On Tuesday of last week, Ms María had a bad morning at school. Her behavior was disruptive to her class and the staff in her classroom was not able to redirect her successfully. The situation escalated to the point that our girl got into a staff person’s space and though we will never know the sequence of events, the long and the short of it is that she put open hands on this person’s arm and pushed. The staff person did not fall, nor was she bruised in any way. A code was called and the safety team came in to take María away from the situation. The staff person then turned around and called 911 to file battery charges against our child.
In a matter of minutes, the police came, handcuffed María, took her out to a patrol car and drove her away to be booked and charged. The school called BARC to advise them that Maria had been taken away by the police but it took almost two hours to locate her, when the FLPD finally contacted us and agreed to return her to BARC housing. At one point someone told María that she would be locked up in a cell where mean people would beat her up. She had no adult advocate present for any of these events even though she is a minor with significant cognitive disabilities. Charges of battery of a school board employee have not been dropped. Among other things we can apparently still expect is that Maria will be put through a 2-week program so the system can claim that she understands enough of her Miranda rights to go to court.
Sherod and I have been trying to get our minds around it all. We have spent several hours attending meetings at her school and with her support team. The monsters of my fear have been out and roaming on many of the past nights and once again, it feels like the fight is with a tar baby that only entangles us more and more.
It was a perfect storm of failures that led to this situation. Standards imposed by the Florida legislation and Department of Education mean that our daughter is forced to engage a curriculum that is simply beyond her. She has to do work with exponents, long division, algebra, even though on her good days she is barely able to add more than a small set of single digit numbers and that, using her hands. So María gets F’s over and over again. The school recognizes this is incredibly wrong. But their hands are tied.
About 4 years ago, we were fortunate beyond words when we finally got the support of a behavior analyst who understands our child in a way that no one had ever been able to before. With her help, we put a behavior plan in place for María that required her dad and mom to learn more parenting skills and change our understanding of how to work with María down to the very core of our relationship. That behavior plan gave us 4 years that were filled with real joy and goodness even if in the end, we had to make the decision to place María at BARC. For those 4 years we have been begging the school to use the same plan to manage María’s behavior issues at school. Again, state-level mandates, rules and regulations make it impossible for the school to use the plan and in fact, have led to a behavior plan that increases the risk of María escalating into aggressive behavior repeatedly.
María attends a learning center for SED students–that is, severely emotionally disabled young people. At BARC and ARC, employees routinely deal with aggressive behavior because that goes with the territory. They, like school employees, are highly trained to manage these types of situations safely and quickly. They also understand it is part of the reality of working with young people with special needs like our daughter. Never has an employee of BARC or ARC had a client arrested. One of the lingering questions for Sherod and me has to do with an organization’s culture that says that the people with all the power, the teachers and staff, can and do routinely call 911 to have students charged and arrested.
We have all kinds of questions as well about the way the police handled this situation. We are told the officers were new on this beat, that other, more seasoned officers would not have arrested our girl. But how is it possible that a cognitively disabled minor does not seem to have any civil rights at that moment, and how is it that parents aren’t immediately notified and allowed to be with their child as they go through the process of being booked and charged? No one even takes a stab at answering that question.
I wanted to take my little peep and run. I watched my combat veteran husband struggle with every warrior instinct in himself to keep from going atomic. María´s godfather is one of the best, toughest, New Jersey trial lawyers a person could be lucky to know and he was by our side immediately. But taking the legal route is entangling ourselves with the tar baby even more, when what matters to us is pretty simple. We want our child to be as prepared for life as she can possibly be because one day, Sherod and I will be dead and she will need every life skill possible to make it to the end of her days. And we want her to be safe. The folks at BARC and ARC have been tireless trying to engage the school system at the highest levels of management and leadership to get this situation addressed and that has been of some help. But it is still at the ground level, at the school level itself, where the real action has to happen.
For that reason, by the end of last week, our focus became: “what comes next”. If María didn’t have such serious behavior issues, we could look at a transitional vo-tech program in the community, focused on teaching her life skills and job placement. But she is who she is so that is not an option. School options? They make my heart break. We are looking at the possibility of transferring her to a learning center focused more on severe cognitive disabilities. When I called one of these centers, the person who talked to me asked if María is at all verbal. When I told the lady that María reads at the 3rd grade level she said, “Honey, you really don’t want your child in this program–our students aren’t even verbal here”. She would probably not risk arrest in the centers we’re considering but I struggle to accept that this is a better alternative.
To give credit where credit is due, over the past two weeks, her current school has worked hard with us to reduce her risk of another arrest. Some things can and have been done to give María some experience of success at school, though the G*& D#$!!% “core curriculum” requirements of the State of Florida will force my daughter to fail at tests over, and over, and over again. Likewise, her school behavior plan has been modified to line up a little more with what we know works. But I don’t kid myself. María is as at risk as ever to be arrested again.
I am left carrying a hollowed-out sense of despair as big as the ocean. As long as Sherod and I are around and have the energy, we will do battle for this miracle we call our daughter, this little light that still continues to shine. But with the way things stand in this country when it comes to mental illness, all we will manage to do is ensure she doesn’t lose too much ground. What happens when we are gone? And what about the others? An incredibly high number of the students at Maria’s learning center are in the foster care system, come from terribly marginalized situations. Who speaks for them? How do they catch their chance at the “American Dream”? How very, very fragile we are…