division needs training in autism and in other significant disabilities. Because of their lack of knowledge, understanding and commitment, they are putting in jeopardy not only the future of children with disabilities who fall under their responsibility, but also the proper education of all other students.
I want to alert all parents that the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond is very proud of the new and improved mandate/policy to allow the use of “restrain and seclusion” in all Virginia public schools. This policy became effective in July 2020 and applies to all students. As a suggestion: Parents should write a letter to the school that your child attends requesting that as the child’s parents you will not give permission for school staff to restrain and/or seclude your child under any circumstances. I implore you to act to protect your child. The next time we will not be reading an article about Oliver hitting the teacher, but instead, it will be an article about a child with difficult behaviors being suffocated and dying because of restrain and seclusion.
Roxana Hartmann is a Blacksburg resident and author who is a longtime advocate for children with autism.