School jail cells?

Can you imagine seeing children in small prison cells in our own schools? You may recall a breaking article on zero reports despite 1700 cases of seclusion and restraint towards children with special needs in Fairfax County Public Schools.

This past Friday, between running around from one event to another, I had the opportunity to attend a training on the trauma of seclusion and restraint in our schools. With each additional point presented by the trainer, I was increasingly amazed at the extent to which seemingly nonchalant decisions lead to profound damages to children, families, and the whole community.

I was particularly struck by one line that the trainer mentioned:

Unconditional personal regard is a human right.

Whether or not teachers are able to afford students unconditional love, there certainly are reasonable expectations for what all children require to sustain a healthy and happy upbringing. When we reward students for being quiet or punish them for communicating differently, we reinforce negative self-esteem they may already have built up and push them away from trusting adults and community members. Such a situation leads children towards habits of risky behavior. It is no surprise that children with special needs are three times more likely to have a disciplinary referral.

I was also moved by a layout of how mishandling and misunderstanding children with special needs impacts everyone. For example, a child who resorts to screaming because s/he does not feel understood is not only a disruption and deeply traumatic experience for that child, it traumatizes bystanders and other children around him/her who hear it, it impacts the teachers and staff who encounter it, and ultimately affects the whole community that receives the natural side effects of this internalized trauma.

If we deconstruct our current frame of reference and humanize those who are different than us, we may realize that students with special needs, in essence, just speak a different language. As we would with an English language-learner, we must spend the time and exhibit the empathy needed to relate and familiarize ourselves with a language we may not know.

Truthfully, I was appalled. I listened to each new fact about these traumas with a heavy heart, taking deep breaths as I imagined what it must look like for those who simply do not know how to be there for their kids. And for those kids. I still am. I have heard countless cases from various families about the challenges of securing fair treatment for their children in our public schools. Why should it take a lawyer attending a meeting to secure basic, federally-guaranteed rights for a child? The many could-be lawsuits resulting from what families experience in our schools are unacceptable.

I think back at one student I met in front of Robinson (my high school!) during Back to School Night the other day. She came up to me really excited, expressing how much she wanted to show me a picture. She took out her phone and pointed to an image of a small brown dog. “I’m so excited I finally got a service dog!!” As I smiled in confusion she followed, “I can finally go to school! I have a service dog now!”

These are the stories that remind me of how important this is: how important it is to not only be proactively inclusive, but to get this right. The experts I spoke to have important insights that we must elevate.

One thing I commit to you all is that I will acknowledge the shortcomings, the weaknesses, and the problems in our schools even when I am on the School Board. Fundamentally, the first step to addressing a problem is acknowledging there is one. You have a right to know and individuals in public office are no more qualified than you are to be aware. Improving the state of our schools takes everyone, especially the agitator.

Stay tuned for an episode of 11/5: Issues LIVE! in the coming weeks when we will expand on this matter.

Abrar Omeish