Thursday, January 22, 2009

Comply, then Complain

Bev/Asperger Square 8 has started an interesting discussion on a recent unfortunate incident in which a young Aspie girl in Idaho was arrested for assaulting her teachers.

In a nutshell, Evelyn Towry, an 8-year-old girl with AS, tried to attend a holiday party on Friday, January 9 (it had been postponed) wearing a "cow costume" - a hoodie with cow ears and a tail. She was told she wasn't dressed appropriately, and led to a different classroom. She was asked to stay in the other classroom; she not only refused verbally but also physically tried to leave. Her teachers had no choice but to hold her there if they expected her to obey.

At that point, Evelyn became violent, spitting at and hitting her teachers and even pinching a teacher's breast. The school authorities called the police, who arrested her and led her away in handcuffs. Prosecutors have said, however, that due to her age (she's not even old enough for juvenile detention) and the fact that she's an Aspie, they will not charge her at this time. She has still been suspended from school, and her mother is arranging for her to change schools.

Some people have protested the school's actions, saying among other things that Evelyn should have been allowed to attend the party with her cow costume, that Evelyn suffered bruises from being restrained by her teachers (which I have no doubt is true), that Evelyn could not have intended to pinch the teacher's breast but was only wildly hitting out in an attempt to get away (which I'm sure is also true) and that the arrest was overkill.

From my own experience, both as a student and later as a teacher in the public schools, I'm perfectly willing to believe that sometimes school officials use the iron fist in place of a supportive hand. It's also quite possible that this was one of those times.

That doesn't mean that what happened later on was necessarily brutal or an overreaction.

Let's put aside the fact that every school has a right to set standards of dress, and stricter ones for events like parties - though the standards definitely should be spelled out for the students and possibly parents.

I'm sure it would have been nice if the school had felt able to let Evelyn wear her cute cow costume to the party. I myself would likely have done that - if that decision belonged to me. But it wasn't - it belonged to the teachers and other school officials, who might have had to deal with things like disorder caused by overly informal dress (some schools, including where I've taught - have uniforms for a reason).

They might also have had to deal with accusations of inconsistency, if Evelyn were the only kid allowed not to "dress up" for the party. I don't know what, if any, connection the cow costume had to Evelyn's AS. Even Aspies have just plain personal whims, not all or even most of which should be satisfied. If the cow costume did objectively help her due to her AS, that would be a different story - and presumably would have already been documented in the appropriate IEP (Individualized Education Program).

But let's assume the teachers were just being power-drunk jerks, bureaucrats and/or control freaks. It wouldn't surprise me, given some - not all, not most, but some - of the teachers I've seen.

However, one thing they probably weren't was lawbreakers (unless costumes like that had already been specifically permitted under Evelyn's IEP).

The next question is: what are duly authorized, responsible and knowledgeable officials supposed to do when their orders, which obviously they consider to be reasonable, and which in fact are within their authority and not forbidden by laws or regulations, are disobeyed? Just throw up their hands and say "OK, well I can't impose my views on you"?

There's a name for the kind of place where that happens: anarchy.

Given that the teachers had ordered Evelyn to leave the party and stay in an adjoining classroom, once she not only protested but also forced the issue by trying to physically leave the room, the teachers had no choice but to keep her there by force.

I'm sure she got bruises from that - according to Evelyn's own mother, they were thumb-sized bruises. The teachers were just trying to hold her, not hurt her. You try holding a small, violent child in place and see if you don't leave any bruises.

And violent is the operant term. She spat at and hit the teachers, including pinching a teacher's breast. I'm sure she wasn't cold-bloodedly trying to hurt anyone - she was just trying to get away.

But once she became violent, the school officials needed to call the people who are trained to handle violence - the police.

Now, could the police have calmed Evelyn without arresting her? Possibly. We don't know yet and we may never be sure.

We do know that had Evelyn accepted the decision that she stay in another classroom and not go to the party, she would not have been touched, let alone bruised, and certainly not arrested. She could do it the easy way or the hard way - teachers and other officials generally mean what they say and in a physical contest between her and they, she would obviously lose. Her choice was between staying in the other classroom without violence, or getting violent and being forcibly restrained and then taken away. Either way, she wasn't going to the party no matter how much she felt she should be allowed to.

Maybe the original decision wasn't fair - like I said it's one I likely wouldn't have made. But we all from time to time encounter decision-makers and policies which we consider unfair. We know that the difference between society and anarchy is that in society, when duly authorized people ask us to do something that request is supported by rewards and punishments. And all decisions (including everyone's rights - such as the rights of Aspies and autists) must ultimately be backed up by physical force.

Now, let's be perfectly clear on one thing. The operant term is "duly authorized". If a request is outside the maker's sphere of authority, or is illegal under law (including the Constitution) or regulation, the maker has no authority and need not be obeyed. In fact, the maker him/herself is the one who needs correction - by force, if necessary.

But otherwise, if it's "just" a matter of reasonableness, fairness, proportion of means to ends, prudence, etc., we all have to comply sometimes with things we disagree with. After all, that's what impels everyone else to comply with things we consider only fair but they don't. If we're able to persuade the person in authority to make an exception for us, interpret the rule differently, make a different decision, etc., great. Otherwise, "comply, then complain".

Not only is it right, but you look better because that way you've done everything possible to avoid a conflict. When your opponents can show your spittle on their faces or clothes, and places where you hit them and even pinched their breasts, that kind of muddies the waters to say the least. And then you get to be the target of a complaint.

Even if you make your own complaint after that - Evelyn's parents say they are thinking about suing the school - you look much less credible. If she had just made a single protest and then stayed in the other classroom and waited to give her parents the bad news when she got home, maybe the incident wouldn't have made the national news but many more of those who did know about it would side with her against those inflexible teachers. As things actually went, the control freaks in the schools now get to pose as defenders of order against rampaging children.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I am sorry, but I cannot agree with your conclusion.

While I do agree with some of what you say - authority must be asserted in a school, so I agree with your 'what' - it is the 'how' which I take a serious exception to.

It is not acceptable have an 8-year-old arrested. To, as you say, have her led away in handcuffs. Not ever. For a school to do this is an admission of every single person involved in the incident being a failure as an educator and being a failure as a human being.

Where were the parents? Why were THEY not the FIRST to be called? There is ALWAYS an emergency contact for every child in school - why was this standard procedure not followed?

Where were the medics? Why were THEY not the SECOND to be called - if the parents (or ememrgency contact) could not be located? If a child - and an 8-year-old is a child - has a major mental breakdown like you described, then this is a matter for medical intervention. Not police.

Especially if her medical condition (AS) was known to the school: it was the 'change of rules' and 'change of plans' (from the child's perspective) that was the direct cause of her 'meltdown' - a typical Aspie reaction. I doubt that given the same situation and age, I would have reacted much differently, had I just been told the 'result' without the 'reasoning'.

Aspies like rules. We CAN be rasoned with IF presented with the information/situation in an 'Aspie-comprehensible' manner: something a teacher of an Aspie (as the adult in charge) has the responsibility to learn how to do.

As any educator familiar with Autism-spectrum disorders knows (or OUGHT TO KNOW), being touched (especially by non-family members, or when in stressful situations) is in itself very, very painful for an Autie or an Aspie! Touch - as well as feeling 'smothered' or 'crowded' is a well known trigger of severe panick attacks in Autistic and AS people.

If the teacher attempted to restrain the child by 'hugging her' and holding her in place - or 'crowding her' while touching her, it is THAT TEACHER who is the direct cause of the panick attack in which the child honestly thought her life was in danger - and defended herself accordingly. Instead of calming the situation down, this person escalated it by doing things well known to cause an Aspie to panick and loose any ability to reason!

The actions of this school have done lasting harm to this child. It is inconceivable that a school would allow an AS student (with an obviously significant impairment) to attend this school if it lacked teachers trained in dealing with AS students. Doing so is inconcievably irresponsible!

Our society is long past the time when people with mental disorders are locked up in jail and left there to rot. Perhaps it is time this school joined this century!

StatMama said...

I think it's a sad situation all around. The choices are to allow yourself to be treated like garbage, excluded, or to fight back and have a ridiculous power play on the part of the school? It's a no-win situation.

Mama Mara said...

Jeff, once again you have raised a very, very complex issue, and I thank you for giving us all a chance to hear various viewpoints on it.

As you know, I have personal experience in dealing with a child prone to violence. Fortunately my son has never acted out violently against another person in school. But it could happen, so we have a very specific action plan in place. Our plan includes many steps before the use of physical restraint is considered (e.g. going to a "safe room" such as the OT room, to de-escalate.) The school staff have been trained in the use of a therapeutic "team safe-hold" that minimizes the possibility of injury to the staff or the student. And if a situation escalates to the point where police intervention is truly needed, the school has specific officers available who have been well-trained in how to handle these situations without causing the child to suffer public humiliation or the emotional trauma of a full-blown arrest.

Hopefully, the school in the example you shared will see this as a reason to improve teacher understanding of AS, to create a behavior intervention plan for this and other students on the spectrum, and to train the police in handling these situations appropriately.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Xanthippa, StatMom and Mara,

You all have good points.

Yes, it's true that Aspies certainly do not like change, especially sudden change without good reason. For that matter, people in general are more likely to accept something if they know the reasons behind it.

For one thing, we don't know what (if any) efforts were made to inform Evelyn in advance of the dress standards, and/or to justify her removal to her.

For another thing, we all know that sometimes change, even sudden change, does happen, and we all need to learn how to deal with it constructively.

The unfortunate fact is that some teachers (and some authority figures elsewhere, too) seem to have graduated from the Because-I-Said-So School of Management. "Just do it because I said so" often (not always, but often) is rude and possibly unreasonable. But it's still within the decision-maker's rights - and certainly doesn't nullify the underlying command. So, the appropriate response is to comply first, get it done and then refer the decision-maker's lack of courtesy to the appropriate authority.

Depending on the facts, the exclusion might have been unfair. It also could have been a routine exercise of the school's right to set dress standards, particularly for special events. In any event, even if it were a no-win situation for Evelyn, obviously some losses are better than others.

I don't know what procedures were in place, with or without an IEP for Evelyn. My assumption - based on my experience in the public schools - is that parents are not called to address a child's disobedience, at least not in progress.

Evelyn might have honestly thought that her life was in danger. However, that belief was manifestly unreasonable, and Evelyn is certainly old enough to start understanding the difference.

I also do not know if there were prescribed procedures for medical or other special interventions for Evelyn in such situations. (The "safe room"/time-out option is certainly interesting. Obviously in this case, it was tried and failed since Evelyn refused to stay in the alternative clasroom.) As I hope I made clear, if in fact the teachers and school officials broke the rules - which would include particular "rules of engagement" regarding Evelyn - they should be punished.

Even then, though, one needs to learn to obey to the best of one's ability. In school, there are going to be situations (eg, newly hired teacher, substitute teacher, mistaken identity, administrative mixup, etc) where the people in charge on the spot don't know or don't think to apply the agreed-upon accommodations. And school is a much more controlled environment than most settings in the outside world this side of prison or a mental hospital. Aspies and autists especially need to learn to deal with situations where things don't happen as they're supposed to.

The bottom line is that it's one thing to say that the authorities have done wrong. It might be that an original order - in this case not to attend the party - was unfair. It might be that whether or not that order was unfair, there were particular protocols in place which the teachers and officials violated.

If there weren't such protocols, I can't say in good conscience that they were wrong in physically restraining Evelyn, and contacting her parents once the dust had settled.

And if Evelyn had obeyed the teachers' order to stay in the other classroom, none of this would have been relevant.

Someone in authority may be wrong or unfair. But if s/he's complying with the law, regulations and limits to his/her authority, you still have an obligation to obey. If you don't, s/he has a right to do whatever is necessary (and legal) to make you comply.

I'll be the first to admit that teachers and other people in authority need to learn some lessons on the fair and reasonable use of their authority. I also hope we all - but especially Aspie and autistic students - learn a couple of other valuable lessons:

* Two wrongs don't make a right.

* There is an appropriate way to respond to unfair or unreasonable actions by those in authority. Most often, that involves complaining after the fact.

* There's generally no percentage in just defying authority. Most often, your choices boil down to the easy way and the hard way. You can obey on your own, or you will be forced. This is not to say that obeying on your own is always better. But when you want to do X and someone in authority says "No," you can safely assume that X is not going to happen. In that case, trying to implement X on your own is probably at best futile.

Last but not least, wrt the police and arrest, I am eager to see how the school justifies its decision to call them. Please keep in mind that Evelyn not only acted violently but also inflicted painful injury - pinching someone's breast - which could be considered a serious crime. If after the dust settles I don't see enough reason to call the police on her, I'm prepared to condemn that decision.

Thank you very much for sharing. I think I've learned quite a bit here.

Jeff Deutsch