16 January 2012

What We Can Learn From Chris Baker

Trigger warning: Descriptions of abuse of students with disabilities by teachers.

You know there are problems with our educational system when a teacher can claim that putting an Autistic child inside a bag and pulling the drawstring shut is a form of therapy. When this happened to Chris Baker, a fourth grader in Kentucky, last month, I decided to take action.

Within days, more than 120,000 people signed my petition at Change.org demanding that the Mercer County Board of Education stop similar incidents from occurring in the future. (There are currently over 165,000 signatures, and Chris's mother will be presenting a print copy at this Thursday's school board meeting.)

Our future must be different from our troubled past. In the last several months alone, multiple cases of bullying or abuse by teachers have come to light, most of them involving Autistic students or students with other disabilities. There was Autistic student Emily Holcomb in Alabama, who was charged with assault after being held down by her teacher for almost an hour and trying to slap and push herself away. Then there was Julio Artuz in New Jersey, who videotaped his special education teacher verbally abusing him after everyone, including his parents, repeatedly disbelieved his reports of the bullying. And these are only the cases that have made it to the news.

In Chris's case, the school superintendent has issued an ambiguous statement essentially claiming the district is taking appropriate action when, in fact, there are no regulations in Kentucky concerning restraint and seclusion. It’s possible that the teacher responsible for putting Chris in the bag might receive a mere slap on the wrist – a slap in the face to the Bakers, and especially to Chris.

I believe the vast majority of teachers are well-meaning people who genuinely want to support and serve all of their students. But when it comes to Autistic children, who represent an estimated 1% of the population, most teachers aren’t adequately educated.

There is a nationwide lack of accurate information for teachers about how to interact respectfully, meaningfully, and appropriately with Autistic students. When teachers don’t know how to treat Autistic students with the same respect and dignity afforded to our non-disabled peers, children like Chris suffer.

Chris’s experience is also a reflection of deeply institutionalized attitudes toward people with disabilities. As long as non-disabled people see us as somehow broken, diseased, defective, or dysfunctional, they implicitly condone practices that thinly disguise torture and abuse as therapy. It is illegal to treat a prisoner or an animal the way the Mercer County Intermediate School teacher treated Chris – but because he is Autistic, the teacher responsible could claim that confining Chris in a bag was "therapy."

What happened to Chris was wrong. But there is something to be gained from this horrific incident – the publicity from his case has given advocates the opportunity to increase broader awareness of the systemic problems facing students with disabilities and to lobby for systemic policy changes to prevent future abuse. I hope it will lead Congress to act on Senator Tom Harkin's Keep All Students Safe in Schools Act, the latest attempt at federal restrictions on the use of restraint, seclusion, and aversive interventions.

Until all Autistic people are afforded the same rights as our non-disabled peers, this type of abuse will continue to occur with few repercussions for those responsible. By taking action to support Chris and his family, we can work to build a future where all people, including Autistic people, are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, I think we all learned a lot from the case.


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