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Teacher Dragging Boy With Autism Down School Hallways Shows Why We Need Better Training in Schools

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Ellen Stumbo, The Mighty’s Parenting Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

On Sunday, Angel Nelson shared a video of her autistic 9-year-old son being dragged down the hallways of Wurtland Elementary School in Kentucky by Trina Abrams, a special education teacher. I parent two children with disabilities, and the abuse of power by teachers is one of my worse nightmares.

This incident took place in October, but the video was recently released. In the hard-to-watch video, Nelson asks the boy, “You want to walk?” The boy replies, “No.” She proceeds to drag him by the wrist while the boy is on his back. She then attempts to force him to stand. When the boy refuses, and while he is on his knees, she grabs his wrist and drags him again.

Nelson wrote on Facebook the incident was violent enough to not only injure her son, but to also destroy his shoes. According to WSAZ3, Nelson said a doctor diagnosed her son with sprains to both his left and right wrists and he experienced swelling and bruising.

Since then, according to a CNN affiliate, Abrams was fired from her position. On Wednesday morning, Abrams pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor fourth-degree assault charge. NBC News reported the judge ruled Abrams cannot work in a school setting or around juveniles unsupervised. She will face a pre-trial hearing on Feb. 20.

Children tend to often be dismissed and their voices ignored, but it is even more evident when it comes to children with disabilities. The boy in this case did not want to walk when he was forcibly removed from his classroom. Although his “no” is clear, it is not respected and the teacher made no attempt to understand or identify the child’s triggers that led to a meltdown.

Maxine Share, an expert autism consultant based in Canada, told The Mighty that staff should honor a child’s attempts to self-advocate

“On one hand, educators tell these students they have to speak up and speak out,” Share said. “On the other, staff will disregard actions or words from the child that communicates, ‘Help! this is too much for me.'”

We know children with autism process stimuli and input differently. Rather than having a compassionate teacher try to work with Nelson’s son, he was punished for not behaving like a “typical” child. Personally, if I was forcibly removed from a classroom without understanding why this was happening, I may not have wanted to walk either. It should not be surprising that being forcibly dragged results in someone shutting down and not wanting to cooperate with the abuser.

Share said often times this is a “teacher problem.” She explained:

This situation highlights the critical need for changes in teacher qualifications: Is it too much to expect that anyone working with our autistic children should  understand their unique way of learning and of experiencing the environment?

If staff don’t understand the implications of the communication challenges in verbal ASD children (they often are unable to express their needs; if overwhelmed, even verbal communicators may not be able to speak at all or to say what they mean) … then their supports, approaches and conclusions regarding the student’s so-called “behaviors” will miss the mark. Widely.

The fact is, behavior issues are really “absence-of-appropriate supports” issues and “absence-of-understanding” issues.

Nelson’s son seems to have experienced this absence of understanding. Nelson told NBC her son was doing schoolwork when his teacher asked him to do more. He needed a break but they kept pushing him. The incident resulted in a meltdown. Share said this is not unusual. She told The Mighty:

Those who know autism understand this: The speed and the volume of curriculum meant for typical learners is too much for many autistic learners — regardless of how bright the student is. It is common for these students to benefit from doing a reduced volume of work to show that they “get it.” For example, they might do five math questions to show they understand long division while their classmates do 10 in the same one-hour class.”

Unfortunately, Abrams’ treatment of Nelson’s son is not an isolated incident. Abuse of children with autism and other disabilities by school teachers happens often. Stories about children being restrained, dragged or put in isolation rooms are easy to find with a Google search. Videos of special education bus drivers physically and verbally attacking children are also sadly easy to find. Recently, a 13-year-old boy on the autism spectrum was killed at school after being restrained.

What is also concerning to me in this situation is the school staff that witnessed the incident and failed to intervene. They stayed silent rather than confronting an abusive and inappropriate situation. They sided with their colleague by doing nothing. Did they believe it was OK because the child is on the autism spectrum?

It appears there is an epidemic of abuse toward the most vulnerable. As a parent, this terrifies me.

As Share suggests, there needs to be more training for teachers when it comes to understanding autism and neurodiversity. Also, physically attacking a child should never be acceptable. Perhaps schools need to come up with clear and concise guidelines to protect their students, yet alarmingly, the national discipline guidelines to protect students with disabilities were recently rescinded.

Parents should not have to worry about their child’s safety while at school. More importantly, children should not be subjected to abuse under the hands of teachers and school staff. Not to mention, we have not begun to scratch the surface of the trauma that children are subjected to when these situations happen.

But what we can do is continue to speak up and bring these abuses to light. We have to stand together and let educators know we will not allow this abuse of our children.

As Share expressed, the traits, features and differences of learning for children on the autism spectrum must be taken into account. Only when we match expectations to a child’s ability and current skill level can we set them up for success. In doing so, we honor their learning needs instead of shaming or punishing them for not knowing.

Basically, we treat them like human beings who deserve respect.

Banner image via Angel Nelson’s Facebook page.