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Eleven-year-old felons? Let’s get a grip. Part 1

January 7, 2010

I have been holding off on writing about Zakhqurey Price, since his situation gets me frothing at the mouth. and I’ve been working hard on learning better/some emotional regulation. The boy needs all the help he can get, however.

If you haven’t heard about this case, Zakh–an 11-year-old autistic boy–is facing felony assault charges in Arkansas. He had a meltdown, hit school personnel who were trying to restrain him, and they decided to make a point by calling in the cops.

ASAN points out, in releases asking for help, that:

There were no serious injuries, and the incident occurred under circumstances where the use of restraint would not have been legal if recently introduced federal civil rights legislation to protect children in schools had been in effect…

If Zakh is declared incompetent as part of the hearing scheduled for January 12th, state law requires that he be placed into a mental hospital for at least 30 days. His grandmother fears that, due to the negative repercussions of being taken out of the community and being forced into an institutional setting, Zakh may lose skills in such an environment and not be returned to her indefinitely. That is why we need you to act now.

This legislation about restraint and seclusion in schools was well past due, and unfortunately too late to help Zakh. Please take a few minutes to urge the various parties involved to drop these charges and consider actually making the kind of reasonable accommodations his family has been trying to get–not to mention treating this boy like a human being.

I wish I were surprised at the hideous way in which this situation has been handled, but it’s a logical result of the increasingly authoritarian approach schools have been taking. I haven’t yet read Henry A. Giroux’s Youth in a Suspect Society, but what I’ve seen of his observations agree with my own; in this case, it’s easy to see how “forms of punishment that were once applied to adults now apply to first graders.”

Given the galloping popularity of Zero Tolerance policies (which obviously do not apply to the adults), “One major effect can be seen in the increasingly popular practice of organizing schools through disciplinary practices that closely resemble the culture of prisons.” This does seem to be growing out of changing social attitudes. From an interview with Giroux:

The biggest issue facing education today is the ongoing corporatization and militarization of public schools. Poor minority and white youth increasingly find themselves in schools modeled after prisons and one consequence is that their behavior, however trivial, is criminalized and they increasingly move from school into the criminal justice system.

It’s not right to treat anybody in this dehumanizing way, much less disabled children. In Zakh’s case, certainly, a rigid authoritarian approach to “education” was considered far more important than teaching him anything that might help him succeed in life. What lessons were presented here? Detentionslip.org offers many similar examples.

How might the school have handled this situation in a less confrontational, destructive manner? Terri Mauro’s Have a Meltdown. Go to Jail post (and especially the first comment) offers some suggestions from a parent’s perspective. In short: try to figure out what is making the kid agitated in the first place, do not escalate the situation, and if necessary let the kid have some time alone to calm down away from the situation. If you need to, gently lead the person to a quiet area.

Try to apply some compassion, not to mention some pragmatism: the person is upset for a reason, now what actually works to defuse the situation? As an adult, you should have learned enough emotional regulation and self control that you do not need to screech at, much less physically assault, children out of anger and/or to prove a point. You should also not be letting your own emotional reactions cloud your judgment to the point that you confuse punitive action with what is necessary to defuse a situation; this too is abusive behavior. If you can’t do these things, you should not be dealing with children, period. You should certainly not be placed in charge of classrooms full of them.

Instead, adults who should know better turn minor incidents into power struggles. Being Right and not having one’s authority undermined is frequently considered far more important than the child. In Zakh’s case, I would be amazed if a combination of sensory overload and frustration at tail-pulling had not led to the meltdowns. But, as Joel observes (from bitter experience) in his Pulling the Cat’s Tail post:

Often it is a series of “low level” events that finally push the autistic person over the edge, and cause him to violently strike out. Unfortunately only the last “tail pull” is looked at, and in the context of a light tail pull, the biting and scratching seems very much to be an excessive reaction – but not if you look at the whole chain of events. It’s not about the tail pull, it’s about the 15 tail pulls, the growls and snarls being ignored, the attempt at escape being ignored, and the body language being ignored. Eventually the snap happens. Unfortunately, often the snap is a reaction to all those events, even if the “triggering” event was relatively minor, maybe even committed by someone who didn’t commit the other low-level actions…

But, with the autistic, it’s the autistic that is wrong. And their actions – when they were not in control of themselves – are what is seen as wrong. Often, the low level events are completely ignored

Compound this by physically assaulting someone–in the guise of “restraint” or otherwise–and you should expect the person to fight back. Who wouldn’t, autistic or no? Who wouldn’t at least get angrier and more upset when they’re treated this way? How is violence going to help the situation? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable–and more helpful, both in the short and long run–to help the person learn how to avoid and work through the initial frustration before it snowballs? Do we want people to have decent and rewarding lives, or do we want them to be either in prison or career mental patients?

As the Wrightslaw Abuse & Restraints in School page puts it:

Children with disabilities are sometimes left open to potential abuse when those who are charged with their care do not understand the difference between “bad behavior” and “behavior as communication”…When a child’s “behavior” is seen merely as bad behavior and not as an effort to communicate, the child can become even more frustrated thus causing escalation. Adults who are not properly trained to distinguish these “behaviors” or to decipher the “communication” attempts can sometimes escalate the child to a critical point when the use of physical and/or mechanical restraint comes into play…

Imagine that you cannot express your thoughts in a way that others can easily understand. Now, imagine that you are a child who cannot communicate your fears, likes, dislikes, or pain. Imagine being misunderstood constantly. Imagine having others schedule every moment of your life without knowing what you would like to do. This is reality for some children. Is it any wonder that these children get frustrated?

What this author neglects is the “Us vs. Them”, “I’m Right You’re Wrong” dynamic that too frequently comes into play and overrides any sort of reason in school settings.

Leah’s comment to the Have a Meltdown. Go to Jail post offers an excellent illustration of the petty power-tripping, “You must do as I say immediately, or I’ll slap you silly/tackle you to the ground (‘restrain’)/etc.” approach that too many adults connected to the public schools favor. Even in cases where they know full well that the child in question may not even be able to hear what they have said to do, in the first place. In Leah’s daughter’s case–Down’s aside–it was also suggested that “Maybe her getting charged, and sitting in juvenile detention for a couple of days would teach her a lesson!” It was bad enough when I was in school during the ’80s and early ’90s, but things seem to have deteriorated since then.

What they are really teaching here is learned helplessness in the face of abusive, dehumanizing behavior. It hurts, and it can help kids feel like they have to accept further abuse later in life.

In short, we’re seeing more of the bad instititutional stuff illustrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment. All reason, much less compassion, flies straight out the window. It becomes Us vs. Them. Again, that’s horrible anyway, but children–much less disabled ones–should never become “Them”.

This is running long, so I’m going to continue the abuse theme in another post. Again, I urge you to try to help Zakhqurey Price.

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