This is the final installment of a three part series. Please find the first two installments:
Wednesday, the day after Daniel’s suspension started, I got a call in the afternoon from Mrs. E**** arranging the Mandatory Determination Meeting for that Friday.
I was amazed at how calm I was after the call. Maybe it was in part because I really couldn’t visualize the possibility that Daniel would actually be expelled and so was fairly confident that this situation would be found to be result of his disability. Maybe it was also because of how busy we were that week. As if to continue that trend, I got home to discover that my two-year-old had an accident in the middle of her carpet and had pin worms.
I got up early Friday morning and choose not to swim in order to give myself extra time to prepare. I have several key things I do to get ready.
Dress: I always wear business attire. For this meeting, I wore black slacks, a nice blouse and heels. I made sure I put on make-up and did my hair like I would to go to a law firm interview. Even though, as it turned out, everyone else at the interview was in jeans for dress-down Friday, I am glad I made this choice. Wearing more formal clothing presents as though you are serious about the meeting, well organized and should be taken seriously.
As a side note, if you are a woman, I strongly suggest heels, if you can pull it off. I find the extra height (and I am already 5’10”) is psychologically empowering and makes me stand out in the room that much more.
Paperwork: On Friday morning, I laid out the paperwork I had received in the mail along with my notebook filled with the notes I had taken during the phone call on the day I had received the call regarding Daniel’s suspension and after my subsequent talks with Daniel.
All meetings with the school should be proceeded by IEP paperwork. Usually the paperwork will tell the reason for the meeting, the participants that will be attending and the time and place. I keep a file for each of my children that includes all these kinds of communications. I also follow up any verbal conversations with confirming emails which I print off and keep in the file. I make sure I bring everything relevant to the meeting with me. Of course, I always pre-organize to be able to easily retrieve the items I want to use.
“So, the stand I am taking,” I recited to Scott, “is that bringing the knife…”
“Multi-tool!” Scott interrupted me, “Make sure you call it what it is, a multi-tool.”
“the multi-tool – that bringing the multi-tool to the bus stop and an inability to effectively problem-solve what to do when the bus showed up is a part of Daniel’s Asperger’s. This is because social situations can be confusing and the stress can cause a shut down,” I finished.
“Right,” replied Scott.
“And if Daniel is expelled?” I could barely bring myself to voice the words as the fear became suddenly very real.
“I don’t think that is going to happen,” Scott reassured me, “and if it does, then we will deal with that like we always do, together. It may be just the push we need to find a better alternative for Daniel.”
That is what I love about Scott. He always reminds me that we are doing this together. He also helps me find what I call my Stance. My Stance is a 1 to 3 sentence statement that I verbalize or write. This statement simply encompasses the problem and solution that I think needs to be the focus of the meeting.
Having my Stance helps me when tangents pop up as they always do in these meetings. Instead of getting flustered and loosing focus in a room full of administrators and teachers, I restate, mentally my Stance and quickly am able to get back on track. This is vital and Scott is excellent at helping me clearly verbalize my Stance.
Relax: I listened to soothing music as I drove to the school. I always make sure I arrive early so I can, as I did on Friday check in and review my material as I wait to be called into the meeting.
Make an Entrance: Finally, Mr. Gil***** came to get me. Walking into the room, I noticed most of the participants were dressed in jeans because it was Friday. I stood by the table for a moment, looked around the room, took a deep breath and sat down.
Walking in and stopping to look around the room helps me mentally take a second, gather myself and slow myself down. Standing there lets me get a feel of the mood of the room and makes sure I have been noticed by most of the members in the room.
Taking names: The meeting began with each participant giving their name and title. I carefully wrote the name next to appropriate position each participant was filling on the list that had been provided to me before the meeting. I stopped several to ask them to spell their names. I made sure to smile politely but remain serious.
Asking for the spelling of the names slowed the process a little but made the participants take notice of me in a new way. At this meeting, they began to wait for me to indicate that I was finished and refer to me more directly instead of just completing the motions. Also, taking names allows me to clearly reference the people in the room. If the meeting does not produce the results I expect, I have the names and correct spellings for any future communications.
Taking Notes: I always take my own minutes of the meeting or record it with my hand held voice recorder. Taking notes helps me keep my thoughts organized as well as making another statement about how seriously I am taking these proceedings. I have observed that the meeting participants change their body stance and wording when they see that I am recording and taking notes.
Making my statement: It was very clear that the script for the meeting was mostly pre-written. Mrs. E**** opened the meeting by reading the procedural safe guards, reviewing the facts of the incident and the purpose of the meeting. She then read the statements given by two students at the bus stop. She read Daniel’s statement. She then asked Mr. G**** to give me the multi-tool and if there was anything in Daniel’s disciplinary file.
Mr. G***** indicated that there was nothing in the disciplinary file other then a report from early in the year by students in his science class complaining that he stared and it was unnerving to them. Mr. Pe***** the school behavioral specialist interrupted at this point to explain that he had observed Daniel as a result of that complaint and found that it wasn’t Daniel staring at kids but rather staring past them as he tried to process. Subsequently, the teacher would simply tap on Daniel’s desk and that would successfully cue him to look elsewhere. Mr. Gil****continued to say that they did not believe Daniel had any malicious intent. He indicated that because the blades were only 2 ” they were below the legal limit of 3″. Anything over 3″ would have required police intervention.
“I believe that everyone here is aware that a clear challenge of Asperger’s Syndrome is interpreting and appropriately responding to social situations,” I began, elaborating on the Stance that I had already worked out, “particularly when the situation is a new situation. Also, planning appropriately by following a proposed action to its conclusion is particularly difficult for a child with Asperger’s since they struggle to anticipate how people will respond to behaviors and situations. When a child with Asperger’s focuses on a particular activity it can be hard for them to see how that activity will interact with the social situation.
Daniel had become focused on the idea of carving his name into the tree. He has seen it done on cartoons and read about it in books. He did not see it as a dangerous or harmful activity. He did not consider that the tool required for the activity would be in direct conflict with the next planned activity, boarding the bus for school.
Once the bus arrived the reality of the situation dawned on Daniel – he had a tool with him that he could not take on the bus. The stress of being “bad” combined with an unexpected social situation was more then he could process. In desperation, he hid the tool. It is a Christmas present from his father and he didn’t want to loose it. He didn’t see any other option at that point.
I think it is clear,” I concluded, “that Daniel did not have any malicious intent or even the intent to bring the item to school. I think it is clear that here is a child who has not had any disciplinary problems other then misunderstandings associated with his disability, and who ended up through quite innocent intent, in a bad situation.”
I could see both Mrs. Bra***, the school Psychologist and Mrs. E**** nodding. We continued around the table.
Mr. Pe*****, the school behavioral specialist made a point to state that Daniel did not lie about the having the tool but rather gave it to him willing.
Listening to Daniel’s initial IEP report from first grade being read out loud was poignant. There were behaviors, so long resolved, that I had forgotten they ever existed. Seeing the progress he has made in the last 5 years was exhilarating. At the same time, I can still remember the edges of the pain, worry and sometimes despair that was a regular part of life at that time, as we struggled to find our footing.
Staying on Point: “As you can see,” I interjected as the reading ended, “Daniel is a very different child then he was in first grade and has made huge strides. I truly believe this is an isolated incident resulting from Daniel’s continued struggle to learn how to plan and deal with stressful social situations.”
At the end, Mrs. E***** explained that three questions must be answered by the meeting. The questions were read out loud along with the answers:
1. Was this incident caused by the child’s disability? – Yes (I felt relief.)
2. Was this incident caused by a failure of the school to implement an aspect of the child’s IEP? – No.
3. Is further disciplinary action required? – This question must only be answered “Yes” if the answers to question 1 and 2 are both “No” so the answer was no.
There was an evident sense of relief in the room as everyone relaxed a little. All of the formalities had been dealt with.
Encourage Sympathy, Empathy and good will toward my child: Mr. Gil***** suggested that Daniel might need to meet with his counselor to discuss problem solving techniques. I responded that if the school felt that would be helpful, I would be willing to agree to it. I then explained the problem solving conversation that Daniel and I had gone through the first day of his suspension. The administrators in the room murmured their approval and began offering suggestions.
As the meeting participants began making their final notes and printing off the paperwork to be signed, Mr. Pe***** asked if Daniel was back at school.
“Yes,” I replied, “and to be honest, I think he is happy to be here. He has spent the last three days cleaning house.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me.
“We have a no-tolerance policy in our home for suspension,” I explained, “he wasn’t going to sit home for three days watching tv and playing on his computer.”
“Would you come speak at our parent conference?” the psychologist next to me asked, laughing slightly.
I wanted to make sure the school felt as though they and I were working together for the best interest of my child. Even as I keep clear my goal of the best options for my son, I also try to imagine how I would feel working in a career filled with highly emotional situations and often embattled feelings on both sides of the table. I try to put them at their ease by showing how I am supporting their disciplinary actions in some way at home. I hope that as they felt like less of the burden falls on them alone, they will be more willing to work with me.
The statements from the other students were enlightening. When Daniel was starring at the child in his science class, the conclusion the child had come to and presented to the administration was that they felt Daniel was going to hurt them. One of the two statements taken from students during the bus stop incident was, “I observed a boy with a knife carving shanks out of wood.” Again, an emphasis on malicious and dangerous intent. This reminded me that Daniel will be heading out into a world of people who will often misunderstand him. Sometimes they will misunderstand him in dramatic and malicious ways. I have to prepare Daniel for this.
Also, this experience has helped me better understand my rights and power as a parent to my special needs child. Many of the things that are the most helpful are very basic, organization, formality and calm and focused communication. While I hope to never have to deal with this kind of situation again, I feel better prepared and less afraid.
How do I help Daniel prepare for a world where his actions are sometime interpreted as malicious? How do I help him avoid those pitfalls?