Most parents should find the subject of today’s article shocking and I hope that this remains the case for a long, long time. The reason shocking topics are shocking is because they’re about things that don’t happen that often and stun us when they do.
However, it is not unheard of for schools to call the police on parents when special education disputes arise. When this happens, either the parent legitimately did something wrong for which police action is warranted or somebody at the school did something outrageous and got caught by the parent, resulting in power struggle in which calling the cops is a childish trump card played by a power-tripping school site administrator who has become hell-bent on coming out on top without concern for the damage that will otherwise be done.
I’m not going to dwell on the former possibility because it goes without saying that our children should safe at school and sometimes that means that calling the police on a parent who is being dangerous and disruptive is necessary. I’m going to focus on the latter possibility, instead, because this is an evil that has no business in any free society, much less America’s public schools.
I’ve been dealing with such a situation this week and am really disgusted over the whole thing. This topic also falls right into line with our on-going series on the negative influences that undermine the special education process, which we’re identifying so that all of us who are working so hard towards appropriate outcomes can do so collectively and collaboratively to right these wrongs and make special education actually work.
It has been my observation that single parents, low-income families, and ethnic minorities tend to be the ones most targeted by this unseemly form of retaliation. Heaven help the single, low-income, minority parent who gets faced with a triple-whammy of discrimination on top of the discrimination that is frequently inherent in being the parent of a child challenged by disability. The School to Prison Pipeline involves undermining parents’ advocacy efforts as much as anything else, and calling the cops on a parent from a marginalized population who is insisting on appropriate intervention for his/her child with special needs is exactly the kind of abuse of authority that contributes to the funneling of children from these families out of the classroom and into a prison cell.
Our founder, Nyanza, and I had our families together for a KPS4Parents social event several years ago and I remember that she had to admonish her own son for doing something pretty typical for a kid with ADHD (but that he still shouldn’t have been doing). I don’t even remember what it was exactly, just that it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of the cosmos but it had the potential to call serious negative attention to him if he didn’t knock it off. As much as Nyanza and I are like-minded and practically finish each other’s sentences, it’s the day-to-day life stuff that makes it clear just how racially defined modern American life still is and how different her family’s experiences are from my own.
What stands out in my memory is what she said to him after she looked him in the eye to gain his attention, pointed out what he was doing wrong, and told him what he should do instead. She told him that, statistically speaking, young black men between the ages of 12 and 25 are the most feared people in America and that, as unfair as this was, it was the truth. So, anything he did that was inappropriate for any reason would put him at risk of being treated unreasonably harshly because of this irrational fear. What was obviously an ADHD-related issue was not generally identified by society with his disability but, rather, with his race. That concept makes my mind spin even now.
Fast forward to this past week and I’m working with a single, African-American mother of a handsome little boy with ADHD. He’s a really sweet kid by all accounts, but he’s impulsive, wiggly, and easily provoked by his peers who have totally figured him out and set him up to get in trouble over and over. He’s also in an economically depressed, urban community in a school district that, by reputation, is mediocre on its best day. His elementary school principal has created her own little slummy fiefdom where she can throw around her Caucasian weight and intimidate the parents, most of whom are low-income minorities. You could fit what this principal knows and cares about special education compliance on the head of a pin.
I’m not going to assert the position that I am in any way qualified to speak to the black experience. I’m so white I glow in the dark and I was raised in the racially segregated South. I don’t abide by the really perverse ideas I was exposed to as a kid, but I haven’t lived what black families in America have lived, so I can’t speak with authority on the subject. However, if the amount of stand-up comedian material produced in the United States is any kind of barometer for what goes on in our society, that combined with my personal experiences through the friendships I’ve forged with the African-American women I know, black women have a tendency to speak their minds and God help you if they get mad.
This is a gross over-generalization of course. I know when somebody has crossed the line with Nyanza because she gets really, really serious, looks them dead in the eye, and says what she has to say extremely eloquently. But, I’ve also known a number of opinionated, strong African-American women who, if provoked, will come completely unglued. Amongst their friends and families, this way of reacting to injustice is perfectly acceptable. In elementary school offices, not so much.
Which brings me full circle back to the business of police being called on parents. In this week’s moment of drama (which was another first for me – after over 18 years of this you’d think I wouldn’t encounter anything new), I just happened to return this parent’s phone call as she was sitting in her car in the elementary school parking lot after “having words” with the principal over an improper disciplinary measure taken by school site staff regarding her son. She was just starting to tell me what was going on when she stopped and said, “The principal’s coming.”
The principal approached the parent in her car and began to say something to her, but stopped when the parent put me on speaker phone and identified me to her. I introduced myself, as awkward as the sudden introduction was, and the principal advised the parent that she needed to talk to her. The parent asked “About what?” The principal wouldn’t say anything at first, but upon the parent’s insistence, the principal finally said “Your behavior.” The principal said that if the parent didn’t leave, she was going to have the police escort her off the campus. And, then the powder keg blew.
What was weird was that even though the principal told this parent that she needed to leave, the principal wanted to first talk to the parent at length about her alleged behavior before letting her actually leave the campus. I realized the principal was up to something.
The parent was very upset, insisting she hadn’t done anything wrong and it took a few moments for me to get her attention, but I did. I got her to take me off speaker phone and told her, “She said she wants you to leave. Leave! Leave now!” I guess my tone was compelling because she stopped insisting that she hadn’t done anything wrong and said, “My advocate is telling me to leave, so I’m leaving.”? Then she drove away. After leaving the school’s parking lot, as she was driving down the street, she saw in the distance in her rear view mirror a squad car pulling into the school parking lot. It took me a half-hour to calm her back down again.
I’m not going to say that this parent didn’t disrupt the school environment. I honestly don’t know.? I wasn’t there. I didn’t see or hear what happened prior to my call with the parent. It is entirely possible that her voice was raised high enough while in the building to cause concern. If that’s the case, then the only argument I have against the request for her to leave was that it came after she had already left the building and was sitting in her car preparing to drive away followed by a delay tactic that was clearly meant to keep her there long enough for the police to arrive and escort her off the campus she was already in the process of leaving.
It was plainly evident to me that the principal was deliberately provoking this parent into an outburst with the intent of having the police pull up in the middle of it.? Even if the principal’s only purpose was to make the record that the parent had to be escorted off school grounds by the police and not actually have her arrested, there are a thousand things wrong with this situation, starting with the fact that the basis for the entire incident is that this parent’s child is not receiving a FAPE and when the parent first approached school site staff for help to resolve the problem, they responded to her with disrespect and refused to help her.? Nyanza’s admonishment to her son about how young black males are perceived sprang to my mind when I first accepted this case because that’s exactly what is happening here.
School districts, or even just individual school sites, that are run by unethical people have a fairly predictable way of doing business. A parent raises a concern and the school site administration discounts it and condescends to the parent. The parent then goes on the internet and researches his/her rights, then goes back to the school and demands an appropriate response, which is not forthcoming. If the parent is unsophisticated, the exchanges are entirely verbal and the only record being kept is whatever is written up by school site staff and placed in the student’s file after each trip into the office by the parent. This cycle repeats for a while, with the parent getting more and more agitated each time around.
If the parent eventually gets outside help or files a complaint with a regulator, the school is suddenly at risk of having its dirty laundry aired to people who might actually have the authority to do something about it. The fiefdom is suddenly on the line. So, an active campaign to discredit the parent is waged and all hell breaks loose. This happens everywhere with parents from all walks of life. But, it is particularly harmful to low-income, minority, single parents whose word has to stand against that of someone in a suit with a Master’s Degree.
A few months ago, I added another tool to our toolbox here at KPS4Parents that may actually turn out to be useful after all. I wasn’t sure how we could exactly use it but it had potential so I went ahead and added it to our collection of resources. I have to be careful how I present it here because I don’t want what I say to be misconstrued as an unauthorized advertisement for something for which we are contractually obligated to seek prior approval to advertise. You can see our approved web content for this possible solution by clicking here.
A friend of mine turned me onto this legal planning solution a few months ago.? While my initial thought was to provide it to parents as an option for due process representation or even estate planning when special needs beneficiaries are involved, there was a whole bunch of other stuff that came with it that I really didn’t think was all that relevant to what KPS4Parents does.? Until the cops got called on my client the other day.
Had I not returned her phone call when I did, my client would have been unwittingly detained by the principal long enough for the police to become involved.? The record would have been made in a manner that misrepresented the situation to the detriment of my client’s case and personal well-being.
That night, I lay in bed thinking: “What about the other parents who will find themselves in similar circumstances but who don’t have an advocate who will just happen to call at the most opportune moment possible?? What would have happened to the sweet little boy I’m representing if his single mother had been taken into custody?? What’s going to happen to him now that he has to go to school at what is clearly now a hostile environment?”? (I’m working on that latter issue, actually.)
If parents who find themselves in situations like these had a 24-hour hotline to call for immediate attorney support when approached by the police, which is one of those things available through that relatively recent addition to our toolbox mentioned above that I never really thought as being relevant to our work until now, that would be a very powerful resource indeed.? So, I’m now rethinking the application of this new tool now that this new situation has developed.
The most useful advice I can give to parents, regardless of who they are and where they live, is to never, ever, under any circumstances, let school site staff goad you into an outburst.? If they try, recognize it for what it is and, if necessary, leave before things get worse.
If you are worried about your child’s welfare in such a hostile situation, and you think the threat is severe enough, remove your child from school and file a suspected child abuse report.? If you determine that your child is not at risk and you send him/her back to school, do not discuss what happened with your child in intimate detail.? You will make your child unnecessarily fearful, which will only make things worse for your child.
If things have gotten so far out of hand that the school has gotten the police involved, it’s time to seek legal representation.? Walking that landmine field alone is just a bad idea.
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