Schools should be Safe

230x300_SamHThe following blog post is from Samantha Huffman and was written in response to a recent article about a special needs student who was bound with duct tape during school.

Samantha is a former National Youth Activation Committee member and current senior, studying Elementary Education at Hanover College.  

I recently went to a conference where a young man with cerebral palsy kept bringing up how we needed to focus on students with disabilities being tied down to chairs or restrained and/or harmed in some other way by educators.  I kept thinking to myself how this wasn’t important because this would never be allowed to happen in a school in today’s society.  I’m a senior Elementary Education major and never once in my four years of classes have we addressed the idea of restraining students because that’s just plain wrong, isn’t it?  Well, apparently I was living in some kind of dream world and this young man at the conference was living in the real world.

Today I read one of the most terrifying and saddening stories.  In Indianapolis, my hometown nonetheless, an 8-year old girl with Down syndrome came home on the bus with industrial duct tape wrapped around her shoes and socks, which went all the way to the top of her ankles.  Shaylyn, the young girl, wasn’t even able to walk off the bus by herself because it hurt too much.  After her mom carried her daughter off the bus, she immediately took her back to the school where she received help to remove the duct tape.  The process took 30 minutes and left Shaylyn with bruises all over her ankles.

School is supposed to be a place where all children go to receive an education and this education is expected to be in a safe environment.  When this safe environment is jeopardized, the entire education system begins to crumble.

How is a student supposed to reach their full learning potential when they have to worry about the possibility of being harmed by their teacher?  In Shaylyn’s case, it was something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes that caused her to be harmed.  This was doing nothing to interfere with her education, yet one of her teachers decided to not only take away her time of learning to focus on her shoes, but she also chose to restrain her.

This wasn’t just a one-time case.  Currently there are 20 states that have no school policy against restraining students.  That means, that at any given moment of the school day, those students have the possibility of being physically restrained by their teachers and there’s nothing that can be done because it isn’t against policy.  How can this be possible in today’s world?  Teachers can get fired for hitting a child, but it’s perfectly fine for them to tape a student’s shoes to their feet or tie a student to a chair?  To me, these seem equivalently harmful to students, both physically and emotionally, as being hit.

We have come so far with bullying campaigns, disability awareness, etc.  But how can we expect students to view those with disabilities as equals when there are teachers out there who still dehumanize their students with disabilities?  For every student we reach with our awareness, there is a student out there who is turned away from accepting those with disabilities as equals because they see their teacher- their role model- disrespecting and dehumanizing one.

In what world is it okay to physically restrain someone because they aren’t doing what you want them to do?  It is not okay.  These policies need to be created in order to protect all students, especially those with disabilities.  And these teachers that think it is okay need to find a new profession.  Teachers are supposed to protect their students, build their self-esteem, and show them that they matter as a person. How is a teacher doing any of these things when they physically restrain their students?  The answer is they’re not.  All they are doing is showing their students that they have no power over what happens to them.  All they are doing is showing them that they are less than human because their free will- their ability to move freely as they wish- can be taken away for something as simple as not wanting to wear shoes.

Luckily, most teachers aren’t like this.  Most teachers are extremely successful in protecting their students, building their self-esteem, and showing them that they matter as people.  They have the appropriate skills and training to manage the many behavior challenges they will experience in their classrooms.  Unfortunately, many teachers are not given adequate training, instruction, and tools that would make this kind of act of desperation against a child an aberration.

Professional development and appropriate pre-service education for teachers is critical to ensure that we don’t fail our children.

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Everyone has ABILITIES!

Many people use the term “person with an intellectual disability”, but I prefer to say a “person with different abilities” because people with different abilities are sharing their talents in their schools, communities and workplaces everyday.

I have a different ability.

Having a different ability in my case is not a let-down. It is actually is a very positive thing. I am able to do certain things that some people would have a difficulty with. In my position, I am in charge of maintaining an accurate inventory of resources, as well as facilitating shipping requests and assisting with administrative operations, communications and social media. Because of my abilities, I am a positive member of my team at work.

Another positive thing about having a different ability is being seen as a role model and mentor. This past summer I had the opportunity to manage an intern who also had a different ability. There were a few challenges throughout the summer. Regardless of those challenges, this individual looked up to me as a role model and mentor throughout his internship. I was viewed the same way when I participated with Special Olympics at George Mason University. I was viewed by my teammates as a leader, role model and mentor for being a student and an athlete during my four years. It is a positive feeling to be seen in this perspective by many people.

As I see it, there is nothing negative about having a different ability at all. You just need to take the negativity and turned it around into positivity. Through your positivity, your different ability will show its full potential and more. A positive mind is able to accomplish anything in life.

In the end, we need to dig deep within ourselves and believe that we are all capable of great and wonderful things in life. We all have gifts and talents because of our different abilities and we should let them shine, not hide them from everyone. The sky is the limit if we remain focused and determined to show everyone our gifts and talents.

Project UNIFY Keynote Speakers Wow Character Educators

Last week Project UNIFY youth leaders Soeren Palumbo and Danielle Liebl presented the keynote address at the Character Education Partnership National Forum. Below you will find a reflection from Charles Haynes, Senior Scholar at the First Amendment Center, who attended the conference, as well as an excerpt from Danielle’s speech. Our youth leaders are amazing and inspiring!

October 21, 2011 was a day of “firsts” at the Character Education Partnership National Forum in San Francisco, California.

Danielle Liebl and Soeren Palumbo, two extraordinary Project UNIFY youth leaders, took the stage as the first student keynote speakers in the 18-year history of the Character Education Partnership (CEP). And their topic – “Creating Environments of Inclusion” – was the first-ever plenary session devoted entirely to the issues surrounding students with developmental disabilities in our schools.

Speaking to hundreds of the nation’s leading character educators, Soeren deftly linked the work of Special Olympics Project UNIFY to the core mission of CEP. He focused on the urgent need to create caring school communities that include all students, emphasizing the critical importance of student voice in those efforts. And he told the moving story of his sister Olivia’s experience as a student with a developmental disability in a school that takes inclusion seriously.

Danielle’s speech was a heartfelt account of how she found the inner strength to stand up for herself – and for all students with intellectual disabilities. Although she suffered from name-calling and harassment, Danielle responded not with bitterness or anger – but with courage and compassion. By creating a Partner’s Club promoting friendship between students with and without disabilities, Danielle demonstrated how a youth leader can help transform a school’s culture.

After Soeren and Danielle spoke, there was not a dry eye in the room. Everyone rose to their feet as one to applaud the message of inclusion – a message delivered from the heart by two remarkable young people. As people lined up afterwards to thank Soeren and Danielle (and give them an embrace), I knew that CEP and the character education movement would now do more to address issues of inclusion.

Thank you Danielle and Soeren for being such powerful ambassadors for Special Olympics Project UNIFY – and for all you have done and will do to inspire others to act with courage and conviction.

Read an excerpt from Danielle’s speech and be inspired by her powerful words and actions:

Before I continue telling my story, I would like to introduce myself; I am Danielle Liebl, an upcoming sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota and a Special Olympics athlete for more than nine years. At birth, I acquired Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is a disorder the affects my muscle control, coordination, motor skills, and simple movements such as standing, walking, breathing, eating, and learning. Cerebral Palsy is not only considered a physical disability but also a developmental disability as well. For most of my high school career I was considered “Special Ed.” As most of you already know, Special Education has a stereo-type, and personally I disapprove of it.

When I was in school bullying tended to be a regular occurrence for me. My peers started calling me names such as: stupid, ugly, or the one that I think is the most creative, four legs.

Little do these bullies realize, even though we can’t do some of the same things they can do…we can do some things BETTER than they can do. My fellow Special Olympics teammates hated the fact that other students thought this way and they wanted it to change because they felt excluded.

This is exactly what I did. When I was a junior in high school, I attended the Special Olympics Global Youth Summit in Boise, Idaho. This led me to act out my desire to start a Partners Club with my best friend and unified partner. Partners Club provides an environment where students with and without disabilities can establish relationships as friends. The first year, the club contained fifteen students. Due to this club, you could see the change in the hallways; they were high-fiving and conversing in the hallways. But most importantly they considered each other friends.

Even though the movement has started there is a lot of change that still needs to happen. But this change is ultimately up to the youth. They want to change and shape their future; they want to have a voice. Are you willing to guide them? One of my favorite teachers once said to me, “Danielle, as much as I want to make this world the best it can be for you, I can’t. You have to do it yourself. If I did it for you, what kind of teacher would I be? I would not be teaching you that YOU can change the world. But always remember I am always here to GUIDE you.”

Are you willing to be that teacher to your students? Together let us learn, and possibly even teach each other a few things. Because someday, our desire for social justice will become a reality. And when that day comes we will be able to stand up and say that we have changed history.