Going public versus going postal
An op-ed by Christine Arsenault
I am a single mother of two daughters enrolled in Portland’s public school district. I have made the mistake of being proper and biting my tongue for far too long about the district’s inept behavior when it comes to my children’s education and general well-being. I believed that by working with the staff and administration we could fix the clogs and snares in the system. And I tried.
It seems to me now that the system is broken. I have been advocating for both of my children to no avail. I have saved hundreds of e-mails, letters and other documents that clearly demonstrate incompetence, negligence and untruths. “Mom’s gone mad!” is a colossal understatement. It’s time to stand up for my family and speak.
My oldest daughter has albinism and is legally blind. She was born this way, so she has always had a 504 plan (federally mandated accommodations) or IEP (Individualized Education Program) in place. From the very beginning of her schooling, her needs and these plans have been documented and discussed at length with school administrators and teachers. Visual aids, an individual health plan and specially designed instruction are just a few examples of what is included in these plans.
Adding to her challenges, she also has heart disease, asthma, mitochondrial disease and immune-system problems. She has undergone many surgeries and requires a lot of medication and health supplements. Thankfully, she’s been doing well lately.
My youngest daughter is a bundle of energy. She is an amazing artist and loves to perform. Both of my children are thoughtful, caring and share love in terrific ways. Unfortunately, both also struggle with learning, for a variety of reasons, and this does make their lives and education more challenging.
Before I talk about the problems we have had, I want to acknowledge the efforts of some teachers and a few administrators who have sincerely tried to help my children — thank you. The love and talent you share is noticed, appreciated and felt by my daughters and me. Unfortunately, as the experiences I share here will show, all of your hard work simply isn’t enough — not for my children, nor for many other students who would benefit from special attention or personalized curricula.
My list of grievances…
To the school bus driver who dropped my legally blind six-year-old off in the middle of a sketchy neighborhood I often refer to as “Pedophile-ville,” on a busy street with no parent waiting: You should have been fired! Fortunately, my mail lady found her. She was hugging a stop sign and talking to a stranger.
To the staff who took an apathetic approach to a bully who was repeatedly teasing my disabled daughter: I asked for your help multiple times. Did you know he later smacked her in the face, pushed her down, pinched and continued to tease her? She became afraid to speak about it. She hid it from me because, after unsuccessfully seeking help from the principal, vice-principal and her classroom teacher, I decided to talk to him myself. I simply asked him to leave her alone. Big mistake. He became more aggressive, which ultimately showed my daughter what happens when she “tattles.” He continued to bully her and she says she will always be afraid of him.
To the gym teacher who let my legally blind child play goalie in a co-ed gym class: Do you think that allowing soccer balls to be kicked at my daughter was safe? After a ball hit her and broke her arm, you didn’t call for the nurse. You didn’t even give her an ice pack. Nobody phoned me when she was crying hysterically. Nobody did anything, even after she told her teacher she thought her arm was broken. Her little friends helped her turn the pages of her book in class and put her jacket and knapsack on when school was over. I found out about this when she got off the bus holding her broken arm and sobbing.
To the teacher who told my daughter she could no longer talk about her deceased dad in school during share-time because she was upsetting the other kids: Shame on you. I had spoken to you and the vice-principal about resources available for dealing with childhood grief. I also told you about a local organization that works with families, schools and communities on this issue. My daughter meant no harm. She was only trying to process her loss with the people she spends time with.
To the school nurse who sent me a letter telling me I needed to take my daughter to an eye doctor ASAP because she failed the vision screening and couldn’t read even the largest print with her glasses on: Really? She was the only visually impaired child in the entire school and had a 504 plan, which I discussed with you. This was her fourth year at your school. Do you really not remember sitting with me for two hours talking about her complex health and visual needs?
To the same nurse who phoned me when my daughter had an abnormal-sounding heart rhythm and dizziness: I asked you to take her blood pressure and was told you only had an adult-sized cuff and, furthermore, that cuff was broken. I have no words, but let me tell you — my blood pressure hit the roof!
To the administration that opted out of following the CDC guidelines that call for notifying the entire school when pertussis (whooping cough) is going around: Chronically ill children and babies can die from pertussis. My family was not notified of the risk at school. My daughter subsequently contracted whooping cough and became horribly sick. Her lungs were severely damaged. She could not run without coughing for a full year. I have e-mails that show you chose to only inform the families of third-graders about this outbreak. One of my children’s teachers, a new father at the time, had no idea my daughter had contracted whooping cough. Information vital to everyone involved with the school was kept from parents. I have heard a lot of talk about community from school officials, but when you fail to take these simple steps, you are endangering the community you serve.
To the special-education department that continually minimized my concerns and my daughter’s needs, lost visual-aid items that had been “ordered” multiple times, and even failed to show up at a mandated meeting: I simply don’t understand. All the lengthy discussions, the paperwork and the legal jargon were a waste of everyone’s time. Piles and piles of meaningless paperwork (some of which went “missing”) sit in stacks somewhere collecting dust. Every time I signed those papers I believed they were going to help my children. I feel tricked and cheated by the system, but it is my children who have truly suffered.
To the principal, to whose office I was forced to hand-deliver a doctor’s note because you’d failed to respond to my phone calls, e-mail and fax: How do you justify yourself? You disrespected me in front of my children that day when you talked down to me. You mocked the fact that a “Harvard” doctor had just diagnosed my daughter. Then you minimized the needs the doctor spelled out in the letter and failed to give the letter to the nurse. My daughter had just been diagnosed with an incurable disease! She had just spent a week in the hospital on IVs, hooked up to machines, and had undergone two surgeries! What did I do when I left your office? I found an attorney that I couldn’t afford. And, of course, I cried.
And, finally, to the superintendent: Shame on you for never responding to me. I thought I was clever when I finally managed to meet you last summer at a school function. I introduced myself and explained how I had tried to reach you through e-mails and phone calls multiple times. You said you hoped that you had responded to me, and I told you that no, in fact you had not. While shaking my hand and looking me in the eye, you asked me what you could do and I replied, “You can sit down and talk to me without my children around,” to which you agreed. I have e-mailed and called a number of times since then. No response.
I will always be active in my children’s education, but I cannot continue to pick up the ball every time the school drops it. I have my own job. My daughters strive for knowledge and wish to continue in their classes with their friends. They also want to be looked out for, to trust the adults in their school, and to be healthy and safe. I love and admire both my daughters’ resilience and courage, but I also worry about their future here in Portland.
School officials have told me to focus on the present and future. They say there’s nothing to be gained by bringing up past incidents and mistakes. I agree that re-living our past struggles is not a healthy choice, but nothing gained? I hope a better education for all Portland students can be gained from my story and my choice to go public.
Christine Arsenault lives in Portland. The bullying problem referenced above has since been brought to the attention of the Portland Police Department, which is conducting an investigation.