[Note: this post is meant to be a self-reflection of sorts after talking with the district twice so far. This will not take the normal format of my blog posts which are usually essays. This might be lacking in a bit of coherence for that.]
This has been on my mind recently as I've done my initial foray into local politics with my testimony on restraint and seclusion. I'm constantly asking myself now: "what do I want to accomplish?" "for whom am I fighting for?" "who's voice is being heard?" "when have I got enough to compromise?" "is compromise an option?" These are, as you might imagine, incredibly difficult questions to answer, and I find myself scared that I might transgress an important value for the sake of politics. In addition, I find myself thinking about different contexts, different movements, and how many I believe have failed because they either failed to ask these questions, or they have defined their priorities to be minute and worthless.
As for the first question, I've defined what I want to accomplish as having the Bellevue School District codify that restraint and seclusion is not allowed under any circumstance. Another goal would be to have the State of Washington ban the practice in the 2015 session. There are smaller goals, of course, but these are the overarching things I want accomplished. Are these lofty goals? Very.
There are many necessary obstacles to overcome, including the influence of Autism Speaks at the state level, strangely enough. Jess Block-Nerren, the Communications Chair of Walk Now for Autism Speaks Southern California had this to say in response to a 50lb non-verbal Autistic fifth grader being restrained for crying in Orange [county] Unified School District: "…there are times when a child can be restrained, such as if they are posing a threat to themselves or to others." The position of Autism Speaks is the same as her's. In addition, the general climate around education reform is to do nothing. This says nothing to the pervasive ableism which causes this policy to be here in the first place.
Do I honestly believe I can get this done in this climate, in this time frame? No, not really. Do I think it can be done? Yes. Now, the reasons for wanting restraint and seclusion banned--and banned now--I have covered partially in my testimony, but I have left out a very important piece of analysis in my testimony so far: its use as an agent of oppression.
Restraint and seclusion are acts of violence. Acts of violence are the ultimate way of asserting authority; restraint and seclusion are an then acts control, of complaince. The purpose for it as stated on my first IEP dating back about ten years ago is literally compliance. Compliance isn't necessarily evil. Complying with ethical codes such as respecting boundaries and consent? Yeah, that's important. Complying for frivolous things like sightly behavior or neuro-normativity? No.
For example, there is no doubt in the mind of any Autistic student that stimming or having "loud hands" will endanger themselves to an unjust system of punishments, restraints, and seclusion. When we rock in our chairs, or silently spin or whatever, a teacher can label us queer, non-complaint and may take measures to apprehend us, including restraint and/or seclusion. These issues make discipline a complicated issue for Autistic children and teens to parse through such that reporting their bullying and/or harassment is not an idea taken seriously by Autistic students. Combined with schools which provide poor or limited access for Autistics and the possibilities of what is called a meltdown in Autism literature, this creates a situation where acting out is perceived as the best, logical option for these school children. In our “no tolerance” schools, the context of acting out is far too often not considered which creates an unjust disparity between the oppressed and the oppressor. The problem is not solved: the victim is blamed. Inherent to the harshness of school discipline are power imbalance and discriminatory practices. White, abled students are least affected by this system, and when they are disciplined, they are given less severe punishments (Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, 2014). [note: this section is adapted from a speech written for the OSPI hearing on May Fifth of this year I wrote for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network of Washington. I am currently the only grade school student in that group, so I was tasked with writing it. Between the feasibility of going to Olympia and time issues, it was not given. Plus really short notice. /end tangent.]
So, yes, there is a purpose for this activism; it is important; and outlined objectives are in place. In this way, I'm doing well as an activist, spare for the fact that I have no idea how to create change other than through education and showing up to meetings--maybe meeting allies and talking tactics.
[Now, for the other major group invested in this--parent activists, represented by the Bellevue Special Needs PTA--they more clearly have a grasp on the politics and how to accomplish things...because they've been at it longer and are simply more politically smart than I am.]
As for the second set questions of about voice and for whom to center the activism on, the question of who s most affected must be answered. The people most aversively affected by a system should receive the most attention in activism, because ultimately, it is about them.
The people most affected by restraint and seclusion are Disabled Students of Color, particularly those with psychological and neurological disabilities (Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, 2014). [A psychological disability would be something like OCD and a neurological disability would be something like Autism.] Disabled white students--such as myself--are also highly affected, but less so.
Nationally, "students with disabilities (served by IDEA) represent 12% of the student population, but 58% of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75% of those physically restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely. Black students represent 19% of students with disabilities served by IDEA, but 36% of these students who are restrained at school through the use of a mechanical device or equipment designed to restrict their freedom of movement"(Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education, 2014).
And in my district, "special-education students are disciplined three times more often than the average student" (Washington Appleseed, 2014 ). [This data only covers suspensions and expulsions. Incidents "requiring" restraint and seclusion are often one of the main reasons for a suspension or expulsion, so this data suggests a particularly high rate of restraint and seclusion in my school district.]
In addition, according to the former director of the U.S. Department of Education's office of Special Education Programs during the Clinton Administration: "no sub-population of American students experiences poorer educational outcomes than those who have been identified as having serious emotional disturbance [a form of psychological disability]...Students with emotional disturbance continue to be segregated in relatively large numbers, taking 44 percent of their courses in special education classes" (Hehir, 2004).
So then my focus as an activist must be on centering the experiences of psychologically disabled students/psychologically disabled students of color and Disabled Students of Color via the amplification of their voices. In addition, from anecdotal evidence--both from first hand knowledge and second hand from parent activists--individuals labelled "low functioning autistic" or LFA are more often restrained and secluded and often are not taught the language of dissent as a typically-speaking Autistic might be. This intersects with another issue which is the presumption of competence, or lack thereof, for d/Disabled people.
However, as any regular reader knows, I have made limited references to speaking status and no reference to race--except in a short part of my written testimony to the school district--in my testimonies. This means that the people whom I'm currently fighting for--speaking, white Autistic students--are not the people who I should be putting the most effort into fighting for.
This means my positions and the reasons for them are not addressing the real issues. I am failing on this count because of this.
If the push for ending restraint and seclusion in Bellevue Public Schools, which is represented by parent activists and one student, is to be legitimate we will figure out a way to decenter the experiences of parents and one student of one intersection and to instead center the experiences of psychologically disabled students of color.
- Jess Block-Nerren's Statement
- Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Education Report
- Washington Apple Seed
- New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice by Thomas Hehir