by Deidre Dailey
Deidre Dailey is the parent of a student who was repeatedly suspended from school during his sixth-grade year. Her son is referred to throughout as “John,” a pseudonym.
During the Spring of 2015, I found myself at juvenile court with my eleven year-old son. I was extremely frustrated because I could not believe that instead of helping my son, his school decided to subject him to excessive school discipline and then use the discipline as a basis to now subject him to the juvenile justice system. The housemaster responsible for discipline at John’s school said he filed the petition for Child Requiring Assistance (“CRA”) because my son was a habitual school offender. Over the course of the 6th grade year John was suspended twenty-six times, mostly for what the school termed as insubordination. Instead of providing him with appropriate supports to help John stay focused and motivated as required by his special education program, the school administrators made the conscious decision to keep him out of school.
John started at the local middle school in September, 2015. He was extremely excited and anxious to start his first day. He was most excited about meeting new friends and joining the school basketball team. His first day started out amazing, but shortly after starting school, the problems started. I would receive numerous phone calls throughout the day stating John was insubordinate and not listening to teachers. The housemaster who would make the calls spoke unprofessionally and belligerently to me on the phone. He refused to engage in collaborative conversations and made clear the only consequence for John’s misbehavior was exclusion. It was not until I obtained an attorney from the Children’s Law Center in Lynn that I realized that the housemaster had failed to follow school discipline law. He never provided suspension notices, never conducted suspension hearings, and most importantly, never allowed John or me to discuss the alleged with him considering John’s mental health challenges. In fact, when I attempted to engage in conversation, he said “the conversation is done” and hung up the phone. Each time an incident at school occurred, the housemaster would call me, give his account of what occurred and request that I immediately come to the school for pick up. By the spring of the school year, I received these calls about every other day. The housemaster during this time stated they were “pretty much babysitting” John.
The excessive school discipline and failure of the school to support John adversely impacted our home and his education. John would shut down after school suspensions. The issues at school caused friction in our relationship. John also missed a lot of instruction because he was so often out of class. During the suspensions, he was never provided with school work or tutoring as required by state law. At the end of sixth grade, I received documentation from the school indicating John had missed forty-seven tests and quizzes. Despite receiving F’s in most classes in middle school, John was promoted each year.
I thought things could not get worse than the CRA petition and twenty-six suspensions of sixth grade. Seventh grade was pretty much the same treatment as sixth, but eighth grade was the worst. The same housemaster targeted my son throughout the year, resulting in eighteen out-of-school suspensions, threat upon threat of expulsion, and another CRA petition filed in Juvenile Court. The housemaster made it clear to me that he believed, “the next step for John is jail.” John missed out on year-end school activities such as attending a class trip to New York and school dances because school administrators stated that he engaged in multiple infractions. However none of the alleged infractions were violent or drug related. They were instead such infractions a having his cell phone out in class, walking in the hall without a pass, talking in class, and goofing around with friends. When John engaged in these behaviors he was sent out of class to the housemaster’s office and suspended immediately. He additionally had in-school suspension, where he would sit in seclusion throughout the day without instruction or school work.
One day while at work I received a very disturbing call from the housemaster. He had stated that John had been searched by the school police and his backpack seized. I asked what happened and he stated John was walking with two of his friends when staff heard him say he had a gun. I immediately went to the school. The housemaster said he was suspended for five days. In the meeting I read statements from both of John’s peers with whom he had been walking and talking. The statements corroborated with each other: John was talking about a Taser and a kid from our neighborhood (who was unrelated to the school or any student attending the school) possessed. When I asked the housemaster why would staff say something so scary,–something that John never said– he told me “unfortunately that’s the way the world works.” Nevertheless, John was suspended once again.
On the last day of John’s five -day suspension I received a phone call from the housemaster. He said to me that if I did not sign John’s IEP and agree to the school district’s proposal for an assessment of John at an out-of-district special education school, the district would expel him. I explained that they already gave John a five-day suspension and they were bullying me into signing something that I did not agree with or want to sign. Again, I involved an attorney who informed the school district that it was unlawful for them to exclude a student twice for the same offense and then advocated for John to continue with his placement at the middle school with more supports to assist him throughout the school day.
Dealing with the school district staff has been very difficult and uncomfortable. I would send my child to school every day with an uneasy feeling because I did not know what to expect that day. I feel as though additional training for staff would be a start towards improving the school environment, particularly for children requiring specialized learning. Schools need to develop ways for staff to work with children instead of just suspending or “babysitting” them.
John’s experience with school exclusion has adversely impacted him. His self-esteem has been diminished as he has fallen victim to the school’s insensitivity and ignorance. His spirit has been broken. No child should ever have to go through something like this, especially from people who they are supposed to trust and at a place where they should always feel safe and supported. Unfortunately, the middle school has failed John and has failed to provide a safe learning place for him.