Monday, April 30, 2007

What We Do Matters Part 1

Last week, as some you know, I was the lawyer for a Mock Trial for Special Education Law 510. It was a difficult case. The parents of a child with AS had taken him out of school because there was disagreement between the school people and the parents about his special education needs. Because the boy was academically gifted, the school people thought he should be in the general education classroom with no special education component. The parents differed because they were concerned about how being in the general education classroom environment would affect the child's ability to learn. Large classrooms are noisy, confusing places and the sensory over-stimulation can affect an Aspie's ability to focus. The parents also had concerns that the child was marginalized and being bullied. So they took him out of school, but for reasons involving the child's socialization, they brought him to the municipal park to play and sometimes he was in the park while the school children were also playing in the park. Nearly two years later, the principal of the school and some teachers tried to ban the child from the park, saying that his behavior was a problem. They insisted that they should have the right to have the school psychologist re-evaluate the child before he could play in the park.

When we first got the case, my group spent a good deal of time mucking around with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because we were focused on the park issue. And we were a little angry because, we are not lawyers, and after all, in class we had studied the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and we did not see how the case we were given fit. Here is a homeschooled child being deprived of the right to play on a public playground. I even contacted Judy Aron over at Consent of the Governed because she is a researcher working with National Home Education Legal Defense. However, because I was swamped with my other course, I was unable to take Judy's gracious offer to help.

At one of our rather hilarious group meetings--we coped with the stress with humor--a change of perspective took place. We began to wonder about why the parents were bringing such a case two years after taking their child out of school. And we realized that the real violation took place when the parents' concerns were ignored at the child's IEP meeting two years ago. Not only that, the school people compounded the problem by asserting their power against the family two years later. The parents were most likely bringing the case in order to get the school off their backs and to stop what they perceived to be harassment by a powerful institution. With this change in our perspective, we were able to find our case in IDEA--because Congress found that one problem (among many) with special education was that parents are not included in the IEP process effectively. (And this is very true as any parent who has dealt with the special education process can tell you). And Congress wrote into the law ways to correct that. I don't know if we won or not yet. In the original case, the school won on procedural grounds--in our public institutions you can behave very badly, but if you cross all your "T's" and dot all of your "i's" you can get away with it.

In my closing statement I said, in part:

"...But in our concept of law, (justice) is not in some pure realm. Justice is not justice if it does not reach into the sometimes messy conflicts of ordinary lives. A great scholar and legalist once said: “Justice delayed and justice denied will bring the sword.”
I think what he meant was that what we do here now matters. How we respond to the need of one person for justice matters. How an individual is treated in our public institutions matters. If a child is bullied, if his parents are harassed, if a student does not receive needed services, all of this affects all of us. We have learned this only too well this past week as the details of the Virginia Tech shooting have been revealed."

This shows that government schools, and the people who operate them, don't know winning for losing. When a lawyer came to talk to our class about the IDEA and due process hearings, I saw this clearly. He kept talking about the how the schools can "win." What he did not appear to get is that if a parent is frustrated to the point of bringing a due process hearing, there is a problem that the school has not dealt with in some way. When a school comes off as asserting its considerable power over individual citizens--taxpayers all--then the school loses the public relations battle even if they win the case. This is so, because schools are not generally perceived as friendly places by the people who were and are compelled to go to them, and school people are not held in great respect in our communities. The root of that issue is twofold: the compulsory nature of school attendance in a free society and the virtual monopoly school people have over education process in this country. School people are not required to listen to the people they require to attend, and to pay for their services. Further, the institutional power school people have, which is derived from compulsion, has created in many of them an unbearable officiousness and know-it-all attitude. On top of it all, public schools have not shown great success in teaching their clients to read and write and figure, let alone educating them to think critically for themselves about the issues of our day. This is painfully obvious to anyone who has taught at the university level in the United States. And the name-calling and sound-byte-repeating-nature of what passes for public discourse is another indicator of the failure of schools to educate. For all these reasons, even if the school people have the letter of the law on their side, in any tangle with the public, they lose good-will.

I believe that one problem common to much of our institutional life in the United States is that at our core we have forgotten how to treat one another as unique, irreplacible human beings. When, as in the case above, the needs of the child are eclipsed by the need of an institution to deny responsibility for mistakes it has made, for unthinking power asserted over children as if they were interchangable parts, we all lose. As I said further in my closing argument:

"...(my clients) ask that the ... Public Schools recognize that this is not about power. It is not about money. It is about the future of one child. And if justice means anything at all—if it is to have a reality beyond abstraction, then what we decide here in the midst of a real and messy conflict matters."

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: What we do to one another matters. What we say to one another matters. How we treat one another matters. It matters in communities where we are acting as individuals, and it matters even more in institutional settings where the institutional power of what we represent can become oppressive to our brothers and sisters.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all know we make mistakes in our dealings with others. And when we do, we are obligated to make things right. To admit that we are, all of us, fallible human beings.

I think that when we insist that events like the VT shootings are about gun-control, or about surveillance, or about the evil in one individual, we are missing a critical point. And by this I do NOT mean that we do not need need to have a conversation about gun-control, or about surveillance, or about the fact that people can do evil. What I mean is that all behavior has causes--whether the behavior itself is rational or not. And if we are really honest with ourselves, we can see where a fragile mind and heart can be broken when cornered and bullied in an institution that does not care to stop it. An institution in which those with power turn a blind eye to the responsibility that power entails. And in many cases, that institution is the local public school.

Were the Virginia Tech teachers and students who were murdered in cold blood killed randomly? Yes. They were innocents who reaped the whirlwind sown by others; those who, when given power, chose to turn a blind-eye to the consequences of that power. It is wrong to start pointing fingers at the administration at VT, and blame the victims who were killed because they did not to fight back. The shooter made certain choices and is responsible for them--that is true. But it is also true that those choices were influenced by a broken mind and heart. And that mind and heart were damaged, in part, by terrible emotional pain inflicted by other children who were allowed to bully someone in a public institution that compelled his attendance. Bullied by children who were not taught what it means to be civil, to be compassionate, to be able to put themselves in the place of another person.

And in our case, we began to understand that we were seeing the same thing. A situation in which a public school refused to solve a problem with parents and a little boy by talking to them, treating their concerns as important, stopping the bullying.

In The Uncertainty Principle, a masterful episode of his PBS series, The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski takes us to Auschwitz. There he discusses the importance of the the spiritual component in our dealing with each other as human beings. He says that ultimately, we must remember when making judgements that we are fallible, that we cannot know everything with certainty. In making choices about how we deal with one another, Bronowski says, we must "touch people." And he plunges his hand into the pond--into the ashes of those who were murdered because an institution, the Nazi party, was certain of their unworthiness to live. That scene has stayed forever etched in my mind. And I wonder, can a compulsory institution--one that is given absolute power over the lives of students, one that regularly passes judgement on the worthiness of students by standardized test, one that refuses to be questioned or reformed--can such an instition ever really "touch people?"

Perhaps the spiritual shallowness of the institution is no accident of law or custom. Perhaps the lack of spiritual depth comes from the very nature of the beast. After all, we know that many of the people who make up the system, start out with the best intentions in the world. And yet, when stripped of their own spiritual nature, forced by the nature of the institution into a mold that insists that no one is responsible and that all values are relative, when acting not as individuals, but at the behest of the system, they behave without regard to the sacredness of the individual.

This is something to think more about.


Unknown said...

wow... what a case.. I would never imagine a school trying to ban a child like that. But I guess it can happen!

You have been linked to in my latest post.....

Pen said...

Fascinating... it seems a shame that it was a mock trial, because I don't much like the decision made by the real one.

It does seem difficult for individuals in institutions to stay human in the face of having to deal with so many people in so little time. I'm not sure we're cut out for it as a species. Anyway you certainly deserve your thinking blogger award! :)

Summa Academy said...

Fascinating post. I am a classroom teacher in a magnet school for gifted middle schoolers. I have become very interested in Asperger's, Twice Exceptional Education, and Neuropsychology but can't find a university in Oregon that has a program to further my credentials in these areas. Where are you doing your doctorate?