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Dehumanizing rhetoric, and calling the cops on little kids

April 16, 2012

I haven’t been around much lately, spending a lot of spoons on gardening. (Not that I’ve managed to post much at the new gardening blog or the G+ page it’s supplementing, but ah well. I keep taking pictures and then not getting around to writing things up at all.)

But, I ran across a story yesterday which seemed to belong here, on G:

Chief left bruise, bump on 8-year-old boy who left Jonesville elementary school playground, mom says

And, guess what? Kid is autistic.

And it sounds about as bad as the headline suggests. The boy left his school playground to poke around a neighboring golf course–as kids will do–and a teacher or aide ended up calling the cops on him. Cue much manhandling and physical abuse when he had a meltdown.

Kolodie said her son walked away from the playground, which is not fully fenced, while at recess with five to seven other students and two school staff members. He is in a classroom of emotionally impaired students and no other classes were at recess, Kolodie said.

An aide and his teacher went after him. When he left school property, crossing the road to a golf course, the teacher or aide called 911, Kolodie said.

Eli was agitated and had a stick, she said. He was using it defensively, she said. Kolodie was not there but talked to the chief and school officials.

He had returned to school property. One police officer went to each side of him and the teacher or aide grabbed his belt loop and put him in the police car, Kolodie said.

Eli would not calm down. “He’s scared to death,” Kolodie said.

The chief then opened the car door and swatted the boy on the ankle, Kolodie said. The behavior continued and the chief hit Eli again, this time on the shin, Kolodie said.

From further up:

To return him to class at Emily B. Williams Elementary School on Adrian Street, Eli, then calmer, was handcuffed, she said Thursday from a Hillsdale music store and coffee shop.

Almost more disturbingly, to me:

Up to the point he was in the police car, Kolodie said she did not take real issue with the way the situation was handled. “They had every right to restrain him,” she said. “They had to get my son in a safe spot.”

She does not understand why, once the boy was safely in a vehicle designed to keep adults contained, the officer had to take action with his baton.

Now, I obviously do not know the child in question, but is it ever appropriate to call the cops on an eight-year-old? (Short of, as Mr. U suggested, cases like this.) It doesn’t sound like these school personnel should be working with kids at all, much less those in special ed, if they feel compelled to escalate an everyday situation to the point that one of their students gets hit with a police baton. I  mean, really. 😐

As I commented on the original share:

It is very, very sad that this seems to be turning into the preferred way of dealing with disabled kids these days.

Even if the kid really had been having a tantrum rather than a meltdown (after getting grabbed by multiple cops and handcuffs), what should you not do? Start hitting. Calling the cops when an 8-year-old leaves the playground to poke around a golf course is ludicrous enough in the first place.

The labels always help, yeah. :/ If anybody had tried to restrain me, much less call the cops like keeps happening to kids now, there would have been hell to pay. And rightly so.

Which touches on what I want to talk about: how the behavior of a kid labelled autistic is seen as so different and more threatening. Thanks largely to the Othering that is so distressingly common.

I was remembering wrongly, in that the article did not use the term “wandering”, but IMO it was implied that the child’s motivations were necessarily strange and maybe impossible to understand, because autism.

When I was in elementary school, the playground was not fenced in at all. Not surprisingly, we kept sneaking off into the woods to play, because it was a lot more interesting. That did not go over very well with staff, but nobody ever called the cops. And nobody saw it as threatening when a kid was holding a stick. And, yeah, if teachers had approached me calling in an agitated way, or sneaked up behind me and startled me when I was watching a squirrel, I probably would have used it “defensively”–still would, for that matter, and it would not be perceived as that threatening still. Geez.

As I wrote about some before, I had some pretty spectacular meltdowns in school. I was also usually the biggest kid in the class. Some of the clueless responses were not pleasant, but nobody felt a need to call the freaking police.

I couldn’t help but think of one episode in, I think, second grade when I freaked out and locked myself in the classroom’s bathroom most of the afternoon–at first, to try to keep overwhelming people away from me when I was melting down, and then because I was embarrassed at my own behavior and didn’t want to come out and deal with them. What was the response? For a while, the (decent) teacher tried to talk me out of there, then she saw it wasn’t working and just left me alone. Nobody saw my behavior as particularly threatening, and nobody decided to prove an authoritarian point by calling either the cops or even a janitor to come and take the door off. And I did eventually come out on my own, and didn’t hear much more about it.

When I was 13 or 14, there were a couple of repeats at home, which my mother handled very poorly indeed by kicking in my bedroom door on one occasion, and getting my stepdad to take it off the hinges on another, so that she could get in my face and yell at me some more (“Don’t you walk away from me!!!” *sigh*). I ended up getting painted as “crazy” over that kind of thing–with things escalated to the point that, yeah, my behavior got pretty bizarre sometimes, if still much less threatening than that of some of the people around me who kept escalating situations to make a point–but, still, nobody called the cops. Nobody saw me as fundamentally different or “broken” enough for that to be even vaguely appropriate, much less somehow necessary.

But, micromanagement and absurdly authoritarian approaches seem to be the order of the day, when a child is seen as disabled rather than, erm, just a child. Even this boy’s mother was not saying that calling the cops to manhandle him for the crime of looking around a golf course was wrong. And was not suggesting that maybe, just maybe, trying to find less confrontational ways to get him calmed down and back to the school were called for. (Note that he had apparently returned to the playground by the time the police showed up and got abusive.)

From the description of that situation, it sounds a lot more reasonable and, you know, competent, for one of the adults to have stayed there with him if they were concerned that he might walk into the road and get hurt or something. Then, once he’d had a chance to calm down some, respectfully try to jolly him along back to the school. That would work better dealing with most kids, not just ones who stay overwhelmed by sensory stimuli a lot. And if you are really trying to avoid “disruption”–as I suspect was a motivation–handling things so that the police don’t get involved is a good way to start! *facepalm* The adults’  behavior was far more disruptive than anything the child did.

I can’t help but be reminded of a recent post by Melanie Yergeau,
FYI: Autistic Women and Autistic Writers Exist, and They Might Even Be Modified by Adjectives Such As “Successful” Rather Than “Egocentric” or “Mindblind” (love the title), which offers many excellent points. Including:

Once the Asperger’s autism designation descended from the diagnostic heavens, my capacity to empathize was suddenly eaten up by malfunctioning neurons. My capacity to engage in social relations or maintain eye contact vaporized alongside my personality. My capacity to have capacity was called into question. All these discourses, all these incapacities. Discourse about autism, I think, is far more virulent than autism.

Bolding added. The popular (and overwhelmingly medical) discourse leads directly to “people with autism” being viewed as not like other humans in some ways considered very important. I could go on, and find many,  many examples of busted dehumanizing rhetoric, but it’s too depressing.

But, is it any surprise that a kid who is often presented as basically having had his soul stolen by the Demon Autism shows some initiative and then has a meltdown when the situation is handled badly (because he couldn’t possibly have good reasons for doing what he is doing, and couldn’t possibly be reasoned with), he is then seen as possibly dangerous? And it is somehow appropriate to get the police involved, to deal with the Demon Monster Autism–residing in a little kid.

I haven’t even commented much on the overt physical abuse by the police chief, because that is almost the least of the problems here. Things should never have gotten to that point, to begin with.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 3:35 pm

    This totally ties in with something I’m going to be writing about soon. A lot of families are told to call the cops to deal with meltdowns instead of being provided services that are appropriate, particularly when it comes to low income families. I know that I had my school try to get my mother and I to agree to letting them call the cops if I cried in school. Yeah. Needless to say, I got angry and objected, and my objections were read as unbalanced. I got kicked out of my IEP meeting because of my tone and because I think I slammed my fist on the table.

    Thankfully, my mother stayed on my side and refused the terms.

    Unfortunately, not all families realize they should object to what advice is given to them. In the case of Stephon Watts, adding in the factor of Race meant that it turned deadly.

  2. April 19, 2012 9:00 pm

    Thank you for this article. SO many things were handled so wrong…it was so preventable. But one instance, that was handled badly, will leave us with a lot of work to un do. If we ever can completly un do it. I have started a facebook page (E.L.I.) dedicated to getting this information out and getting some changes made. Lets protect out children ! They really are our future.

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