UPDATE: 21 Dec. 2011: Jenny Holcomb, Emily's mother, announced a successful result from mediation with school officials this Monday, due in no small part to the political pressure from the over 1,100 signatures on the petition.
UPDATE: 13 Dec. 2011: You can view the full signatures list as of 1:20pm EST (6:20pm GMT) here!
UPDATE: 11 Dec. 2011: I have written and posted a petition to Change.org demanding serious changes be made in the next year in Marion County to prevent this kind of abuse. Please sign and share!
UPDATE: 10 Dec. 2011: Jenny Holcomb, Emily's mother, announced that the charges have been dropped. The fight isn't over yet, though; Jenny still needs to meet with school officials in mediation to demand appropriate services and education for Emily.
WHEN THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM FAILS
...again. This time, it's Hamilton High School in Marion County, Alabama. A little after this October, Emily Holcomb, fourteen year old non-speaking Autistic student, was ordered out of school after school officials had the district attorney's office file first degree assault (a felony) charges against Emily for "hitting" and "shoving" her teacher, apparently causing a "minor injury" -- really, open-handed swipes and trying to push away from a woman (the teacher) who had physically restrained her for fifty-five minutes. Fifty-five minutes. Fifty-five...
And now the school, after having negotiated an individualized education plan (IEP) including the services of a full-time aide specializing in autism, has decided that criminal charges are the way to go. Yes, that's right. Criminal charges. Go ahead and read the news story here if you find this to be too bizarrely incredulous.
Now, Zakhqurey Price, does anyone remember that name? He was an Autistic fifth grader in 2009 charged with assault when, after calming down from a meltdown, his teachers decided to corner and restrain him, and he (predictably) lashed out.
Why do school systems feel the need to criminalize autism? This blog tends to focus on issue and philosophy centered articles related to autism and advocacy, but this horrific, tragic turns of events is only more evidence of the deeply-rooted systemic problems in the way our country looks at differently-abled or disabled people, especially Autistic people. And something needs to be done. And something can be done -- by you and I, sitting here and reading this post. In fact, I've already created a Facebook group where you can read about the case and see updates.
But for now, what can you actually do to help? You can write, email, or call the school's superintendent who filed the complaint, the district attorney of Marion County, and the deputy district attorney who seems to be handling the case, asking them to drop the case and any charges. Emily needs help, and she needs help now. This isn't some fancy theorizing or overly intellectual model of some idea -- this is the life of an actual person whom someone is trying to destroy.
Demand that the school request the District Attorney's office drop all charges. Demand that the District Attorney's office refuse to prosecute the case. Remember to be polite and respectful. Explain that restraining Autistic people for fifty-five minutes is abuse. Explain that slapping outward is a defensive mechanism, not a violent act. Explain that Autistic children need caring, encouraging teachers who respect them, NOT criminal charges.
Mr. Ryan Hollingsworth
Superintendent, Marion County Board of Education
Marion County Schools
188 Winchester Drive, Hamilton, AL 35570-6626
(205) 921-3191 office
(205) 921-7336 fax
Marion County Alabama Courthouse
132 Military Street S, Hamilton, AL 35570
Paige Nichols Vick
25th Judicial Circuit
District Attorney's Office
PO Box 1596, Hamilton, AL 35570 1596
Tips for Letters and Phone Calls
- Beginning of letter, introduce yourself (name, city and state) and your connection to autism (if any), as well as any organizational affiliations or professional credentials.
- If a phone call, ask politely for "Mr." or "Ms." [name].
- Be respectful, using proper greetings and forms of address, even if you think the subject(s) deserve(s) no respect.
- Be polite, as this always adds power to your words. Polite here meaning writing in such a way where you do not intend to offend or insult.
- Use proper grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. This adds professionalism.
- Be succinct. Don't write a ten page novel. The subject will not read it. Guaranteed.
- Be personal, if you have a personal story or connection. Make sure the subject knows why you care.
- Be firm. You know you are in the right.
- Explain why this is wrong. Tell the subject why it is wrong to criminally charge an Autistic person for an action that wasn't malicious, intended to be harmful, or offensive (meaning unprovoked).
- Demand that charges be dropped immediately.
- Conclude by thanking the subject for his or her time and consideration.
- Sign with a professional greeting in a letter.
- Include your full name, city and state, and address (home or work) at the top of the letterhead or beneath your signature in a letter.
And please, pass on this link. The more voices are heard, united behind Emily against the people who somehow think it's appropriate to criminally charge an Autistic person reacting defensively to people who were essentially abusing her, the larger and greater the possibility we can actually effect change. Yes, actual change. Strangers on the internet have that power; now it is time to exercise it.