Friday, WAFF reported that a severely autistic student put a used condom in his mouth at the Academy for Science and Foreign Language here in Huntsville. As terrible as that is, the truly terrible part of the event is that the parent was not informed of this having happened until the day after it occurred. Wardynski’s policies endanger students.
While there is much here to be upset about, and as a parent of a child who is also severely autistic who enjoys putting things he finds in his mouth to experience them I am certainly upset about this, just getting angry isn’t always productive. In addition to getting angry, we need to look at how something like this could happen.
First, the thing that people who are not parents of children on the Autism Spectrum need to understand is that ASD kids are extremely difficult to monitor. Far more so that a child who is not on the spectrum. A few years ago, my family travelled to Mobile because my girl was being honored for winning the State PTA Reflections award for a video she created about her little brother.
While we were there, with three adults in a small room, my son got out and was hanging out in the stairwell. It was a terrifying 20 minutes while we searched for him. This was in a tiny room with three adults who love this boy more than their own lives.
And this happened with a 3:1 adult to child ratio.
I’m certain that there isn’t a single public school classroom in the world with a 3:1 adult to child ratio. There certainly isn’t a classroom in this district that has those types of numbers.
As Mr. Harris stated in the interview, autism parents are aware that things happen. It’s terrifying to think that a child could pick something up off the ground and pop it into his mouth before anyone could stop him, but that terror is something that most parents understand. (What parent hasn’t had to rush to stop his or her child from picking a nose, or from eating a piece of Halloween candy found on the ground?)
As one of my boy’s favorite things to do when he was younger was to lick a window to see what the color blue behind it tasted like, this is something that parents of kids on the spectrum understand.
As WAFF reported, “Harris isn’t mad about why it happened.” He was mad about it “taking a whole day to find out.”
Supposedly Dr. Cooper is investigating to uncover why it took so long to report the incident to the parent.
Here are some fairly obvious reasons.
Fear: Teachers and Aides in Huntsville City Schools Live in Constant Fear of Losing Their Jobs
Teachers and principals operate in a state of fear. If sending a student to the office for cussing can result in threats to a teacher’s job (and it has), imagine sending a report that a student in your class put a used condom in his mouth?
Imagine doing this if you don’t have any protections, and you know that you can be fired without cause at any time. (In 2014, a quarter of HCS’s teachers did not have the protections of due process (tenure), and there are no principals in the district who have it any longer.)
I don’t actually know why there was a delay in communicating this terrible news to the child’s parents. But I do know that teachers (and principals) live in a constant state of fear in this district.
And I also know that fear causes people to make irrational and dangerous decisions. Not informing the parents immediately was an irrational and dangerous decision. It was wrong, and it’s one of my greatest fears (my boy can’t tell me when something happens to him at school).
But it is also understandable.
And it is Wardynski’s responsibility.
Inexperience: Teachers and Aides in Huntsville City Schools are Increasingly Inexperienced
This district has taken great pride since 2011 in running off our most experienced teachers and aides. And the mass exodus of our teachers has only increased. Since April 2, 2015 (one year ago in board meetings), 259 teachers have resigned and 76 teachers have retired. 335 teachers have volunteered to leave this district in the past year. That’s 26% of our teachers (1,291 according to the 2016 budget).
At least 37 of the 335 teachers who have left the district in the past year are SPED teachers.
As I wrote in November after the district decided to scapegoat special education (SPED) kids, again, as of November 13, 2015 the district was still attempting to hire special education teachers for four resource rooms that did not have teachers.
Wardynski’s constant attacks on SPED kids, parents, and teachers has had his desired effect: running SPED out of the district. As Debra Jenkins documented on her site, Dreaming With Your Feet, Dr. Wardynski would prefer it if SPED kids all left the district.
And they’re close to doing just that.
And the result is that when a teacher faces a horrible situation, this teacher doesn’t have her own experience to fall back on. She’s never gone through anything like this before, and since Wardynski constantly changes administrations at schools (the principal at ASFL has been principal there for 18 months), it makes it nearly impossible for administrators to develop trust with their teachers.
Mr. Harris’ son’s teacher was hired December 17, 2015. She had been a teacher for less than three months.
Insufficient Supervision: We’re Operating on Bare Minimum Staffing
According to her presentation to the board in 2015, Amy Sledge stated that the district had 250 aides (187 are Appleton Aides and 63 are HCS/SPED Aides). In addition, she reported that there are 2,409 special education students in the district. That results in a 1:9.6 ratio of aides to students. Now, the majority of the 2,409 students do not have any daily interaction with a SPED aide. Many of them operate in the general education population just fine on their own without any intervention.
That is not the case for a severely autistic child. On extremely rare occasions, a student on the spectrum receives a 1:1 aide where there is one aide primarily tasked with supervising one student. While I do not have specific numbers on the number of student who have a 1:1 aide, I suspect that there are no more than about 25-30 students who receive a 1:1 aide.
Most special education students have a 1:3.33 of aides to students at the best of times. (This assumes that the aide isn’t distracted by one of her three students who is running out the door down the hall.)
While this ratio occasionally works, anyone who works with special education students knows that anything can happen at anytime.
Mr. Harris’ classroom had a 1:3.66 ratio.
Students Endangered by Wardynski’s “Strong Leadership”
While I am certain that the blame for this terrible incident last week will be placed on the aides and the teacher, they were all placed in an impossible situation that was certain to result in a terrible incident. And Dr. Wardynski’s “Strong Leadership” is ultimately responsible.
Wardynski is responsible for the failure to notify the parents.
Wardynski is responsible for the culture of fear.
Wardynski is responsible for running off our best and most experienced teachers.
Wardynski is responsible for the insufficient supervision.
Wardynski should be the one held responsible for this terrible incident. His policies and approaches to education have developed an environment where we, all of us, not just SPED parents, have to wonder not if something terrible will happen to our kids at school, but when.