Wednesday Word. Criminalizing Behaviors of Special Needs Students

Where I live, most schools are assigned a PSL (Police School Liaison) Officer.

I have worked with many and while I feel very fortunate to have had their support in a few cases, I worry that their training is so very limited they do not always recognize how mental health issues present.

When we consider where, meaning the philosophy and practice, police officers come from, we understand that they are about control, keeping the masses safe and in order. They work in a system that is about consequencing negative, unsafe, disorderly behaviors. They work in a system that is all about if this, then that. They have been trained to deescalate when dealing with drunken adults or when handling a domestic violence situation. They have been trained how to safely get out of control people in a controlled state. While I believe in the last 5 years or so there has been some training regarding mental health and Autism,it’s minimal and there certainly hasn’t been enough training about handling kids.

In an attempt to make schools safer, to ease the discipline burden on deans and principals, and to increase community support for our students, we put PSL Officers in schools.  The intention was good.

Now let’s consider the clientele in our typical schools. Unfortunately there is huge disparity between schools even within one district. Neighborhoods are different. Parent resources are different. Socio economic status varies. And we all know those things affect schools. For discussion sake, let’s presume that most schools provide services for students with IEPs. It is that special education population I am most concerned about when it comes to police involvement.

As a teacher I called on my PSL Officer for help when a student got dangerously aggressive, when the behavior was way beyond my ability to effectively handle it. I called on my PSL Officer to help parents and guardians file JIPS petitions when they are overwhelmed and unable to support their kids. I have called on my PSL Officer to counsel kids, help them understand themselves and to comfort them. I have called on my PSL Officer to support me as I make a report to social services.

But my professional experience with the school PSL Officer was only in an elementary school.

My personal experience with a PSL Officer is ongoing and in a high school. And it is about my son. Who is on the ASD spectrum. Who has anxiety. Who, in some ways, presents as someone with an oxygen deprived brain. His social communication is poor, he cannot read the intentions of others. He has no friends. He was finally correctly diagnosed very late (freshman year). He has trouble with anything that requires executive functioning which means everything is a struggle. He trusts everyone. He gives his hard earned money away to any jerk who gives him the time of day. He will be set up and left holding the bag.

This morning was spent in court. Yep, in court with Movieman facing the consequences of a disorderly conduct citation he was given in school by the PSL Officer.

Movieman reached a breaking point. Someone he cares deeply about was being made fun of, mean things were being said about her. Movieman held it together for  weeks. When the insults and rumors became so vile, he burst. He hunted the worst offender down in the cafeteria and took a swing at him. Movieman is not a fighter. He is gawky and uncoordinated. And when he swung he hardly connected. He swung once. Then it was over.

For this he earned a suspension and the PSL Officer handed him a citation for disorderly conduct. The fee for the citation was close to 400 bucks. Which, by the way, is less than the fee for driving while intoxicated. So, for taking one poorly aimed swing at a big mouth jerk hurling vile insults at another student, Moveieman gets the citation and the suspension.

I do not condone or support Movieman’s choice to get physical with another human. It’s not OK. I expect better from him. I was fine with the suspension. Suspensions can serve as a way to stop the momentum of this kind of energy. I was not fine with the citation.

Here is why. Movieman has many challenges and his high school experience has been miserable. He was bullied so badly in the freshman gym locker room that we removed him from gym class for the remainder of the year. Repeatedly his clothing was grabbed and thrown while he was dressing, his lock stolen, sexual crudities were shouted at him and he was stung with rubber band snaps on his bum leaving welts.  Not one of those offenders was ever given a citation. Not one. They were not given suspensions or even detentions. For three years my kid has endured name calling, kids setting him up, tricking him out of his money, physically and psychologically intimidation. He finally snapped when the insults about someone he cares for became too much. He never swung at another person on his own behalf.

I like the high school PSL Officer. I don’t blame him as much as I blame the lack of training provided to him regarding special needs. I blame a school system that turns this kind of thing over to the PSL Officer instead of handling it with care and compassion, common sense and logic. I blame the school administration for allowing my son, and many others, to be treated so poorly. I blame them for not working harder to make their school climate more inclusive. I blame them for not understanding kids with special needs and how they experience a school day. I blame them for not effectively dealing with bullying behavior. And by that I mean finding what motivates each of those bullies to bully. There are reasons. And some are based in the need to survive in the shark infested waters. They need the same compassion as their victims.

But I blame them most for criminalizing my kid’s behavior.  Criminalizing behavior that is directly related to a disability is shameful. It certainly doesn’t make our world any better. It doesn’t help anyone. It further disenfranchises a group already feeling less than. It further perpetuates the belief that members of this group are trouble and not friend or employee material.

And that breeds hopelessness in a group of people who have much to offer.

So, how did court end? Movieman read his statement. Judge was impressed, the county attorney was impressed and had in her possession a letter from our PSL Officer explaining Movieman’s limitations. They took mercy on him and he has to serve 10 hours of community service within the next 60 days and stay out of trouble. Once that is done, charges will be dismissed and the citation will be removed from his record.

We went out to eat before dropping him off at school. Pancakes helped us all restore a sense of well-being.


4 thoughts on “Wednesday Word. Criminalizing Behaviors of Special Needs Students

  1. This post hit a nerve on such a personal level for me… and it had little to do with my special needs kids.

    Such a nerve, in fact, that I pounded at my keyboard for over thirty minutes before I recognized that I was writing a post in and of itself.

    For now, there’s this:

    Our children should not be subjected to the poor education of those in “power” (the term used loosely).

    I’m so sad for Movieman. Sad because he is so misunderstood. Sad because he cannot express himself the way society thinks he should express himself. Sad because no child should be unheard for so long and by so many–especially those who we place trust in to hear our kids. I am sad because I recognize in his story so many other kids–special needs and not–who have these same troubles.

    And I am so proud of Movieman. He was able to advocate for himself in a setting that is UN-settling to the majority of the population. In advocating for himself, Movieman educated a few people in “power” on taking a step back and looking at things from a different perspective. That is true power.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this – ‘Our children should not be subjected to the poor education of those in power’
    It is such a comfort to know you are out there reading and agreeing. Kind of lonely most days.


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