09 December 2011

When the Educational System Fails

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.


...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...

That's abuse.

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

Jack Bostick
District Attorney
Marion County Alabama Courthouse
132 Military Street S, Hamilton, AL 35570
Phone: 205-921-7403

Paige Nichols Vick
25th Judicial Circuit
District Attorney's Office
PO Box 1596, Hamilton, AL 35570 1596
Phone: 205-921-7403

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.


  1. Lydia, Thanks for helping Emily, we will all stick together & continue to try our best to keep Jenny strong and especially smiling.

    I'm glad I met some "DC" big hitters, you all are AWESOME !!

    Kristie Thornton
    kristie.thornton (facebook)

  2. if i was to write a letter or call them it wouldn b very nice just sayin cause if this happened to my lil brother who has autism and does lash out every now and then was in the poison my dad and i would le them have it cause they cant help what they do they are just special and u cant control them when they r in a mood u just have to let them do their thing for a few mintues

  3. Very disturbing! My son has Asperger's and he will meltdown and lash out anytime he feels cornered or restrained. Has anyone thought of a Change.org petition?

  4. I've drafted a letter but I need to calm down before I send it. This is appalling, heart-breaking, and I honestly cannot believe it is happening! With the creation of an IEP, I naively thought that it covered instances such as this; I guess I AM that naive! I truly hope that the school/superintendent/District Attorney all wake up and re-consider their positions. If it were THEIR child they would react differently... I hope that the Holcomb family can get through this and that they realize that there are SO MANY of us around the country supporting them.

  5. To say that I am outraged is an understatement. As parents and taxpayers, we trust the schools to act in loco parentis from 7:50-2:50 M-F. I am an educator with 16 years' experience and for the life of me, I cannot imagine how any administrator of educator would think that restraining a child for 55 minutes is OK. That is blatant abuse and IMHO, the school system and most involved are ignorant on treating special needs students. PL 94-142 states that EVERY CHILD is entitled to a free and public education, not just the smart ones or the monied ones. Marion County is in violation of several Federal Mandates and there needs to be a thorough housecleaning NOW.

  6. Thank you for the address above. I just called the superintendants office. They said he was out. The secretary refused to give any information saying only "we are not allowed to discuss the case". I called in hoped the charges had been dropped. I take this to mean they have not. I suggest that you all call, call, write, write. They need to wish they had never done this.

  7. Here is a list of all the Marion County Board of Education Members. There were no phone numbers nor email addresses published on the site. Wonder Why? I went ahead and filled in the blanks as best I could. Jim Atkinson - President 423 Meadow Lark Lane Guin, AL District 5 205.468.2656 Belinda McRae - Vice President 511 McRae Road Hamilton, AL District 3 205.921.2768 Rodney Fleming Haleyville, AL District 1 UNLISTED PHONE NUMER L.C. Fowler--New President NO ADDRESS LISTED BUT CALL HIM ANYWAY Hamilton, AL District 2 205.921.2230 Glendon Gibbs District 5 13785 State Hwy 129 Brilliant, AL 205.465.2432

  8. Is there a defense fund in progress? If so, I'd like to contribute.

  9. I'm outraged, angry and heartbroken for this family.

    My own son, 12years old (who is verbal, but at the level of a 5-6 year old), was having similar issues. Our school chose to suspend him, but it could have easily went in this direction as well.

    I am absolutely saddened that this has happened to another family. This poor girl needs to be in a loving and caring environment, and this school was obviously not it, but they SHOULD pay for causing all of this

  10. My kids go to Hamilton to and I feel they should do something about this I know I don't have a autistic kid but I know that they need special care and holding them down is not one of them but you want get nothing done in Hamilton because all the cops/teachers/and courthouse is in it together you have to get some body out of town to do something about it

  11. My blood is boiling! A non-verbal girl with autism has been kicked out of school for hitting and pushing her teacher. The teacher filed a report to the administrator of the school. I have worked with children who have autism. I have been punched, kicked, hit, random objects to the head and back. NEVER did I write a report to the administration. As a professional special educator, I wrote the incidences and dates and times in each child's behavior logs. NOT to get them into trouble, but to gather data to enhance their successes both academically and socially. Imagine not being able to share your frustrations...ever! What might you do to let the person know? Many students who are nonverbal do something physical to get it through the person's head or teacher's head to let them know they suck and need to try something else. I would love to get my hands on this child's IEP! I would also love to meet the teacher and administration that suspended this child. They need to be "schooled" on many levels regarding specialized education. To add insult to injury, the mother was charged because she "couldn't control her child". OK, the mother was in the school, in a meeting, probably upset about her daughter's education. The mother was NOT in the class or anywhere near her daughter when this incident occurred! If they want to play that "game", charge the teacher! By the written statement made from the teacher, it is obvious she can not control this girl. I don't recall having to "control" any student. They are not robots that need to be oiled and controlled by giving commands; they are humans. To support the teacher, a bit, the school system is/was out of compliance according to the girl's attorney. If the teacher had more than 8 students or taught a group of students with significant needs, a paraprofessional is, by law, supposed to be in the classroom to help aid the teacher with instructional and behavioral supports. I woke up at 1:30am because...I don't know; but what I do know, this school system is going down. I can already hear many groups and foundations meeting to let the school system administrator know the actions taken by the teacher and administrator was oh so very wrong, and they are going to be held accountable to the largest degree. I just want to scream. Unfortunately, I won't be heard.

  12. If you haven't yet, please sign the petition at (http://www.change.org/petitions/petition-to-board-of-education-of-marion-county), which demands change be made in Marion County to prevent this from happening again.